Santa mask Covid
Christmas in the times of COVID-19 Image Credit: Rod Long

As the new Coronavirus variant surges and medical experts warn not to take it lightly, people are jamming airports in ‘revenge travelling’, just to get away from home.

Our flight from Bengaluru to Delhi was packed and the cabin crew had to remind some passengers to put their masks back on. Not wearing a mask on a flight is now a punishable offence.

Our hotel near the Indira Gandhi International Airport, in Aerocity, was bustling with people and our pickup driver said Omicron, the new variant, was spreading in Delhi.

Aerocity, near the Delhi Airport has 16 huge hotels with about 5000 beds, while another massive one is being built. Nearby are large malls, eagerly awaiting shoppers.

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Just as hotel occupancy was once again picking up after the deadly Second Wave, the new variant surfaced, and India has delayed opening up international flights till January in the New Year.

We had to get the RT-PCR test done at a designated test centre at the Airport. The centre was overflowing with people, mainly from the state of Punjab, and teens heading to Canada to join universities. It seemed like an ideal place to catch a virus.

The medical worker at the test centre poked a swab up my nose, deep inside, and then took a mucous sample from my mouth. When my wife’s turn came, she asked whether the mucous swab was done properly, so the medical worker jabbed the swab twice in her nose, which gave her the sniffles.

A RT-PRC Test detects the presence of a genetic material in any virus. This is a real-time test and allows scientists to see the process even as the virus undergoes changes.

One man who was sending off his kid to university was upset that there were only two people registering this huge crowd at the test centre. He said he is with the health department and would complain to the higher authorities about this.

Around us people had climbed up on the high window sills and were either sitting or sleeping. The virus has added a new dimension to travel, and everyone has a price to pay for having a fun vacation, or for going home for the holidays.

Delhi Airport was decorated with the plump, white-bearded Santa along with his reindeer. There was also a mailbox where children could post a letter asking Santa what toys or video games they would like.

Christmas spirit was in the air

While the Christmas spirit was in the air, I missed the colourful and starry decorations of Dubai Mall and the arrivals terminal of Dubai Airport where a huge Christmas tree would tower over everyone.

As we were heading back to our hotel, we learnt that Canada has advised people not to travel out of the country during the holidays. India, meanwhile, decided to postpone opening international flights to January.

Luckily for us, our flight was still on and there was no news of any cancellation. The Delhi-Toronto flight was a “Bubble Flight”, meaning that this was an extra safe flight with strict norms to passengers from the participating countries. The flight would be like travelling in a safe and virus-free “bubble”.

At around 3am my wife woke me up and said, “The test result is in and mine seems ‘inconclusive’. I may have to give the test again. Yours hasn’t come yet.”

For about 30 excruciating and suspenseful minutes we thought this year is also a washout and we wouldn’t be able to go home and meet our kids.

Finally, my test result pinged into my in box and it was negative, which was good, as I wasn’t infested with pathogens. My wife had seen the wrong column in her test result, which we found out was also Negative.

Medical experts feel it is too early to say how the new variant will evolve and whether this is a milder cousin of Covid. But in the mean time you not only have to take out your belt, shoes at airport security, but continue to be also jabbed up your nose.

Mahmood Saberi is a storyteller and blogger based in Bengaluru, India. Twitter: @mahmood_saberi