My travels across three continents on the eve of COVID-19

Okot Nyormoi

Okot Nyormoi (pictured below) is a retired college professor and worked on cancer research

Every now and then a catastrophic event occurs in the world and leaves a profound effect on human behaviors. One such event was the crashing of two hijacked passenger planes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York on September 11 2001. 9/11 as it was to become known, profoundly changed the way we travel by air. Since then, there has been several catastrophic events around the world, including SARS (2002-04), H1N1 virus (2009-10), and Zika (2015-16). But none of the above has shaken the world quite like COVID-19 epidemic.

COVID-19 has exerted a profound effect on the world. To mitigate the spread of the virus and its horrific effects on healthcare and economy, many countries have imposed draconian rules: non-essential travel, business, gatherings, etc. are banned. The following is a recall of my travel on three continents just before the pandemic.

Whenever I travel, I always remember Murphy’s law, "If something can go wrong, it will." With that mindset, I went about preparing for my trip from the United States to Africa via Europe. Right at the outset there were the usual worries: terrorist attacks, plane hijacks, plane crash, etc., regardless of how remote the possibilities were.

However, this time, my worries were not about any of the above. It was about an announcement on January 31st of a pneumonia of unknown cause first detected in Wuhan, China, that was spreading rapidly within the city and to other countries in southeast Asia. It was eventually revealed that the disease was caused by coronavirus transmitted from person to person through the aerosolized sneeze and cough of an infected person. More concerning for my trip was the news that several countries imposed selective travel bans.

I was immediately faced with the decision to travel, postpone or cancel the trip altogether. The news raised the possibility, of being stranded somewhere along the route, of being infected, of being quarantined, and even of dying from the infection. Frightening as the prospects seemed, I decided to take my chances, thinking that it was just another flu of the garden variety, limited to a few countries and with mild symptoms.

During the outbound leg of the trip, I encountered no signs of extraordinary health concerns at airports. However, upon arrival in London, the news about coronavirus became progressively alarming. The number of infected people and the rate at which it was spreading skyrocketed. China was taking aggressively draconian measures to contain the spread of the virus.

While traveling in planes or moving around on the ground on escalators, elevators, subways, buses and cars or eating in restaurants or private homes in London, Brussels and in Uganda, all movements became a potential liability. Every time someone coughed or sneezed, an alarm went off in my head of a potential spread of the coronavirus. Just one infected person sneezing in a public space, shaking hands, touching elevator buttons, restroom doors and handrails, toilet flushing, etc. with his/her contaminated hands would infect hundreds if not thousands of people. It was a frightening thought. Yet, this was like being caught in the middle of the stream with just two options of swimming to one or the other shore.

Watching some people walking around with masks made me wonder whether they were already infected with the virus. I quickly strategized about moving away if someone wearing a mask were assigned a seat next to me in the plane. Ok, but where in a fully booked flight? Luckily, this situation did not arise.

Upon arrival in Kampala I caught a cold which spurred new worries. Although, I was sure that I did not have coronavirus infection considering where I was coming from and because I did not have the typical coronavirus symptoms, I was not totally comfortable coughing or sneezing in the presence of other people. I was concerned about other people wondering if I was infected with the coronavirus.

Another worrisome coronavirus news was reports of asymptomatic COVID-19 positive individuals. What if I was one of those people? How many people would I have infected considering the large number of people I was in contact with while riding boda-boda, cars, buses, subways, planes, elevators etc.? What of the probably of my being infected along the way by asymptomatic persons?

I was soon confronted with a threatening situation on the UK-USA flight when two women who arrived next to me began to frantically sanitize their seats and the back of the seats in front of them without saying a word to me. Then they soon moved away suggesting that they were suspicious of me carrying COVID-19. Little did they know that I was equally worried about them since they could have come from any of the countries already being ravaged by the virus. Luckily, the flight was about half full. I, too, decided to move and settled in a row all to myself, far away from a heavily trafficked area near the toilet.

Soon after I arrived home, the US imposed a travel ban from countries where COVID-19 was raging. Then there was a scramble by American citizens and residents to return home, sparking a stampede at major airports. While counting my luck for having returned in the nick of time before the WHO declaration of the COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11th, 2020, and the imposition of the travel bans and quarantines, my worries were not over.

What if I was positive but asymptomatic? Yet, there was no tests for the virus at that time. Even when the test became available, only symptomatic persons were tested. Otherwise, one had to wait for two weeks of the incubation time before one could be sure one had at least no symptoms or that one had not infected other people. Also, one must wait for more than 20 days, a time during which a person could be infective. To my great relief, neither my immediate family members nor I developed any coronavirus symptoms even after 6 weeks from the last day of my travel.