Kapoor Year 14B: India And COVID-19 travel blog


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BACKGROUND

This was not our first brush with a disease, while travelling internationally, that threatened to become widespread, possibly a pandemic. We were in Buenos Aires, after spending two months in Mexico, and almost four months in Chile and Argentina.

The headline news on CNN on April 26, 2009 was all about a new strain of swine flu that was making people very sick in Mexico and there had already been some deaths attributed to the disease. The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta was concerned that this might be the beginning of a flu pandemic.

Apart from being concerned that this outbreak might rival the 1918 so-called Spanish Flu that killed 100 million people world-wide, we were alarmed because we had planned to return to Mexico City and spend a week there starting May 13th. Our plans were to travel overland back into Chile, and eventually fly from Santiago to Mexico City. From there, we had flights booked through to Denver, and after another week visiting family there, on to Calgary where our son was living.

We had a difficult time getting through to the airlines, as you can well imagine and we didn’t know what would happen to our flights, as Argentina banned all flights coming into the country from Mexico. What if Chile did the same? How would we get home?

I won’t go into too much detail here about how things all played out for us, but if you are interested, I wrote all about it on my journal for that trip. There are two entries that relate to how we handled the situation. The first is about our decision on whether or not to abort our trip and fly home and the second, now things transpired when we flew through the Mexico City airport when the capital was on lock-down:

Swine Flu, A Possible Pandemic?


Mexico City/Mexicana Airlines


Now, getting back to what was happening to us regarding our trip to India in Feb – March 2020. We had booked our tickets to Delhi almost a year earlier, and were scheduled to fly out of Victoria on Feb 1st. We had invited my sister and her husband to join us for their first trip to India. They wanted to visit Mumbai and Goa, so they left around the third week of January and were to meet up with us in Delhi. Our daughter and her husband booked to arrive from Canada the same day as the McColls.

We were watching the news with keen interest, especially because of our experience with the Swine Flu outbreak in 2009 and how it had affected our plans when we were in Argentina and Chile. We had a tough decision to make. Should we cancel our plans, suggest our daughter and her husband do so as well, and leave my sister and her husband to travel on their own in India?

The whole reason we were going in the first place, was to join in the 50th wedding anniversary celebrations for Anil’s older brother and his wife. Family members from around the country were planning to gather in Delhi, and we all wanted to be there as well. How likely was it that this new virus would spread to India and engulf us there?

Five days before we were due to leave, Canada reported its first case. Though it seemed at the time that the outbreaks were mainly in China and other nearby Asian countries, our flight to India was passing through Taipei and Bangkok. There were no reported cases in Taiwan, however, Thailand had reported new cases. We would not be mingling with people in either of the capital cities; we’d just be in transit, should we take the risk?

Well, in the end, you can see that we did. We had a terrific time with our extended family members in Delhi, however the festivities were muted due to the fact that the younger son of the couple celebrating their anniversary was unable to join his parents in India. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter, and they were all planning to come to India.

His employer acknowledged that they couldn’t dictate where he travelled during his vacation time, however, upon his return, he would have to go into a 14-day quarantine period and use his vacation time to cover the additional days off from work. This would have placed an additional strain on his finances, over and above the cost of travelling to India, so he made the tough decision to stay at home.

Once the family celebrations were over, our daughter and her husband flew home (with a one-week stop in Japan, yikes) and the we left Delhi in order to tour Gujarat, a state we had seen very little before, just an overnight stay in the capital. We had booked a car and driver to take us around the western part of the state for eight days, and had prepaid the tour company that had made all the plans and hotel bookings for us.

As far as we knew, there were no reported cases of the COVID-19 virus reported in Gujarat, or in Delhi for that matter. The few cases that hit the news in India were located in the southern state of Kerala, thousands of kilometers from where we would be travelling. During the course of our travels around Gujarat, we kept a careful eye on the news of the spread of the virus and how it might impact our plans. We were due to return to the capital of Gujarat, Ahmedabad, on March 1st and after two nights there, fly to Jaisalmer, in the far west of Rajasthan.

Here are a few news reports I’ve copied from the internet, showing some of the developments that were making headlines around the world:

March 1, 2020 - Ontario officials diagnose four new cases - three in York Region and one in Toronto. All four patients had recently travelled abroad. One had travelled to Egypt with a man who was later diagnosed with the virus, while the rest had recently been in Iran.

March 2, 2020 - Ontario announces three new cases - two women who had travelled to Egypt and a man who had travelled to Iran.

Feb 11, 2020 - WHO assigns the novel coronavirus its official name: COVID-19.

Jan 31, 2020 - More countries are applying border control measures against foreign nationals with recent travel history from China, just as confirmed cases in China reach 11,791, with 259 deaths. The U.S. declares the 2019-nCoV outbreak a public health emergency domestically. The U.K., Russia, Sweden, and Spain also confirm their first 2019-nCoV cases.

Jan 30, 2020 - WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declares the 2019-nCoV outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, noting the potential spread of the virus to countries with weak health systems. The decision comes as more countries outside China report cases of infection, including the Philippines and India. Both confirm their first 2019-nCoV cases. Total confirmed cases in China reach 9,692, with 213 deaths. WHO recommends “2019-nCoV acute respiratory disease” as interim name for the disease.

Jan 25, 2020 - The 2019-nCoV reaches more countries. Australia confirms the first case of 2019-nCoV in the continent, with health authorities announcing three more cases later in the day. France confirms three cases, the first in Europe. Malaysia also reports the first four cases, Canada reports its first case.

Several infected countries also confirm new cases, such as Thailand and Japan. In China meanwhile, Chinese government reports 688 new cases, bringing the total to 1,975. Cases with severe conditions rise to 324, and deaths to 56 in total.

Hong Kong meanwhile raises response to 2019-nCoV to the highest level, suspending all flights to and from Wuhan.

KAPOORS ON THE ROAD

I know that I’ve mentioned in the course of this trip diary, that I’ve suffered for years with what I thought were severe colds whenever I came to visit India in the winter and spring months. It wasn’t until years later that I had a similar experience with terrible coughing when we were travelling in Ethiopia and a doctor there told me he thought my problem was an allergic reaction, not a cold or flu virus at all. He suggested I buy a generic antihistamine and bingo, I’ve used the same drug, cetirizine ever since.

Now with Anil, it’s a completely different story. This man seems to have an immune system that is rock solid – he has never had a cold in his life. True, he’s sometimes been susceptible to the flu viruses that go around, but we have been taking the flu shots for many years now, and we believe they have helped us both. The downside of being married to a man who has never had a cold or a serious cough is, you don’t get any sympathy when you are suffering with stuffy sinuses and a choking cough that doesn’t let you sleep at night.

I’m telling you this in order to explain how alarmed I was when we were travelling in India this time, and Anil developed a choking cough, probably brought on by post-nasal drip similar to my symptoms. I got him using my over-the-counter antihistamine and he found great relief. Because he’s never suffered from allergies of any sort, we put the problem down to the heavily polluted air in Delhi. Things were so bad that the air-quality index had become a major part of the weather report each day.

We knew that the air was a serious health issue, but worried more for our family members who live in major cities in India, than we did for ourselves because we would only have to put up with it for a relatively short time. It’s so bad in India, of the top 10 most polluted cities in the world, 7 of them are in India.

We hoped that Anil would feel better once we arrived in Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat. We were shocked to learn that the air quality in Ahmedabad was reported to be ‘very poor’ when we arrived there on February 18th. For that reason, Anil and I stayed indoors at our hotel much of the time, while Donna and Duncan ventured out to see some of the sights that were in walking distance.

However, we couldn’t come to the home state of Mahatma Gandhi without paying a second visit to his former ashram that has now been turned into a museum with extensive displays on his life and his impact on India politics and the end of British rule. We also paid a visit to some members of our extended family and the travel agency that had prepared our itinerary for our jaunt around Gujarat.

Our breathing improved significantly once we were out of the capital city and into the relatively less-populated districts west of Ahmedabad. We were surprised at how much industry had been developed in the state, and were dismayed and alarmed at the air pollution some of the industry is causing. It wasn’t until we spent four full days near the ocean at Mandvi, that Anil suddenly realized that he could breathe normally, and understood just how badly he had been impacted by the poor air in the cities.

It was necessary for us to return to Ahmedabad in order to be able to fly to Jaisalmer, a remote fortress city in the western edge of Rajasthan. It had been a long day of driving across the state and we reached the city in the late afternoon. We’d been tearing around Gujarat for eight straight days, so we had dinner in our hotel and turned in early. Anil had a terrible time sleeping that night because his cough returned with a vengeance. I was more than a little alarmed, and began to formulate a plan in my mind for us to cut our travel short, and return home to Canada much earlier than we’d planned initially.

I ran the idea by Anil and he was only too happy to agree. It wasn’t just the persistent cough that we were concerned about. Reports were coming out fast and furious that the COVID-19 virus was particularly lethal for those over 60-65 years of age, and especially for those seniors with underlying health issues. As I’m sure you know, many of the people who developed serious symptoms had to be put on ventilators in order to keep them alive. I wasn’t prepared to risk Anil being exposed to the virus when he was suffering such coughing issues due to the polluted air.

Fortunately, our plans were scheduled to take us to western Rajasthan where there was little or no industry and traffic was light. We could probably safely visit Jaisalmer and Jodhpur with the McColls and then put it to them that we wished to return home, and they could change their plans as well, or else carry on to Udaipur and Jaipur without us. We had visited both of those cities three times in the past and they were experienced travellers who would have no difficulty travelling there on their own.

We spoke to Donna and Duncan about our concerns the next morning at breakfast. They completely understood, and said they were thinking of heading back to Canada after India and maybe even leaving out Nepal for the time being, because of the spread of the virus. They are a decade younger than us, and though Duncan is due to turn sixty in the summer, he’s probably not as susceptible as we are, because he’s so very fit.

We had planned to follow the self-guided walking tour of Old Ahmedabad after breakfast that morning, but Anil stayed behind at the hotel because of the rough night he’d had. The three of us went out for the morning and by late afternoon, we all agreed that the hotel booking and flight bookings needed to be changed because of Anil’s health.

The following day I was able to get on line and book flights for Anil and I to fly back to Victoria from Delhi, with connections in Tokyo and Vancouver. We were a little concerned about flying through Japan, but things weren’t faring much better in Europe and it was a much longer route travelling west rather than east. Donna got busy trying to deal with cancelling our rooms at the hotels in Udaipur and Jaipur as she had been the ones to make the bookings.

On March 3rd we went ahead and booked a flight for just the two of use to leave from Jodhpur to Delhi. We would part ways with the McColls on the morning of March 10th; they would travel by private car to Udaipur and arrive in time to see a little of the Holi festival (Festival Of Colours) that is celebrated all over India the next day. It was tough to contemplate cutting a month off our plans to travel together, and in total six weeks off our intended itinerary. We had planned to spend a couple of weeks In Cyprus before flying home at the end of April.

Later that afternoon, we flew on to Rajasthan, to the desert city of Jaisalmer and I couldn’t believe the change in the air quality as we came in to land. I took photos of the skies as we lifted off in Ahmedabad, and as we landed in Jaisalmer. The difference was remarkable. Blue skies and fresh air were just waiting for us to arrive. Anil’s coughing improved almost immediately, and we had a great week visiting two of Rajasthan’s great cities before we left for home.

We had one night back in Delhi with Anil’s brother Ajay, and neither of us left his apartment to shelter from the heavily-polluted air there. We arrived back home in Victoria to begin our fourteen-day quarantine period, something that wasn’t yet mandated by law, but was strongly suggested by the leading health experts around the world. As I write this down, Anil and I have completed over eight weeks of physical distancing from friends, family, and the general public. There have been very few cases of COVID-19 on Vancouver Island and as of today, May 12, 2020 there have been a total of 125 confirmed cases and 5 deaths.

The government and the health authorities are starting to relax the physical distancing policies, hopefully not too soon, but we are still wary and other than expanding our ‘bubble’ to include our daughter and her husband, we plan to stay to ourselves for the most part for several more weeks to come. We’ve had it luckier than so many more around the world, we’ll be satisfied to protect out health and perhaps travel once again a few years from now if a vaccine or an effective treatment for the virus is developed.

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