Travel in the time of coronavirus

Good news, my friends! I am here to tell you that real journalism isn’t dead. I know that much of what you can expect from newspapers these days is the poorly paragraphed harvest of some “staff reporter” with a smartphone dragging a wide-toothed comb through the damp, snaggly pelt of social media and picking out the juiciest nits and burrs and bugs for your delectation, but you’ll be pleased to know that this is not the case with your favourite local newspaper (ie. this one).

Faced with the biggest story in the world right now, how did your news editor respond? Why, he (or perhaps she, I haven’t checked the masthead. Perhaps they) put his or her or their hand in his or her or their pocket and paid to send his or her or their most intrepid and fearless reporter into the danger zone to report back on what is really happening out there.

The story is the coronavirus, and that reporter is me. Like some two-eyed Marie Colvin I have spent the past several days at the frontlines of the viral war, infesting the airports of the globe, putting my life on the line and taking notes on what I have seen. So far what I have seen is this:

1.This is a great time to fly. Normally airports and aircraft are places where all the coughs and sneezes and snufflings of the world come to gather and multiply, a hacking jamboree of mucus, but the first thing I noticed this week was an almost complete lack of expectoration. Perhaps people are afraid to travel now while a little under the weather, or perhaps they don’t want to be seized by undercover phlegm-guards and marched into backrooms to be swabbed and palpated and penetrated with thermometers, but I have never been surrounded by so much glowing health. It’s like everyone was on the best medical behavior, intent on proving to their fellow travelers that there was nothing of which to be afraid.

Only once in two days on the road did I hear a single involuntary oral ejaculation. It was a sneeze, and it happened unexpectedly when passing through the duty-free section of Heathrow, and everyone in the vicinity turned and shot the sneezer some searching and disapproving looks, even though he had done his best to pull his shirt over his face and make it one of those little quiet cat-sneezes. It wasn’t my fault. It always happens in Duty Free. I’m think I’m allergic to Calvin Klein.

2. Another gift from the coronavirus: on three long international flights, there was only one baby. Good on you, loving mothers of the world. Why expose your moist bundles of joy to unseen pathogens? In fact, in the spirit of it being a shame to waste a good crisis, I propose that even when this current scare is over, we should as a society agree that it is irresponsible parenting to take your child anywhere requiring an aeroplane before they are ten years old. Let’s make bulkheads bassinet-free again. Even carnival rides have a height restriction – why should jumbo jets be any different? Oh my friends, if we seize this moment to make our commercial air space a safe space for adults again, where the only midnight crying is manly and silent and fueled by failed dreams and free airline whiskey, oh, what a beautiful world we can still create.

3. I chatted to a chap in the lounge about the uselessness of those stupid surgical masks. “Placebos!” he barked dismissively, pouring himself another red wine. I agreed heartily. It’s always good to run into someone who shares your views, even when he seems to be a little red-faced and weaving unsteadily in his seat.

“What you want to use is Vaseline!” barked the fellow, tilting back his head to offer an unimpeded view of his lavishly greased nostrils. “Forms a barrier to trap the creepy crawlies! You just want to leave a little gap for breathing purposes, otherwise you have to breathe through the mouth. Defeats the purpose. Do you know what the biggest drawback to having Vaseline in your nose is?”

“The encouragement it gives to perverts?” I offered. We both laughed at that for about ten minutes. I suppose I should admit that I’d had a little red wine too.

4. In Abu Dhabi at 2 am I watched two chaps sit down at the Cinnabon, wearing facemasks. At first they sort of pulled the mask to one side and shoveled in a bit of bun before replacing the mask and chewing solemnly, but Cinnabon is like information: it wants to be free. Soon they lowered their masks around their necks like bandanas in order to munch unimpeded. One of the guys dropped his last morsel of bun on the floor. He frowned at it, wrestling with an important decision, then picked it up and ate it. I marveled at that until I received the bill for R253 for two coffees and a cinnamon bun. At those prices, even the coronavirus obeys the five-second rule.

The Times, 6 March 2020