The People of the World’s Best Airport During the Pandemic
With cases under control, Singapore has begun allowing travellers to return
COVID has made me realise that international travel — or anything for that matter — is just a chain of human interactions. The virus spreads when we get too close, but often situations require us to be near enough to hear from, talk to, check in on, and hug. These are the people of Changi airport in Singapore during COVID times.
Airport arrival lounges always look a little empty. The only people who hang around are lining up to use the bathroom or waiting for slower relatives to alight from the plane. Walking through to the terminal area was a no-nonsense operation, supported by a healthy number of airport staff pointing us in the right direction. These were the front liners who risked their own health to do their jobs. They would come into direct contact with freshly imported passengers, who could easily be infected.
The customs area had been converted to allow for the extra steps required for entering the country. The retractable, red posts that hold everyone in line was fully removed, and replaced with a collection of airport support staff. Like the dress-rehearsal for a high-school play, everyone looked the part, but no one was 100% sure that they were standing in the right position.
After checking with two attendants, I was led to a customs windows to check my passport. The fingerprint scanner was not in use.
“What are you coming to Singapore for?” the customs officer asked me. I explained I was on a social visit and he nodded. He sat with a firm posture and a straight haircut. Singapore has mandatory army conscription for all men, and the impression I had was the customs officer would have only recently finished his stint.
“I will process your information here, then you need to turn back to have your health information reviewed, and then after that you can go collect your bags, and then you will have the COVID test. Is that clear?”
I collected my passport and went to sit while I waited for my health check. A corner of the customs area had been partitioned off and was now filled with 25, blue and red plastic chairs laid out in a socially distanced five-by-five grid. I sat on the edge of the second row and watched as one of the plastic chairs was taken away and replaced with a man in a wheelchair.
The Old Man in the Driver’s Cap
He was easily 80 years old, if not 90, dressed for comfort in the familiar woollen clothes that old people wear. A driver’s cap sat atop his thinning white hair, and on the tray under the wheelchair sat a brown leather briefcase that he would have had since he was a young man. A placard sign on the back of the wheelchair read “Care @ Changi.”
“Hello Sir, can you speak English?” the young nurse asked slowly, not to confuse him.
“Of course I do, I am Singaporean” he snapped. Here was a man that was very lucid, who raged against the assumptions people made of him because he was old. Though it was a blessing at his age to be as mentally alert as he was, this came with the indignity of people thinking he was no longer fully with it.
“Okay, great,” said the nurse, “how is your recent health?”
“I am never sick,” said the old man.
“Have you had a COVID test before?”
“What’s that?” the man replied.
“The COVID test, it’s for your nose,” she said. Explaining COVID is probably not what she thought she would have to do today, but her description of a COVID test — “It’s for your nose” — was rather unhelpful.
“Never heard of it.” he replied, “I am very healthy, I never go to the hospital. Not for twenty years.”
Standing at the side of the old man was an attendant who was responsible for pushing the wheelchair. He was bald, wore a face shield, and would have been 50 years old. He was dressed in a tucked-in white shirt and a long red tie that drooped over his stomach. Over his shoulder hung a tote from Changi Hospital that read, “Delivering Care that Matters.” The attendant could sense that the questions were starting to frustrate the old man, so he decided he would break the tension, and start up a conversation. With his mask on, he began to talk, with a forced smile gleaming from his eyes.
“I will accompany you all day through the airport Sir. Don’t worry. If you have any questions, or any help you may need, please just let me know.”
At first, the conversation with the old man failed to ignite, so he tried again.
“Actually, I remember you”, the assistant said, “you were here last year!”
“Yes, yes, I am from Singapore. I am coming to visit my daughter,” said the old man before changing the topic. “You are a nice man, but you’re quite fat,” he said, pointing to the assistant. “I don’t eat rice or pork, it gives you a big stomach. You should stop.”
The willing assistant let out a defeated laugh. I might have been wrong, but I felt that the assistant had remembered the old man, as he probably passed a similarly disparaging comment last time they met. The assistant’s exuberance was not about being polite, he was just trying to get ahead of the insult he knew was coming. Sadly, to no avail.
“Now that you mention it, I remember you too,” said the old man, with his hand hanging in the air, pointing to the assistant. “Thank you for your help.”
The assistant smiled a proper eye smile.
The lady in front of me on the plastic chairs was also listening to their conversation and laughed at the old man’s disparaging comments. Especially when the man called him fat. She was seated in the aisle in front of me on the plane, and prior to landing, made a change of outfit into something more weather appropriate. I scoffed at the effort she made, but sitting behind her in my hoodie and jeans, I now found myself rather clammy.
“I am a COVID veteran,” the lady in her 30s said to the nurse who was running through her paperwork. “I have had to stay in quarantine hotels twice this year. Once In Singapore, once in China. With the new rules, hopefully I won’t need to!”
“China is fine now,” the nurse said. “Once we finish your health form you will be ready to go.”
The nurse came to me after she finished with the other lady.
Not only was I worried that my recent trip to the hospital in Shanghai might lead to a black mark on my application, but I was concerned that my heavy outfit might bring my temperature up and fail the check.
“Are you a COVID veteran too?” She asked.
“I’ve had a few tests this year, but fortunately it’s been an easy ride for me” I said.
She was warm and professional, but because she was a little hard of hearing, she leant in closer than what was pandemically acceptable. While I spoke with her, the other nurse put a temperature reader in my ear. 36.3. Ice cold. She came to the section on my sheet where I had indicated that I had been to a hospital in the last 14 days. I gave her my test results and explained I went there just to have a test — to make certain. She gave me back my sheet and waved me through. I was done with the screening.
All the luggage from our flight had been removed from the conveyer belt and was evenly placed. My bag was standing on its four wheels, and from a distance looked like R2-D2 when he shifts side to side in giddy excitement.
The COVID test
“Have you had a COVID test before” the doctor asked me.
“Two days ago.”
“Nose or throat?”
“We only do nose here.”
“Oh great, could you please do my left nostril?” My right nostril was a little blocked from the flight.
“Sorry, we do both.”
COVID tests are uncomfortable, but in a year that had been good to me, this was one small swab for social responsibility that I was happy to make. If it meant my safety and that of the people around me, I would get tested everyday. I would do it twice a day. I would not love it, I would hope that I would not need to do it again, but I would happily make it part of my day.
The Lovesick Taxi Driver
I walked out of the arrival gate, past the reunion of the old man and his daughter. She was crying, the portly airport assistant was eye-smiling, and the old man seemed shocked by his nose test.
Unlike those who were on government busses heading for 14-day quarantine, I had to find my own way to my hotel as I waited 24 hours for my test results. If I returned a negative result, I would be free to go. It was only two escalators down until I was at the empty taxi rank, and into the waiting car.
Standing beside the open boot of his red van was a forty year old man. He was tall, lean, and made light work of picking up my suitcase. As we exited the carpark he began to explain that the larger, people-moving vans had been given exclusive rights to pick up passengers from the airport.
“Normally I work for hotels, chaperoning people around for business meetings, but without any travel, it’s been hard to find passengers. It’s nice that the government has given us this job, but if any of the our customers have COVID, then I have to isolate at home for 14 days, and that’s the best scenario. I might even catch it. We had three airport staff a few weeks ago who caught it from return passengers, so they all can’t work until they’re cleared.”
We pulled out onto the main road connecting the airport and downtown Singapore.
“Anyway,” he continued, making eye-contact with me in the rear view mirror, “where did Sir fly in from today?”
“Shanghai,” I said.
“Oh I thought maybe Australia.”
“I am Australian, just that I came from Shanghai.”
“Well that makes more sense, you do not look very Chinese,” he said, laughing.
I was curious as to how people like me travelling to Singapore from China may have impacted his work.
“Well,” he said, “they started allowing passengers from New Zealand, Brunei, Australia and Vietnam to enter without strict quarantine, but before they opened it to China, we had only 700 people come in across four months. But since China, we have been having that many people a week. It is really good news for us.”
“It’s hard when none of those countries are offering reciprocal travel. If I go back to China, or onto Australia from here, I have to do 14-days.”
“You need to stay a long time to make it worthwhile, that’s for sure” he said with a pause. “What brings you to Singapore?”
“I had to leave China because of my visa. Fortunately, my girlfriend is based here, so when they allowed visitors from mainland China, it became a simple decision. We had been doing long distance for eight months.”
“My girlfriend has been in Thailand since February, we have also been eight months, but I don’t think I will see her soon. Their border is shut and not opening in a rush.”
“Do you think after Chinese New Year you could head over?” I asked.
“Maybe. I hope so, but I still need to work. Maybe I will have to wait some more time yet.”
We sat quietly for the remaining portion of the journey. The sun began to set, the weather was warm. I was grateful.