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Lockdown Letters: 'Every single passenger on the flight was wearing a mask'

Today the Irish Independent and Independent.ie begin a new series called ‘Lockdown Letters'. It is an opportunity for readers at home and across the globe to share their stories about these unprecedented times. If you have a story please mail stories@independent.ie

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Paula Gahan (33) has been living in London for 5 years.

Paula Gahan (33) has been living in London for 5 years.

Paula Gahan (33) has been living in London for 5 years.

Paula Gahan in London:

I’m running in heels through the streets of Kuala Lumpur carrying a bottle of Tiger beer.

We’ve just had a phone call from London saying the country’s going into lockdown and we have to fly back in an hour.

With the imminent collapse of the aviation industry, myself and the crew were determined to enjoy possibly one of the last trips we’ll have for a while – and being from Kildare town, another Irish crew member and I decided it would only be right to toast St Patrick’s Day.

Drinks had just been delivered to the table when the call came in. “How long have we got?” “They’re collecting us in one hour, everyone back to the hotel.”

With that, the table of 10 crew members, who’d just landed three hours ago from a 13-hour flight, legged it back to the hotel. I’d just paid 22 ringgits (€4.61) for that beer though, and I’d be damned if I was leaving it.

Never in my five years of being cabin crew with a major airline have I seen such disorder and panic.

My only regret is wearing heels. If I have any advice from my 33 years, it would be never wear heels in any sort of crisis.

By the time I’d made it to the hotel lobby, I could feel the blisters rising up on my feet. Everyone going into the hotel had their temperature taken before they were allowed to enter. I was 36.4. Anyone with over 38 was not getting in. I wonder how long before these measures will be implemented in London where I am now based for my job.

I ran to my room and threw everything in a bag as quickly as I could. Never in my five years of being cabin crew with a major airline have I seen such disorder and panic

The flight from London to Kuala Lumpur had been equally surreal. Every single passenger was wearing a mask for the duration of the flight. Many were wearing raincoats, gloves and full body hazmat suits.

A few people ate but most refused the food for fear of contamination. The majority of the passengers were Malaysians, desperate to get back home before they closed the borders.

I handed one a bottle of water, he flinched and looked at me nervously before taking it, a strange combination of fear and embarrassment in his eyes. I felt sorry for him.

He hadn’t moved from his seat for the whole 13 hours and there was a strong odour of urine from him. It’s hard to believe, but some passengers will go to any lengths in a bid to avoid using the toilets, including wearing adult diapers.

A crew member in his 60s said the last time he’d seen such hysteria around personal cleanliness and contact was during the Aids epidemic of the 1980s.

There were only a handful of Europeans on the flight. One middle-aged man was irate that he had been allowed board the flight at all in light of the imminent lockdown; the truth is we barely had any information ourselves.

There was nothing that could be said to calm him down, the thought of being stuck in Kuala Lumpur playing on his mind. People can be very petty in these situations.

He looked me dead in the eye and said, “well, I’m glad you’ll all be out of a job in a week”.

'The paranoia of becoming infected will stay with us all for a long time'

Sinead O'Sullivan in Milan

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An almost empty Piazza del Duomo in the centre of Milan. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images

An almost empty Piazza del Duomo in the centre of Milan. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images

AFP via Getty Images

An almost empty Piazza del Duomo in the centre of Milan. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images

“No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and emotions shared by all,” wrote Albert Camus in ‘The Plague’.

Four weeks ago, I woke up to learn that the coronavirus had well established its presence in northern Italy. And, Milan in Lombardy where I live was well on course to become the Covid-19 epicentre.

The initial lockdown process was almost immediate, we were jolted into isolation to prevent a further spread.

I am using my time on lockdown to reflect and think about life post-coronavirus

Almost immediately I alerted my family in Ireland because I knew this problem was obviously not just stopping in Italy.

The daily news conference is at 6pm when they deliver the official Covid-19 numbers for Italy. This has since become part of our daily routine, listening for the latest numbers. Sadly, these numbers are people, and those people have families. It’s very, very sad, and heartbreaking.

After the first two weeks #iorestoacasa started trending, this means ‘I Stay Home’. A new decree was signed, obliging everyone to stay indoors, simply go to the supermarket and return home.

Even five weeks ago, the idea of being house-bound for a long spell would have been unthinkable. But I am following the rules and spending most of my time here in the apartment. For now it is something we all must do. I am fully committed to doing whatever it takes to see an effective decline in this tragic situation.

We don’t know when we will reach the end of this contagion, and the paranoia of becoming infected will I have no doubt stay with us all for a long time to come. I am using my time on lockdown to reflect and think about life post-coronavirus.

I think what has changed could change our values, and focus on achieving a more balanced way of life, and focus on making a safer future.

'It’s an extremely frightening time in Spain, but I worry how things are being handled back home'

Chloe Creaven in Spain:

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Chloe Creaven, originally from Galway, is living in Madrid, Spain.

Chloe Creaven, originally from Galway, is living in Madrid, Spain.

Chloe Creaven, originally from Galway, is living in Madrid, Spain.


Originally from Co Galway, I moved to Madrid in September 2019 to teach English as a second language.

My isolation journey began on March 12 when every school in the city shut its doors. Despite a lot of my friends and family urging me to come home, I ultimately decided travelling wasn’t the safest option and that it would be best to stay. Within 48 hours, I went from going about my normal routine to being confined to the four walls of my apartment.

Officially, the country is in a state of emergency and honestly, it’s an extremely frightening time here.

The numbers contracting Covid-19 are rising dramatically each day and even some of my friends have fallen ill. I would have been in contact with these friends, presumably when the virus was already in their system, so as an asthma sufferer there is an additional fear of getting sick.

Within 48 hours, I went from going about my normal routine to being confined to the four walls of my apartment.

This thought was very frightening but as time moves ever so slowly along, and I have not shown any symptoms yet, the fear is abating somewhat.

Thankfully I’ve managed to maintain a somewhat normal routine. I’m fortunate enough to be teaching online in the mornings. The rest of the day is just a matter of trying to keep busy. We try to set ourselves a new goal each day, however big or small.

I think a lot about how things are being handled back home and worry for my friends and family. No one really comprehends the severity of the situation here and realistically it’s only a matter of time before things escalate at home.

If I could pass on any advice it would be to stay informed, stay positive and please stay inside.

We look forward to getting back to normal life, whenever that may be, and we look to the day when Spain, like Ireland, will smile again.

'We're not allowed out of the hotel room - the door is unchained four times a day'

Lisa Belmour in China:

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A man and a boy wearing facemasks amid concerns of coronavirus walk on a road towards the Olympic park in Beijing
(Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images)

A man and a boy wearing facemasks amid concerns of coronavirus walk on a road towards the Olympic park in Beijing (Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images)

AFP via Getty Images

A man and a boy wearing facemasks amid concerns of coronavirus walk on a road towards the Olympic park in Beijing (Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images)

We left China for our annual Chinese New Year vacation on January 18. The plan was to spend three weeks in Cambodia. As the virus started spreading and flights to China were cancelled, we knew it was only a matter of time before our own flight on February 7 was cancelled, which indeed it was.

We were worried, unsure of what to do, so we decided to book another flight to China but immediately regretted our decision as the country was put on lockdown. We felt it would be irresponsible and reckless to return to our home there at that point, so we opted to fly back to Ireland.

We arrived in cold, wet, stormy Ireland with two rucksacks full of shorts and t-shirts and very little else. It was great to see family and friends, but our unexpected visit was matched with uneasiness about our situation and a sense of foreboding.

To make matters worse, our Chinese residence visas were due to expire on March 16 so we resolved to return to China, to renew our visas and avoid even more complications in our lives.

We flew Dublin, Frankfurt, Bangkok and then Hangzhou, China, the city we live and work in. Our employers had liaised with our community and the authorities and it seemed we had been cleared to quarantine for 14 days in our own apartment.

However, on arrival at 10pm, it became increasing clear that things had changed and we were to be incarcerated in a hotel in the same district our apartment is in.

We were in the airport for seven hours waiting for our names to be called. It was freezing cold (we were wearing shorts and flip-flops) as the heating system had been turned off to avoid the spread of the virus. We eventually got on a freezing-cold bus (again no heating) and arrived at our designated hotel at 7am, 10 hours after we had arrived. We showered and got into bed shivering from the cold.

We felt it would be irresponsible and reckless to return to our home

We’ve been here since Saturday, March 14 and are due for release on March 28. We are not permitted out of the room. The door is unchained four times a day, three for meals and one to collect our rubbish.

We are not permitted care packages from friends but can order groceries online, but no alcohol. We cannot wash or dry clothes, and we only have one towel each. I could go on but let’s just say it’s pretty grim.

The whole situation is frustrating for a variety of reasons. If we had been aware of the change in policy, we would have made a decision based on fact.

We were very happy to come back to China and quarantine in our own apartment with the cooperation of our community. We would not have come back to China so soon if we thought we had to go to a hotel, and even if we had known and still decided to return, we would have been prepared.

It would be so much easier and stress-free for everyone involved if people were permitted to quarantine at home. Everyone in China lives in guarded gated communities, so it would be impossible for anyone to break quarantine. The entire situation is illogical and completely ridiculous.

On a more optimistic note, unlike most of the world now, China is slowly recovering, and things are starting to get back to normal here. It looks like schools may reopen by late April. We are looking forward to getting our lives back to normal, in the city we have called home for the past two years and the country we have called home for the past seven years.

We are living history. The challenges posed by Covid 19 are similar the world over but everybody’s experience of this emergency will be different. Today the Irish Independent and Independent.ie begin a new series called ‘Lockdown Letters’. It is an opportunity for readers at home and across the globe to share their stories about these unprecedented times.

Please email your submission (400 words max.) to stories@independent.ie along with a photograph. We will publish as many letters as possible on Independent.ie and a selection in print every week.

Online Editors