Love in the time of corona

Posted on 24 March 2020

When I decided to travel to Thailand on 10 March 2020, I felt strong, healthy and infatuated.

Thailand had been my first big-girl, adult, paid-off-my-first-job international trip six years ago, and I had a soft spot for this wonder-filled country. From the fragrant food to pungent streets, sweet fruit shakes (best served with a sprinkle of salt), vibrant temples and iridescent seas, I couldn’t wait to get back. To see it with new eyes and a renewed focus on responsible travel. It was love, alright.

Sunsets remained as beautiful as ever, as if Mother Nature was unaware of the pandemic. Image credit: Melanie van Zyl

Of course, discussions about the latest virus strain coursed the globe and international news channels, but it had yet to reach the African continent. Still, I waited, and we booked flights just six days before departure to ensure an informed decision. All systems go.

Two days before the trip, Covid-19 hit South Africa with its first case diagnosed in KwaZulu-Natal.

The case seemed contained, and travel went ahead as planned. I packed my bags. Loaded with hand sanitiser, vitamins and a load of gung-ho enthusiasm, I set out for the airport, boarded the flight and ordered a Singapore Sling. Ten hours later, everything changed.

A global pandemic was declared overnight. The following day, on 15 March 2020 (just ten days after that first case), our president Cyril Ramaphosa announced a national state of disaster. The narrative changed drastically.

A restaurant-owner in the Prasae Community – a small fishing village near Rayong on the banks of Prasae River – dons a mask whale preparing food. Image credit: Melanie van Zyl

I felt pangs of instant remorse — various online articles detailed how travel and exposure to the virus would put loved ones at risk. I called my partner about the peril, about a family member with chronic diabetes, about my sister, a teacher to many beautiful small children, concerning the threat to my parents, about the infinite ways I could deliver illness to our home. The selfishness still stings and had I known what I know now.

We spoke about ‘self-isolation’, ‘lockdown’, ‘social distancing’. Thanks to the all-consuming connectivity of social media (scroll, stress, scroll), the world has a whole new virus vocabulary at its disposal.

Paul Theroux once said, ‘Travel is a state of mind. It has nothing to do with existence or the exotic. It is almost always an inner experience’. I’ve never felt this as strongly as I did travelling in Thailand. Despite the myriad wonders around me (fantastic new tastes, learning to sizzle my own Phad Thai, memorable encounters with local fisherman, community leaders, chefs, tour guides, sparkling skylines) I suffered an inner turmoil. Travel was the most selfish act I could commit mid-March. I didn’t share any of the beauty I saw online. It felt at odds with the world — and what a different world it was.

Masks were commonly worn before te Covid-19 outbreak to combat pollution in Bangkok, but now they are all the more prevalent. Image credit: Melanie van Zyl.

I first visited Thailand in 2014, but this was a different Bangkok. The main thing that I recall was the smell. The capital’s pungent street perfume no longer lingered because the army had been deployed.

Each evening between 1am and 5am, they disinfect the streets to combat the spread of the new coronavirus.

Bars and restaurants also closed during my visit. At every temple, hand sanitiser stations stood to attention in front of the doors. At the entrance of every single hotel, masked staff dropped the alcoholic solution into our open hands and they zapped our foreheads for temperature readings. At malls, cleaners stood at the escalator wiping down the ever-rotating handrails.

Nurses test all visitors coming into a temple at Chiang Mai. If given the all-clear (body temperature below 37.5 degrees Celcius), you’re marked with a sticker. Image credit: Melanie van Zyl.

After transiting through Singapore (a route that shut down yesterday, 23 March 2020) I made it home to an eerie Johannesburg. Dawn on Friday morning. Typically, the domestic terminal is a flurry of commuters, but it lay quiet. No queues for coffee (I wasn’t even allowed to pass over my eco cup to fill up with caffeine for fear of the coronavirus), no roller bags zipping about, nobody.

I still haven’t quite digested how much has changed in two weeks. Celebrations should be taking place. The Tourism Authority of Thailand celebrates 60 years of operation right now and has honoured the milestone with a renewed focus on sustainability. The rains are here. Drought across Southern Africa is lifting, the floods from Angola look promising, and as I write this, the Okavango Delta steadily swells.

The sweeping Bangkok skyline from the rooftop pool at 137 Pillars Suites and Residences hotel at dawn. Image credit: Melanie van Zyl.

This past weekend, Namibia turned 30 years old as an independent nation. It was also International Day of Forests and in South Africa, Human Rights Day. What an appropriate time to measure the importance of this public holiday.

This pandemic has held up a magnifying glass to the globe. It shouldn’t be, but in many places, it is a privilege to wash your hands, for example. On 21 March 2020, many of us sat in self-isolation for the love of humanity. For those with no access to the simple right of running water. In respect for the community. For fellow citizens.

Today, 24 March 2020, I am proud of South Africa’s leadership. “Superpowers” like the United States of America and the United Kingdom have yet to take the brave step of announcing a lock down.

Cyril Ramaphosa made the hard decision to choose people over profit. That is true love.

May we all learn how to love in the time of corona.

Most commuters in Bangkok don face masks. Image credit: Melanie van Zyl


Also read: Travelling in Taiwan during the coronavirus outbreak



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