Chris BishopBy Chris Bishop|April 9, 2021|6 Minutes|In Editor's Desk

Editor’s Desk

Out of Africa? Do not go gentle into that good flight.

If you live in one of the many so called “red list” countries in Africa and you are thinking of flying to Europe in these difficult days of COVID-19 – think again.

At 30,000 feet above Africa, wedged into a seat on a packed plane I was certainly thinking about the wisdom of my trip to the United Kingdom. I had hoped for a lightly packed plane for the first leg of the trip to Paris in the interests of social distancing -think again. The number of flight cancellations in the pandemic mean those carriers left are packing them in like sardines.

At Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris – the COVID-19 chaos haunted the last leg to London. There was a gaggle of malcontents by the departure gates; a number of travellers either hadn’t a valid COVID-19 test, or disputed the rejection of other papers.

Half of the malcontents forced their way onto the plane, after taking rushed COVID-19 tests. The other half were kicked off the flight and we had to wait for their bags to be taken from the hold. It meant a delay of an hour-and-a-half.

The landing at Heathrow was smooth, but another long wait loomed.

“Red list countries this way!” said the blue uniformed man standing in the middle of the concourse, waving his arms like a traffic policeman. He corralled us into a taped off pen in the walkway; they said they had to check all of our papers – again. Every 20 minutes, the tapes would be lifted and the security man would allow four people through. You can imagine how long it would take to usher in 100 of us to yet another queue of another 100 people waiting to have their papers checked – again.

Ahead of us was a snaking queue of scores of people waiting for the attention of around four immigration officers.

It took seven hours – at the end of 14-hour flight. A young mother from Brazil collapsed after several hours of standing in line and had to be revived by paramedics behind hastily erected screens. Fair enough, the airport staff brought around sandwiches and water, but my feet were on fire.

When we finally got through immigration, we were shunted from area to area within the airport. The airport staff were friendly and professional as they marshalled red list travellers towards buses; they helped find baggage but were not infallible. One poor guy from South Africa and his wife – must have been in their late 60s – had waited in vain for hours.

Then another hour spent on a bus grinding through the hotels – most of which seem to have seen better days – around the dowdy streets of Heathrow in west London. My theory is that most of these hotels were left to rot in the COVID-19 lockdown and now their owners are trying to recoup their losses, at minimal expense, with contracts for travellers from “red” countries going into the red by paying 2,500 pounds-a-head. Oh, it even rhymes!

Finally, a welcome from a host of guys wearing airport runway style green bibs who hustle you into a five-metre by five-metre hotel room for 10 days of quarantine. A bit like prison, meals are brought to the door and you are only allowed out for 20 minutes a day – if there is someone spare to escort you.

But in all of this expensive discomfort, there is a reason for it as we all try to end this pandemic that has taken so many of our family, colleagues and friends. At the very least, the United Kingdom, my host,  is making great strides in inoculating its people against COVID-19. As I write, this the country has vaccinated 47.5% of the 60 million population with their first dose and 8.5 % with their second. That is equivalent to the combined population of Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

Free of the constraints of European membership and compliance, vaccinations are roaring ahead in the UK at the rate of 270,000-a-day. History has taught us how the Brits love throwing themselves into a good old battle against the odds with  an army of professionals and volunteers with syringes instead of swords.

Ah well, four days of quarantine to go…at least this hotel has strong Kenyan coffee. I feel like a cup right now.