The empty check in lanes at Brussels Airport

The empty check in lanes at Brussels Airport

From supermarkets to stock-markets, from festivals to football, the CORVID19 pandemic has infiltrated and affected the mechanisms and fabric of our world. An invisible enemy, alien to the human concepts of negotiation, compromise and brute force. Breezing past the billions spent on defensive hardware and the well-trained strategies of armies and intelligence agencies. Unconcerned by borders and super-powers, money and technology. Thankfully, due to the benevolence of humankind when confronted by adversity, we haven’t fallen to our knees.

You would have to live in the deepest forest or remain in abject denial not to see the constant stories and dreadful statistics relayed by media. All other news has fallen to the wayside. From delayed testing to stranded passengers, from hygiene tutorials to moral boosting videos, the Coronavirus has filtered down with alarming rapidity into the underbelly of life as we know it. These are unprecedented times requiring courage, patience, tolerance, respect, generosity, strength, love and compassion. Admirable qualities found in the holy texts, scriptures, and our heroic front line workers, Individually and collectively, making us more robust, more humane. Even though we are apart, for now, we have never been closer.

Mind the Gap at Brussels Airport station

Mind the Gap at Brussels Airport station

Seven months in and the journey from Ghana down to South Africa was continuing to plan, though the concept of ‘plan’ was as faint as a hairline crack. I had rarely sewn myself in with established itineraries and extensive schedules; they always felt counter-productive in the end. Africa, with her casual style, would float along like a riverboat rather than the Western gunship, in its strident hurry to be someplace else. Perhaps it was that manner, the way of tackling a situation with an unhurried, almost unconcerned behaviour that had given the first knowledge of the virus such a nonchalant dismissal. Like flicking through mediocre novels in a country library, pushing it back into a tightened line of other disinteresting stories, initially distracted by their flashy covers. A problem in another country, far beyond the mind’s capacity for concern. It would peter out, and the media picking up the scent to a dish with greater flavour would soon take the carving knife to the next table. Except they didn’t, and the table quickly spread to a cold buffet of unsavoury events. Rippling out from a busy market in Wuhan to engulf China, Asia, Middle East then onto Europe and America, undertaking a whistle-stop tour of the planet with drastic consequences and clouding the world in foggy confusion with desperate questions that found no answers.

Life in Cameroon was business as usual or as close as it could be. Since 2017, separatists in the Anglophone regions wanted complete independence from the Francophone states. Neither seeking alignment with Nigeria which had absorbed the result of a post-colonial referendum, or a continued allegiance with present-day Cameroon. Preferring independence to autonomy even if it meant being wedged like a VW Beetle between two juggernauts. The problem had consumed much of the governments time, and most of the army remained on constant patrol within the Anglophone area. Many folks had upped and left, tired of strikes, curfews, closed schools, and restricted access to work, -seeking better chances in the Francophone cities. Perhaps this too had distracted the focus on the virus, arriving with the swift silence of a downhill skier. Compared to the strict lock-downs facing Europe, one would be challenged to find a behaviour that invoked the unusual. The first sign came from the police checkpoints who now asked by default for my Yellow Fever Certificate. Only foreigners carried the yellow card, a mandatory piece of paperwork, often needed in securing the visa beforehand. Before the greater consensus lay on the passport or identity card and if you handed the Yellow Certificate with it, they barely afforded it a second glance. But it was a clue that external events had moulded government policy.

Going Nowhere on the departure board

Going Nowhere on the departure board

Around March 21st in the Western city of Bafoussam with its strong, proud Bamiléké culture, commuters were beginning to wear face masks. Though in the minority, the understanding of a possible pandemic had filtered down into some peoples consciousness. Wearing a face-mask came with debatable arguments of ineffectiveness against a first-line deterrent. For many, something was better than nothing. Intermittent power-cuts, frequent loss of internet connections and the greater freedom of travel, meant that I continued with my journey in relative ignorance to outside developments, misguided by a greater sense of normality that Cameroon operated along. Closing down businesses and self-isolation would be much more difficult to enforce in Africa. Larger families and the overwhelming majority can not survive without some form of daily income. Life is on a knife-edge here, void of government incentives and financial protection.

It wasn’t until I socialized with French expatriates in the capital Yaounde, that the cold reality of CORVID19 became acutely apparent. Cameroon had already closed all her land borders, grounded flights and shut down the sea-ports with almost immediate effect. Suddenly, fear overtook ignorance, propelled by capitalized warnings from the FCO, and the increasing death rate. Hysteria and fact, truth and fake news, spun together in a full load of colour-run garments that tumbled out in a clumsy mass. There were no cures then suddenly one lemon a day held the antidote, or a glass of tonic water, or the deliverance of any number of fetish dolls. Then a brief taxi journey unleashed the rantings of a bearded fanatic who preached Gods wrath on the sinners. His young mind badly stained by the effects of brainwashing. There was no point to shake in compromise, or try the key of argument when the door stood so resolutely locked.

Eerie and deserted East Croydon train station

Eerie and deserted East Croydon train station

Most of the time, I felt no hostility here in Cameroon. I always believe that respect, good manners, politeness and an open ear will yield its treasures in the pursuit of humanity. Just as much as a sense of humour in adversity can diffuse the burden. It still holds, but I was noticing that people perceived Coronavirus as a foreign disease, a white man’s ailment, brought into Africa. After all, its most significant effect had been in Europe and America. Passers-by would hand gesture why I wasn’t wearing a mask despite no one else wearing one either. Questions soon followed about personal hygiene, did I carry anti-bacterial gel? shadowed with directions to the nearest hand-washing station. For now, the mood was casual, but as the cases rise (Cameroon now has over 100), the distrust, old underlying grievances could soon become more antagonistic. If the government push with more restrictive measures, earlier curfews, the closing of businesses, certainly with markets, then it could become hostile very quickly. President Paul Biya had already banned any gatherings over fifty, ordered bars and restaurants to close after 6 pm and afforded greater awareness through information panels towards personal hygiene. But many were not conforming to the rules and over the successive days, one noticed an increased presence of both the police and the military. Too much information, like choice, would confuse, and too much negativity would induce panic, fear, and paranoia.

The FCO’s (Foreign Commonwealth Office) standing advice was for all nationals to return home as soon as possible. All of Cameroon had now been brushed yellow (essential travel) and red (against all travel), with travel insurance companies parroting identical warnings. Registering with the British High Commission might not offer much in the way of advice, but I would be on their system in regards to essential updates. Entering the premises was clearly out of the question as communication was through liaising (at a distance) with a security guard who nudged forward an inquiry form. I would leave my details to the wavering promise of an official reply. That reply came the following morning from the secretary whose advice was to wait it out. An accompanying e-mail requested my passport details with a bold command to frequently check correspondence. Those details would be forwarded to London pending any government decision regarding procedures to repatriate. In the mean-time, listening to chatter on the expatriate grapevine, a flight out was being organized at the weekend, but no one possessed detailed information—more than a rumour but less than official. I shuttled back and forth from the laptop to doing light errands, but like a dog on an elasticated lead, I quickly got pulled back. By 18:00 on Friday an e-mail arrived from the German Consulate clarifying the grapevine that a flight was confirmed to depart on Saturday. As I had shown interest my name had been attached to a list but nothing more substantial than that. Five hours later, an updated e-mail arrives, again from the German Consulate confirming my departure the following morning. I would need to be at Yaounde Nsimalen International Airport by 08:30 am Saturday. Events had progressed with surprising but endearing rapidity, brought about by urgent correspondence between the European consulates to repatriate many nationalities rather than just one.

The empty Southernrail service to Ore

The empty Southernrail service to Ore

The German military helped oversee the process, ensuring that two hundred plus passengers adhered to self-distancing (many seemed incapable), handing out face-masks and disposable gloves. New arrivals, observing the constant gaps in the queue thought they could join anywhere (effectively pushing in), only to appear with sullen faces when directed three hundred metres further down the line, across the car-park and into an adjacent field. Tesco’s wouldn’t tolerate this! With standard formalities of check-in, security and immigration completed, one gathered in the lounge and waited for clearance. By 14:00 the Brussels bound flight was leaving the runway with scores of eyes slowly watching Yaounde fall away and then masked by white-washed clouds, -all of us packed neatly together like a box of chocolates!

A flurry of cold swept down the corridor, the plane may have landed smoothly, but its passengers fell with a thud to the sharp reality of seven degrees. Exasperated by the tortoise progression of maintaining the two-metre distance. Once beyond the conveyor belt of airport procedures, one stepped across the threshold into uncertainty. The flight from Cameroon had brought passengers to the core of Europe, but from there, onward travel fell to the individual. A sense, not of disorientation or alarm but blankness crept through the people. Worried about the instability of onward transport and where exactly do you go at 10 pm on a cold March night when outside is in lock-down? The departures board told a familiar story, long lists of cancelled flights offering no alternatives. Utilizing airport Wi-Fi unveiled a thin strand of opportunities with the first flight to London leaving on Monday. Considering how volatile airlines were with grounding their fleet at short notice, I decided to survey other means. The trains could offer a better alternative, and thankfully Eurostar had a service operating the following afternoon. Though expensive, the opportunity was too great and too precious to ignore. With confirmation came comfort and clarity, a way out, and as I looked around the arrivals hall, there was a flurry of activity on smartphones and tablets—each person looking to make their way home.

A very empty Victoria Station in London

A very empty Victoria Station in London

Upon the mezzanine level of the third floor, a series of pop-up beds had been set up to accommodate stranded passengers. Starbucks stayed open throughout the night, though £4.50 for a mid-sized latté and 7 euros for a bap, rivalled Japan or Norway.

As proof that humour and comedy are warmly appreciated in hard times, the energetic staff at Eurostar were singing and dancing behind their counters. As I fed through the last of my baggage into the gaping mouth of an x-ray machine, I heard the familiar lyrics of The Final Countdown by 80’s band Europe. The talented staff switching Countdown for Lock-down which elicited giggles and wry smiles from all the other passengers – 12 in total.

The Belgian landscape was just as empty as the train as it swept between flat open fields, scarred with rhythmic telegraph poles and brown ribbons of a country road. An hour later and I’m back on Terra-firma, descending empty escalators and deserted corridors, guided by white arrows and formidable posters telling me not to travel. I felt terribly guilty and expected confrontation any minute. Stumbling to explain myself to stony-faced police officers or the gathering condemnation of a vigilante mob. But nothing came, every corner yielding to another empty space. Turning onto a metro platform lined with shows and musicals that no one could attend, and into a Victoria-bound carriage with four quiet souls inside. Back up to street level and onto the concourse of Victoria station. Bare, lifeless and wonderfully eerie, as vacant and desolate as if every arriving service was a ghost train. I had earmarked Victoria station as the greatest obstacle in my journey. Expecting a departure board as demoralizing as Brussels, but ahead, flicking over, yellow on black like feeding wasps were panel upon panel of running services. Across the concourse, a guard was regulating the use of the public toilets, one at a time, one in, one out. Suddenly London felt like the gross paradox of Yaoundé, controlled and maintained, imprisoned and imposed, orderly and sedate. Submissive by understanding, to an order that had everybody’s well-being laying at its core.

The scenery swept by, soaked in the glow of a falling sun. Office blocks and warehouses, apartments and back-to-backs, iron railings bordering wide-open parks, lonely footpaths unravelling over the South Downes. I might have jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire, but I knew unreservedly, this was the right decision. Home is its own medicine.