During his next vacation, Jason is planning to take part in a triathlon in the United States. The training program he’s put himself on for the past 9 months has been intense, both physically and mentally. Then, just a few weeks before he is due to leave, he hears a rumour that the local airport where he works Expat in West Africa is going to close. Incredulous, Jason chats with the local HES Manager – is the government, really, truly going to close its borders? Through his disbelief, Jason wonders about his colleague who is already en-route to return to work from Trinidad, and even though border closures are unimaginable, the risk is real enough for Jason to instruct him to turn around and go home. It would be a nightmare should his colleague get stuck in transit Tom Hanks style along the way. In the end, however, the rumour turns out to be true; the local airport does in fact close, leaving Jason trapped in West Africa, his colleague stuck at home, and the dream of a triathlon floating up into the sky like a lost balloon.
It’s only a couple of days later that the airport in Trinidad where Jason lives when he’s not working also closes. The approach taken by the Trinidadian government is ruthless: foreigners are totally barred, and even citizens need an exemption to enter. Practically speaking, the strictness of the border closure makes it virtually impossible for those Trinidadians stuck around the world to get home, regardless of whether they are away for vacation, work or any other reason. The process put in place to apply for an exemption to come home is not at all transparent. Applying literally means sending a request to some email address listed on the website of the Ministry of National Security asking for permission to enter. After the email is sent (without any acknowledgement of receipt) there is nothing to do but wait, and then send another email when there is no response. And then send another email. And another… until hopefully, at some point, there is some form of reply.
Trinidadians around the world wait months and months, not knowing when they will get home, many burning through the last of their cash supplies, yet little sympathy is expressed by those safely back in Trinidad. Instead, social media is awash with negative comments from people directing blame on their fellow citizens who have found themselves outside the country during this crisis. All the while, the government sits back doing little to extinguish the flames. It is clear that the rules have been put in place to protect only those Trinidadians fortunate to already be at home, and to hell with those stuck outside. With Trinidad running at almost zero cases, there’s no denying the government’s strict approach is effective, but the lack of empathy towards those stuck outside the country is utterly astonishing.
Jason, although trapped in West Africa, is able to bunker down at work relatively comfortably with 6 fellow Trinidadians who find themselves in the same boat. Their group is tight-knit and the control room where many of them work has become something of a sanctuary. Everyone is prepared to go beyond their usual work duties to ensure the more menial tasks are still done and it’s not uncommon to see superintendents mopping the floors in order to ensure the area is kept sanitized. Jason who holds a key position in the Plant, is unable to take a real break from work until his replacement is brought in to cover him, and given there are no flights in or out of Trinidad, it is clear this won’t be straightforward. Still, these guys can’t work forever, thousands of miles away from their families without becoming fatigued. They have reduced staffing levels to the bare minimum in order to reduce exposure to the virus, which naturally means that the bulk of the work will fall on a very small group of individuals. They are already working long hours, some even doing nightshift for months at a time.
For 6 months, Trinidad’s borders still sealed, this is how the days pass. Their employer is keenly aware that they need to get Jason and the other Trinis home for a rest, and so engage a local lawyer in Trinidad to liaise directly with the Ministry in order to obtain the exemptions needed to allow them to enter their home country. Finally, in late August the exemptions are granted, but before they can leave, they need to get their replacement workers in. The only feasible option is to arrange a private charter flight from Trinidad to a nearby island and then connect from there, all the while ensuring that Trinidadian passport holders are permitted to transit the selected countries. As if these logistics aren’t complicated enough, they also need to obtain COVID-19 test certificates in order to enter West Africa. The certificate must be valid within an extremely tight 48 hour window from the time of arrival – a feat which is practically impossible when the flight already takes 2 whole days.
They manage to arrange the tests and the lab advises that they “should” receive the results within 24 hours. The group of 3 wait at the airport in Trinidad, staring gobsmacked at the tiny six seater plane, so small you can literally touch the back of the pilot’s head, which is waiting to hop them over to Martinique before connecting on a commercial flight to Paris. But there’s a problem, they still don’t have their COVID test certificates. It is Jason, still in West Africa, who acts as coordinator of the entire operation, managing the rising anxiety levels of the 3 guys back in Trinidad, reassuring them that the plane has been vetted and meets standard. He oscillates between calls with the charter pilot, the doctor and the lab asking when they will receive the results – the lab is pushing back, saying they need to allow 48 hours for results rather than the promised 24. Then the charter pilot warns that they only have one hour left before they absolutely need to depart – the plane must be back to home base before curfew. The pilots are not allowed to enter Trinidad so they too are stuck for almost 7 hours in that tiny plane which doesn’t even have a bathroom.
Travel logistics might not fall within Jason’s position description, but nor is it within the pilot’s to personally follow up on COVID test certificates. It’s past 11pm West Africa time and Jason is on the phone yet again with the pilot, listening as the pilot attempts to “sweet talk” the lab assistant Vicky, with whom he is now apparently on a first name basis – “Vicky… baby… darling? We need those results!” Two out of the three negative test results arrive minutes before the drop-dead take-off time, but it is too late. Their luggage was pulled from the plane 15 minutes beforehand and believing that the flight was already cancelled the group has left the airport. It will be another week before they can try again. Jason breaks the news to the Trinis waiting hopefully in West Africa, watching as their expectant faces crumple, his announcement dropping like lead.
A week later, the flight successful, their replacements have arrived and Jason and the remaining group are able to travel home. The charter is organized with minimal stopovers in order to reduce the potential for exposure and they fly from Paris to St Maarten, where they layover for a few days waiting for their charter. The charter plane although larger than a six-seater resembles nothing more than a flying tube. The group take their seats, hunched slightly forward, just about able to touch the window on the opposite side. They are all simply elated when they finally touchdown albeit covertly in Trinidad. They don’t share their arrival on social media not wanting to draw attention to themselves or invite questions as to how they got in. Stepping onto the tarmac, they are directed to a bus completely devoid of air conditioning where they wait for two hours, sweltering, with no idea what is going on and without access to a bathroom. In the end, an official takes pity on them and supplies them with water and snacks, before they are finally taken to quarantine accommodation where they must remain for 7 days.
At the hotel they are met by figures in hazmat suits who spray their luggage with disinfectant. Jason is instructed to lift each foot so that they can spray the soles of his shoes. Their group is housed in adjacent rooms along a corridor, each fitted out with 1980’s décor. They still act as a family and order meals jointly for delivery, yelling their sushi orders to each other across the common courtyard. Jason’s wife brings him packages which she leaves on a table in the courtyard before backing away so he can collect. He is surprised when the 7 days are up and he walks through his front door, his house transformed into a kind of indoor jungle – there are plants everywhere, some living on the bookshelf, even in the bedroom. His wife has found a new way to bring the outdoors inside during lockdown.
Trinidad is hit by a second wave in April 2021, and a State of Emergency is declared resulting in a hard lockdown – the only places permitted to open are supermarkets and pharmacies and a curfew is instituted. Jason himself loses close family members to the virus – his aunt is admitted to hospital, soon transferred to the high dependency unit, then to ICU and finally placed on a ventilator until she passes away. Rollout of the vaccine is yet another debacle, although like many countries eligibility is determined by age, scheduling is done based on a range of surnames creating chaos at vaccination centres. There has at least been some progress with repatriation flights to get stranded people home and these fly out on a weekly schedule, which means there is now some certainty for Jason’s work rotation.
483 days later Trinidad’s borders finally re-open. Jason boards the flight now direct to Miami airport, collects his baggage and is greeted at Arrivals by placards proclaiming PFIZER and JOHNSON & JOHNSON in bold letters. Intrigued yet sceptical, he follows the signs for J&J, his suitcase trailing behind. Amazingly, the medic confirms the vaccine is being offered to anyone. Jason holds out his arm, receives the jab and after waiting 15 minutes is free to go.
No one knows how long this thing will be around. Maybe another 2 years, maybe another 3. Maybe even another 4. Still, Jason has re-registered for the triathlon in 2022, just in case.