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Flight MK5852 from Johanessburg : Eyewitness Account of Special Privileges upon Arrival

Paul Choy: “The barriers next to me were opened by a member of airport staff to allow a lady to walk past the other passengers… and I did not see her again”.

Life sometimes throws you a curveball. We can’t avoid them; we have to learn how to deal with them. This week, I have been experiencing just such a curveball; I was on flight MK5852, the last flight out of Johannesburg to Mauritius before the borders were closed to most of Southern Africa. Since entering quarantine, several journalists and other broadcasters have contacted me about my experiences, but I would prefer to tell this story in my own words. So, here is that story.

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Catching the flight was an adventure in itself. I was only due to be in South Africa for a few days. I flew in earlier in the week, and news of the new variant started circulating the evening I arrived. On the day of departure, I learned that my original afternoon flight out had been cancelled, so I had to make a mad dash to the airport, arriving with only moments to spare before the borders slammed shut. As the plane took off, I must admit I breathed a sigh of relief. The day had been frantic, but at least I was on my way. Little did I know the real drama was only beginning.

Upon arrival in Mauritius, everything seemed fine. I was handed a sheet of paper explaining new health protocols had been enacted during the flight, and I would now be required to self-isolate for seven days. I suppose that was to be expected, and so didn’t think much of it.

But, after collecting my luggage, an airport official asked me to remain in the baggage hall as there was another potential change in the health protocols.

What followed were many hours of delay, rumours, counter-rumours and frustration.
In a situation like this, information is often all that is required to diffuse the tension. Unfortunately, there was virtually no information, but there was an abundance of confusion. Neither the passengers nor the staff on the ground were being kept informed as to what was happening, and tempers were beginning to flare.

Parents were becoming concerned for the welfare of their young children. Travellers were worried for their husbands and wives waiting through the doors, just a few meters away, unsure whether they should tell them to stay or leave. The airport staff didn’t have any more information than the increasingly distressed passengers.

The whole situation appeared to be one of chaos and disorganisation. Officials were running around, juggling multiple phones, frantically making and receiving calls, while protocols appeared to be written, scrapped, and rewritten on the fly. While the staff seemed to be trying their best, it was clear they didn’t have any idea what was happening.

During this period, there was no social distancing. The police were herding passengers from one area of the baggage hall to another for no apparent reason. Dozens of airport workers, from shop staff to customs officials, were interacting and talking with the passengers from the flight for several hours.

I presume all those staff left the airport that evening, having come into very close contact with the passengers from the flight, and are currently circulating within the wider population. The cabin crew from the flight also left the airport soon after arrival, despite coming into very close contact with the passengers of the flights.

Eventually, after around five hours, we were informed that a decision had been made that we should be transported to a hotel for a period of mandatory quarantine for the « safety of the wider population ». And so it was that I found myself, in the very early hours of the morning, entering the room which would be my home for however long my quarantine will last.

I have read in the press that this will be seven days, but three days into my isolation, I have still yet to be officially informed of the exact length of the quarantine.

The room I have been allocated for my quarantine is perfectly comfortable, and I have to say that the staff have gone out of their way to assist wherever they can. And yet, as someone who never feels more alive than when I am wandering the open roads of somewhere new, finding myself unable to leave my 20m² space is challenging, to say the least.

But, I have always believed in searching for the opportunity in every situation. So I am looking forward to putting this time to good use as I catch up on some outstanding writing and make plans for future projects once the world returns to normality.

Since my arrival on flight MK5852, much has been made of the behaviour of both the authorities and passengers. There has been so much conflicting information written about this flight; I have sometimes found it difficult to reconcile some of the information posted online with my own experiences as a passenger on this flight.

So, let’s deal with some of what has been written and try to separate the information from misinformation:

1. All passengers signed a waiver before boarding the flight. This is partially true. I was not asked to sign anything and only later learned that some tourists, those with return bookings to South Africa, had been asked to sign a document acknowledging that a potential travel ban might impact their return flight out of Mauritius. This document only applied to tourists, not to Mauritian citizens or resident permit holders who accounted for most of the flight.

2. The Captain announced on the plane that all passengers would be required to quarantine upon arrival. This is not true. There were no such announcements. Even at the health screening, after I had cleared immigration, the authorities were still advising I would only be required to complete seven days of self-isolation at home.
This protocol seemed to have been abandoned while we made our way down the stairs. The first mention of quarantine was some hours later while we were in the baggage hall awaiting further instructions.

3. A minister’s daughter was exempted from quarantine and allowed to leave. I don’t know if this is true or not. While we were queuing for the PCR tests on arrival in Mauritius, the barriers next to me were opened by a member of airport staff to allow a lady to walk past the other passengers and around the corner to where the PCR tests were being conducted.
None of the other passengers were allowed to follow, and I did not see her return. I don’t know who she was, nor do I know if she is currently in quarantine; I have no reason to believe she is not.
Rumours quickly spread among passengers that this lady was the daughter of a government minister – not a specific minister, just « a minister » – but this rumour was never communicated directly to me. The first I heard of it was when the now-infamous cries of « where’s the minister’s daughter? » rung out in the departure hall.
What I do know is that someone was escorted past me by airport staff, allowed to proceed where other passengers were not, and I did not see her again.
Who she was or why she was afforded these special privileges, I do not know.

4. The quarantine hotels are of poor quality, and passengers are being denied food and water. This is not true, at least not for me. I can’t speak for anyone else, but my accommodation is clean and well equipped for my stay.
I have been able to receive deliveries from outside to make my stay more comfortable. Meals are delivered to the room three times a day, and the staff have been very accommodating of my vegetarian diet.

Since entering quarantine, the number one question I have been asked is my opinion on being required to quarantine at all. In truth, I have no particular thoughts on the rights or wrongs of the situation. I would like to know more about the thinking behind the decision to require flight MK5852 to enter and remain in quarantine.

Since news of the new variant started to circulate a week or so ago, dozens of flights from Southern Africa have arrived in Mauritius, some of which arrived less than 24 hours before MK5852. Flights from elsewhere around the world, including areas with known cases of the new variant, have continued to operate daily, and none of these flights have been quarantined.

Consequently, isolating passengers from this single flight while allowing hundreds, possibly thousands, of passengers arriving from similarly affected areas to pass unhindered seems unlikely to achieve much in preventing the spread of the virus.

This begs the question, if other flights from infected regions have arrived before and after MK5852, why are we here? I believe an answer to that question would go a long way to easing the concerns of those of us in quarantine.

That said, I am a documentary photographer and writer, not a clinician responsible for protecting the nation’s health. And so, I choose to trust the advice of those who are.

If they advise that quarantining will help protect the health of the nation, I will do so happily. That is not to say I wouldn’t prefer to be out and about, exploring the world, but when life throws you a curveball, you deal with it. A week or two of quarantine is not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things.

So this is my story of quarantine so far. Of course, it is only the third day, so much of this story is yet to be written.

#quarantinediaries #mk5852 #paulchoy

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