Chor on her seventh hour of waiting—less than a hundred to go before she gets her COVID-19 results. Photo from Laurel Chor's Twitter account
Culture Spotlight

A journalist tweeted a blow-by-blow of her flight from Paris to Hong Kong, and it’s unsettling

It’s also a startling glimpse at what our COVID era travels will look like. By RHIA GRANA 
ANCX | May 16 2020

If the future of travel, post pandemic, would be as cumbersome yet as reassuringly systematic as what National Geographic photojournalist Laura Chor experienced in her recent trip from Paris to HongKong, we can at least feel a little secure about traveling, and might even reconsider our family’s planned trips soon.

The photojournalist had been doing her coverage on COVID in Paris and had landed in HongKong (she’s a HK resident) last May 14, after flying from Paris-Charles De Gaulle (CDG) via London Heathrow. She had to wait for eight hours to get her COVID-19 test results upon arrival in HK. So with much time on her hands, she fired a blow-by-blow account of her experience on Twitter, from the time she took the British Airways plane to the time she arrived at her flat.

You may also like:

At CDG, one of the things she immediately noticed was that the British Airways check-in staff wore masks and gloves. But while masks are mandatory inside the airport, Chor was surprised to see that on the plane to London, and on her next flight to HK, no British Airways staff wore masks.

This blasé attitude of people in Europe (particularly in Italy, the UK and France) towards the virus baffles her, she tweeted last March. “Though most are concerned, many are still acting like it’s nbd (no big deal).” She was quite disturbed to note that it’s still the same way up to now.

There were 100 of them on that flight, which meant that the Boeing 777 was at 1/3 of its capacity. “Every single passenger (except someone who apparently had special permission to connect to Brunei) will enter some sort of quarantine,” Chor tweeted.

She had to go through a whole gamut of steps and stations upon arrival in HK, which included filling out a quarantine order and a health declaration, downloading an app, receiving a tracking bracelet and having it registered, and someone having to check her phone if it worked.

“A health dept official officially signed & stamped my quarantine declaration in duplicate. He was nice & friendly, explaining that I could go yumcha on the morning of the 28th. He asked if I had someone to take care of me & if I had a thermometer. When I hesitated, he gave me one,” Chor recounted.

Afterwards, the health department official showed her how to fill in the symptom and temperature tracking table and explained that she needed to fill in another form with the details of her method of transportation going home (e.g. license plate number). “Everything was in a manila folder. He told me not to worry & wished me good health,” she mentioned.

After receiving the bracelet and thermometer, Chor went through the immigration and got her bags, as they’d normally do. They were then directed onto buses. Young men in full protection gear helped load their bags onto the bus.

Passengers were given bright orange lanyards, which meant they are the ones to be tested. The testing and waiting took place in different giant halls at Asia-World Expo, one of the two major convention and exhibition facilities in Hong Kong. A tag number associated with their test would eventually be clipped to their lanyard.

For the COVID-19 test, passengers were taken to a big hall with numbered and distanced individual tables with chairs. Different flights were assigned different rows.

After dropping their bags in one place and getting luggage tags, they got back on the bus and were dropped off at another facility. “There we stood in line to get our testing packs. A health worker gave us our tag number, our packs, and explained how to conduct the self-test,” Chor recalled. “Then we sat and watched a detailed helpful video on how to conduct the self-test.”

Chor even posted a time lapse of herself awkwardly doing the self-test in a booth. She thought someone would swab her—she wasn’t expecting a self-test but she figured it was simple enough.

“I made a ‘kruuuar’ sound as instructed to hock up my deep-throat saliva & spit it into a tube (w/ the help of a paper funnel) and double-bagged it. Several ppl made sure the tube was upright when I handed it in,” she tweeted. “When it came time to hock up deep throat spit, I was grateful for the thoughtful courtesy of the private booths.”

After the self-test, the passengers were taken to a big hall with numbered and distanced individual tables with chairs. “Different flights are assigned different rows. Each table comes with a trash bag and a couple information sheets,” the journalist observed.

She gathered there seemed to be a conscious effort to avoid telling them how long the whole process will take, but she heard a staff tell a father that it will take eight hours—after the father pressed for an answer. “Now his three kids are quietly studying, with the mom helping the youngest with his multiplication,” Chor noted.

On one area, a well-prepared mom traveling alone with a toddler brought a small beach tent and set it up next to her table, so that her child could be more comfortable. The mom and child were nowhere to be found after a while, so she hoped the staff prioritized them or gave a better setup.

 

Soon, the passengers were handed sandwiches (a vegetarian option was offered) and bottled water. Chor, being extra attentive, noticed one hygienic slip-up: “a passenger asked to switch her sandwich choice and the staff took her box back from her and put it back on the cart.”

One thing good she noted was that the cleaning staff were very alert. When a cleaning staff in full PPE took her used trash bag away, another staff member came and gave her a new one. “Toilets seem to be cleaned quite frequently, too. There are 16 columns of 12 chairs each (192 total). People have been trickling in and the room is about 70% full,” Chor noted.

The HongKonger noted the atmosphere of patient cooperation. “We are all HK residents returning home, who got on our planes knowing (vaguely) what was ahead of us upon arrival, including the mandatory two-week quarantine. After 2.5 months in Europe (mostly in France), it’s a relief to be back,” she shared.

“At home, my mom awaits my arrival. A few days ago, she informed our building management that I’d be coming. They are on standby and will spray me and my luggage with disinfectant in the lobby. Then they will disinfect the elevator and the lobby behind me,” she added.

The highlight of her day was having her snacks—“It was fresh & made with care, though lacking in flavor,” she remarked. A napkin would have been nice, but at that point, it didn’t matter much.

Aside from the rationed sandwich, she was also provided snacks—cream crackers, chocolate digestives, and a bottle of water. “I asked for an extra packet of digestives and the staff member — wearing a gown, cap, mask and face shield — happily obliged.”

After a while, people were starting to get a bit restless, Chor observed. There were 20 kids of all ages, who she guessed flew back just in time for the (planned) re-opening of schools.

It’s noteworthy, Chor said, that clear guidelines or “house rules” were provided on the table when she got here. The HK staff were also fastidious about the “compulsory quarantine order” form, insisting for freshly filled out copies, instead of the hastily photocopied versions, and making sure the testing center and quarantine locations were correctly indicated.

After eight hours of waiting, Chor finally got her COVID-19 results. She’s negative. 

Chor lauded her government’s effort in trying to find a solution to allow residents to come home without endangering the entire city. She ended her tweet saying she had never been happier to be home, inhaling a plate of dumplings smothered in her family’s chili sauce.

 

Photos from Laurel Chor's Twitter account