Thinking of travelling during Covid-19? Well, it’s business unusual!

Travellers at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport departure terminal waiting to depart Kenya on July 31, 2020.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Before boarding, and even at the check-in gates, all the passengers were required to provide health information bio data, as well as show proof of the Covid-19 certificate, with the officials keen on the 96 hours’ validity of the document.
  • With access to Wi-Fi, it offers the daily update on Covid in Dubai, the number of positive infections, and other important guidelines one requires.

International travel during Covid-19 pandemic is not for the faint-hearted. Unless it is necessary, avoid it. These are the words of a travel consultant friend I reached out to, after I was assigned work in Dubai, and I sought to find out what awaited me.

Well, he was right.

From Mombasa, the check-in at the Mombasa International Airport wasn’t what I am accustomed to -- an email confirming your booking and trip details to Nairobi. With a booking from the local airline, came an email, with a photocopied ‘Health declaration form’ that I was to fill. This was for contact tracing.

Travelling on the short domestic flights most of time is supposed to be a quick, flawless affair, but the strict online check-in guidelines meant longer queues. However, little, if no social distancing between travellers is enforced at the Mombasa International Airport, as we stood side by side awaiting to be cleared.

The requirement of a Covid-19 certificate 96 hours to boarding meant that I would spend three days in Nairobi chasing this document. Emirates, the airline I was to use, had indicated that it would only accept the certificates from its pre-listed hospitals that include one in Mombasa, while the other four are in Nairobi.

Arriving at a leading private hospital 72 hours before my flight, I expected this to be an easy process -- a walk-in-walk-out affair, with an estimated 45 minutes taken.

I was wrong. As I waited in the queue, others would be brought in by hospital employees, jump the line, have the tests done and leave. This made the process drag for two hours, from registration to payment of the Sh8,500 fee, and yet the actual Covid-19 test lasted five seconds.

In under 24 hours, I had an SMS notification that my result was ready for collection at the hospital’s laboratory.

Social distancing

The real unusual experience started at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) Departure terminal, where for the first time, there were officials strictly enforcing the social distancing rules, as we went through the security checks, and also the checking in process.

For an airport that was a bustle of activities before Covid-19 struck, JKIA is now a pale shadow of itself. There were pockets of travellers scattered around the lounges as they waited to board their flights. Missing too was an army of cleaners, whom I had expected -- as per Ministry of Transport protocols issued in July -- to be fumigating the sitting spaces in shifts. In the one hour I was at the waiting areas, I saw none.

Before boarding, and even at the check-in gates, all the passengers were required to provide health information bio data, as well as show proof of the Covid-19 certificate, with the officials keen on the 96 hours’ validity of the document.

To control crowding, and also maintain social distancing, the boarding is now done via zones, with the first passengers in, being the last out. This meant that after the first and business class and priority passengers, the rest have to board strictly by pre allocated zones, as per their seat numbers.

On board, Emirates provides a safety kit for all passengers. In the kit were two masks, two bottles of sanitiser and a pair of gloves. Wearing of masks was mandatory in the aircraft, unless eating, with the crew constantly doing rounds to enforce this. For a five-hour flight, this proved to be a tall order, but with no risks to be taken, all passengers had to abide by this, unless one opted to eat or drink throughout the journey.

Unlike the Kenya Airways flight, I had taken from Mombasa, which has its crew sporting personal protective equipment (PPE), the crew at Emirates only had masks on, with others donning both the mask and face shield.

As I had expected, the aircraft was barely a quarter full. On my row of nine, we were only two passengers.

Landing in Dubai was a whole new experience. As we got ushered from the aircraft and into the arrival terminal, we were all asked to wear our gloves. The Dubai International Airport ground staff also insisted that we download the “DXB 19” mobile app, which was to be used to track all travellers staying in Dubai.

The application has “Your health card”, with a QR colour code -green for a negative Covid-19 result and red for a positive result. One would also have to fill their emergency contacts, residential address, or hotel for tourists -- information that would allow real time tracking, as the app also required one to have the ‘location’ feature on the phone activated.

With access to Wi-Fi, it offers the daily update on Covid in Dubai, the number of positive infections, and other important guidelines one requires.

With the app installed, and now together with passengers from other destinations, we were to have a Covid-19 test at the airport before we could head to the immigration counters. With our data logged in by the Covid-19 team, and the app’s QR code scanned, we lined up for the mass Covid-19 tests. The whole process took 45 minutes, mostly because of the thousands of passengers being tested. All passengers are also expected to fill in a separate declaration that should “one test positive for Covid-19, you will be expected to quarantine yourself for 14 days at your own costs, or at a Dubai government centre at a cost of $50 (Sh5,400) a day.”

Thankfully, for most of us arriving via Emirates, we had the automatic Covid-19 insurance cover, just in case this became an eventuality.  Once we cleared with the immigration, we went through the last stage. Handing over our Covid-19 certificates from Nairobi to a group of airport officials, who checked the dates, before we were allowed to leave. In the car, was another safety kit.

Two passengers

“Kindly note that it is mandatory to wear masks in public within Dubai. Not having one on will attract an on-the-spot fine of $870 (Sh94,000). Wearing it on the chin, while exposing the nose will attract a fine of $300 (Sh31,000),” Mohammed, our guide said.

For Dubai, things have now changed. The taxis are only allowed a maximum of two passengers, unless it is a minivan, which is hailed via online apps. At the hotel, with the temperature checks done, another safety kit is handed, containing masks, gloves and sanitisers.

For the next five days, we ventured out, to explore Dubai.

In all the public spaces, social distancing, and wearing of masks were strictly observed, mostly because of the deterrent fines. Unlike the ‘old order’, here, you should now be used to the smell of sanitiser, as the unforgiving United Arab Emirates (UAE) heat chokes off any air out of your mask, mostly for those short moments you step out of air-conditioned spaces. For most public spaces, dispensers pop out of walls, and you are expected to use them.

At the Dubai Mall, my colleague removed his mask to take a photo and within seconds, a police officer tapped his shoulder. “Hello, kindly have your mask back on. You wouldn’t like it if I’ll have to impose a fine on you,” he politely said.

Dubai has traditionally positioned itself as a top destination for tourists, earning billions of dollars from this. But Covid-19 has dealt it a blow.

Its alluring sandy beaches, luxurious resorts and extensive theme parks are inviting for millions, but with the pandemic, they have remained near-empty as tourists across the world remain cautious on travel.

On our tour to the desert, our convoy had seven cars, yet pre-Covid-19, the scenario would have been different. Hundreds of four wheelers would be entering and leaving the site.

Covid-19 test

Because we would stay in Dubai for five days, it meant that we had to do another Covid-19 test before we could board an Emirates flight back to Nairobi.

With 48 hours before departure, we went to Mediclinic Al Noor Hospital on the outskirts of Dubai for our drive-through test.

Here, unlike my Nairobi experience, the process was smooth. Everyone was expected to remain in the car, as the medical attendants took swabs from windows, while the others did the input of biodata.

In 15 minutes, the testing was done, with the results promised in our respective emails within 24 hours. Nine hours later, the hospital had emailed the results to us, with an update filed on the phone. For those who wanted easy access to these results, a QR Code was embossed at the back of the passport, to enable authorities, and those hotels that required evidence of the test to scan it.

Flying back from the Dubai International Airport was smooth, save for the fact that you now had to do the health data filling online, and a QR Code sent to you via email. I was eager to find out what awaited us at the JKIA arrivals terminals. At the place where the Port Health officials would ordinarily be positioned demanding vaccination certificates, was the Kenyan Covid-19 team. In their non-friendly element, they were armed with thermometer, and a tablet to key in the QR code details.

“Boss, where we’ve come from, the temperatures were automatically picked up by cameras installed in Dubai International Airport. We cannot have that here?” I cheekily asked one of the officers as I handed over my Covid-19 certificate. Big mistake!

“My friend, you can go back and live in that airport,” he shot back.

I had no come-back.

I quietly picked my suitcase and walked to the Immigration counter. Indeed, I was back to my motherland!


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