How Conflicting Guidance on Travel During the Pandemic Shows Little Progress

The Omicron variant turned my trip home from South Africa into a nightmare episode of conflicting public health orders that often seemed to have little connection to science.,

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HALIFAX, Nova Scotia — In early November, I flew to southern Africa to report a series of stories about the state of the Covid-19 pandemic in the region, including one about the remarkable work being done to stanch the emergence of new coronavirus variants. My last afternoon there, South African scientists announced the discovery of the Omicron variant. Hours later, I got on a plane in Johannesburg to head home to Canada.

By the time I landed for my connection in Amsterdam on the morning of Nov. 26, the world had gone into full panic mode and I was swept up in a chaotic, at times frightening, tangle of orders and conflicting rules that seemed driven more by fear than medical science.

My firsthand journey through Covid response measures has shown me that, two years into this, we have yet to learn how to anticipate how both viruses and people will behave, or how to plan accordingly. We are going to need to get much better at both if we are to get through the next pandemic with less loss of life, and less suffering.

When my plane touched down in Amsterdam, a flight attendant informed us that passengers would need to be tested for Covid before we could continue our journeys. Five hours later, we were still on the tarmac, the plane sealed up tight, with more and more travelers shedding their masks.

My despair at a missed connection progressed to alarm when the pilot informed increasingly restive passengers that he could not procure food and drink for us because airport authorities “would not permit” catering trucks to approach the plane.

We were eventually bused into an unused departure area, and over the course of three hours, given Covid tests. As the hours ticked by in the stuffy room where we were being held, many gave up even a pretense of masking. None of the authorities made any attempt to enforce masking rules.

I was tweeting about the experience, and near midnight, a Dutch journalist who’d seen my posts got in touch to say that test results were being reported by the health ministry. Between my flight and another that had come in from Cape Town at the same time, 110 tests had been processed, and 15 were positive, he said — an infection rate of 14 percent.

I looked around the room full of people, many shouting men and wailing toddlers, and began quietly to panic.

It would be hours more before I received my results. Finally at 3 a.m. a couple of weary-looking public health staff members packed us into a line, had us hold up our passports, one by one, and read the results from a database.

If our tests were negative, as mine was, we were required to sign a document in Dutch. The traveler who hastily translated for me said that I was promising that I had somewhere to quarantine at home, and that I would leave the country to go there.

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Travelers in limbo at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on Nov. 27.Credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times

It seemed like a bad idea for public health, that pledge, but I’d been awake for 42 hours, and I was desperate to get out of that room, so I signed and handed it over.

I was taken by bus into a dark and silent section of the terminal. There I spent another nine hours in an increasingly frantic search for someone who could help me access a copy of my putative negative test, without which I could not continue the journey I had just signed a promise to make.

In the days after this chaotic detention, Dutch airport and health authorities would blame the protracted delays on the fact that they had never anticipated such a situation and had no provisions for how to safely screen passengers — even though we were held just weeks short of the second anniversary of the first known case.

I managed at the 11th hour to get access to my negative test, and flew on to Toronto. My phone was filled with alerts about new regulations for people arriving from southern Africa, and when I identified myself to a border agent as having flown from Johannesburg, he waved me into a special line. A public health screener took my name, address and temperature — then sent me on my way.

I edged away from her but stayed in the line, confused.

“I was just held in detention for almost a day with people we know have Omicron,” I said, almost pleading. “You want to quarantine me!”

She shrugged. “I think you should go get your connection, and maybe quarantine yourself at home. Get tested on Day 4. I have no other guidelines for you.”

This was the first of what would be days of conflicting, confusing messages from health authorities that left me struggling to figure out how best to keep people safe.

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Boarding on a flight from Johannesburg to Amsterdam on Nov. 28.Credit…Dimitri Korczak/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

I flew on to Halifax, my N95 clamped as tightly as I could get it, gratefully collected a series of P.C.R. test kits from a table in the airport and made my way as fast as I could to an Airbnb near my home. My children came for a weird reunion, standing masked at the opposite side of the backyard.

Over the next week, I received a dozen phone calls from federal and provincial health authorities. They said I should quarantine for a full 14 days. Or that I only needed to quarantine until I had a negative test on Day 4. No, Day 8. Oh, fully vaccinated? Well in that case, no quarantine! I could isolate at home until a negative test on Day 4. Or 8. Or 10. No — test notwithstanding, I had to isolate at home until Day 14.

Lacking any kind of useful guidance, I stayed in the Airbnb.

On Day 7, I missed my daughter’s 12th birthday party. A kind friend brought over Thai food and beer and a portable fire pit, and we sat in parkas on opposite sides of it and had a heartfelt conversation in raised voices.

On Day 8, the doorbell rang at 11 p.m. I didn’t answer because I assumed it was visitors for the second-floor tenants (no one was visiting me, obviously). The ringing turned to banging that grew more insistent and louder. When I cracked the door open, I found a police officer who demanded my name, and said she was there to do “a Covid check.”

I asked her what her instructions were for me — maybe she would have insight. “We’re supposed to keep checking you until Dec. 11,” she said.

The next day, another federal public health tracker called. She asked if I’d had visitors. I said that I had seen my children from across the yard. She became distressed, and told me she would have to “report that.” Distanced outdoor visits were expressly forbidden.

I said that no one had ever told me this. (I kept my opinion, that it made no scientific sense and worked directly against the conditions that would help people keep quarantine, to myself.)

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A Covid test from a passenger disembarking in Amsterdam from a flight that originated in Johannesburg.Credit…Pierre Crom/Getty Images

My instructions from Canadian officials were confusing. But I learned from emails and LinkedIn messages from other passengers on my flight how far we are from any uniform global response for travel. The ones who went on to the United States and Britain were going about their lives without quarantining. Those in Germany and the Netherlands had been made to quarantine until a Day 4 negative test.

I couldn’t understand how 18 passengers on the two South African flights had tested positive when we’d had to show a negative test to board the flight. But then I learned, while I was in airport lockup, that preflight testing requirements are set by the country of destination. South African airport authorities closely scrutinized the negative test Canada required of me, but passengers to the United Kingdom (and there were many) didn’t have to test to fly. A belligerent British man in front of me in the final line in Amsterdam was told he was positive, and led away by a police officer.

Since Omicron began to be detected across Europe and the United States, the British policy has finally been changed, and the U.S. requirement strengthened to a test conducted one day before a flight. It should not have taken this debacle to create a basic testing standard for safer flying.

I don’t object to having my travel disrupted; I would have gone willingly into quarantine in Amsterdam. I am, perhaps unsurprisingly for someone in this job, a fan of public health measures.

But I am furious about the entirely unnecessary risk the Dutch subjected me and all the other passengers to. After they concluded our flight was a health risk, they should have bundled us off the plane, distributed N-95 masks (and insisted people wear them), and taken us to a location where we could be held separately from each other while they made a plan.

I am equally frustrated that Canada has done such a lousy job of communicating its rules — or of using evidence to make them. There is rapidly accelerating circulation of Omicron across Europe now, but still, only flights from southern Africa are banned.

The discovery of Omicron, and the swift transmission of critical information about the variant around the world, showed how well the sophisticated scientific response to the pandemic is working.

But everything that I saw in the days since then makes clear we still haven’t mastered the messy, human steps at all — and they may matter even more.

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