100 days of Covid-19: Forced to travel in the middle of a pandemic

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Why travel when you can be home and safe? Ask the thousands of people who couldn’t think of anything else through India’s four lockdowns beginning March 25. Covid-19 has killed the idea of travelling for fun, but fun is not the only reason people travel. Sometimes, their lives depends on it — or work or relationships or refuge. That isn’t going to change, virus or no virus.

Ashwini Chennuri needed to travel from Hyderabad to Visakhapatnam to be operated on; Shashank Tiwari from Mumbai to Hyderabad to be with his girlfriend; Geeta Patel from Chennai to Charlottesville because she wanted to be home; and Manmasih Banjo from Kottayam to Chaibasa because he was forced to go home after he lost the job. But how does one travel between cities, states and countries if buses, trains and flights won’t run? From March 25 to May 3, India barred buses and trains from running except to carry essential supplies; flights, domestic and international, too remained grounded until May.

Ashwini Chennuri hitched a ride with a mango truck. On April 25, Chennuri, a Hyderabad resident who works for a short-video app, felt a sharp pain in his lower stomach. “I had been suffering from pancreatitis,” he said. “The doctor told me to get an operation. I could have gone to a hospital in the city but I couldn’t afford the charges.”

“A shopkeeper told me that if I wanted, I could sit in the truck his cousin was due to drive from Hyderabad to Visakhapatnam carrying mangoes.” So, Chennuri travelled 500 km sitting beside mangoes, and dropped off across the state border in time for his operation. “I was fit to drive back after a day of bed rest, but I didn’t have the permission. You could only apply for a border pass if you were transporting something,” he said.

This time, Chennuri walked up to the highway and waited for a lift. “I was in some pain, but I didn’t have an option.” After some time, a cattle truck rolled by. “I asked the driver how much he would charge to ferry me, and he quoted Rs 2000. I climbed in.” The cows were noisy, but Chennuri sat glued to his spot for the next 12 hours.

“I had to get out of the truck at all the four checkpoints and walk for a bit until the truck caught up with me. If I hadn’t, I would have been sent to a quarantine facility by the border police.”

A month later, Shashank Tiwari stood with his suitcase on a road in Goregaon, Mumbai, waiting under a drizzle for a vehicle, any vehicle, that would take him to the airport. On May 24, as India was under lockdown 4, air travel reopened, and Tiwari, who works for a radio station, booked one of the first flights out. “The number of cases in Mumbai were multiplying and I was worried about falling sick. Also, I wanted to be with my girlfriend who lives in Hyderabad,” he said. It wasn’t an easy decision, however. “At every step after I left the house, I felt I was fighting a battle. Sitting in the auto rickshaw to the airport, I worried about the number of people who must have sat in it before me,” he said. He hadn’t yet anticipated what awaited him at the airport.

“At the entry, a guard examined my ID card and the Arogya Setu [tracking] app from behind a glass pane. Every part of the process was free of [human] contact. I printed my boarding pass and luggage tag, tied the tag around the luggage handle, and checked it in myself. It was all fine except that I had totally forgotten about a scheduled office conference call on zoom. My phone rang just as I was placing my bag on the luggage belt. I had to join the call,” said Tiwari who has been working from home since the first lockdown. So, he proceeded towards the security area holding his mobile phone in front of his face and his colleagues’ voices booming out from the speakers. “At the security, too, you have to do everything yourself. You don’t realise how long everything takes if you are wearing gloves. Even taking out the wallet from my back pocket took forever, and I could only use one hand, because the other was still holding the mobile phone on which the zoom call was in progress. I just hoped no one would ask me a question.”

At the boarding gate, Tiwari was handed over a kit straight out of sci-fi. “It had a face mask, a face shield, and for those booked in middle seats, like myself, a white gown so large that five of me could fit into it. The shield comes down to your chin, and as you keep breathing through the mask, the space in front of your face fogs up. I couldn’t see properly with the shield on, and with the gown falling beyond my shoes, I couldn’t walk properly, either,” he said. Once out of the plane, Tiwari left the airport as fast as he could. “I wonder how long we can we can fly like this!” he said.

Stuck in Chennai, a city she was visiting when the first lockdown kicked in, Geeta Patel spent a few seconds every day staring at flying planes. “I felt like a little child,” said Patel, currently a professor at the University of Virginia who had come to India in January on a Fullbright-Nehru research fellowship. On March 10, Patel, an American citizen and an OCI card holder, flew to Chennai from Delhi for research. In a week, she was supposed to return, and proceed to Boston for a conference. “But then Janta Curfew happened, and I thought it best to postpone my flight,” she said.

In April, when the US ran repatriation flights, the pandemic was spreading fast and Patel didn’t want to take a risk flying. “On those flights, they weren’t giving out masks or ordering social distancing. If I got on, I would end up very very sick,” she said. In early May, the American embassy in India alerted her to a new series of repatriation flights, and Patel entered a paperwork spiral that she describes as “Kafka on Covid.”

“On every new page, you are asked a lot of questions that you don’t know how to answer,” she said. After days of phone calls with the airline customer care, Patel got a seat on a flight leaving Bengaluru for New York via Paris. To board the flight, she needed to fill out more forms. The information demanded of her was obscure. “The names of the mother and father of the driver who would take me from Chennai to the Bengaluru airport, the relevant taluka and police station for every check point we would encounter, the registration number for my mother’s house in Noida,” she said. She almost gave up while filling out an excel sheet as part of securing border permissions (to pass every checkpoint in Tamil Nadu until its border with Karnataka; to cross over; to enter the airport; and get on the plane) that took 18 hours to complete. She realised her form kept getting rejected because she had a left a full stop where it didn’t belong.

On May 20, Patel boarded the plane to Paris. A connecting flight to New York and two domestic flights later, she posted a Facebook update beginning with two magical words: “Finally home.”

For many travellers in the coming months, home won’t be the last stop. After a three-day train ride from Kottayam in Kerala to Jasidih in Jharkhand, Manmasih Banjo has to spend another 10 days at a quarantine facility before he can go home to Chaibasa. Just a month after Banjo arrived in Kottayam to start working at a furniture factory, the first lockdown was announced and his workplace closed up. Stuck in a village over 2000 km from home. “Trains weren’t going out of Kerala. Some groups of migrant workers were able to book private buses, but it cost a lot of money,” he said. In the weeks after the first lockdown, thousands of migrant workers started for their homes on foot, but his home being thousands of kilometers away, Banjo waited.

On 1 May, reacting to the struggles of migrant workers of whom many had died on their journeys, the Indian Railways initiated a series of special trains to take them home. Banjo registered for a seat. “I went to the local police office and filled out a form meant for migrant workers from Jharkhand. Nearly a month passed before I got a message saying a train was available. We went to the village office, paid Rs 900 and booked a trip. They gave us a receipt and asked us to go the village hospital for a medical checkup. After the checkup, the hospital gave us a token each that we needed to show to board a bus that took us to the railway station. At the station, we were given mask, sanitiser, food and water, and told to board the train while keeping our distance from each other,” he said.

When Banjo finally reaches home, he would like to find work nearby. If that doesn’t work out, he would leave to earn a living again. The next time, though, he said, he won’t be sharing a berth with another man.

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