When Covid-19 thunderbolted into the Netherlands in late February, international students were left especially vulnerable as most of us had to scramble home within mere hours or risk being stuck in Rotterdam indefinitely and with no sight of our fate. While cases seemed to have plateaued off for a while, we are now seeing a resurgence in infections and a familiar sense of foreboding that we might have to return home again, at least for those of us who stayed in Rotterdam or managed to get back here. In this edition of Estimator, we revisit the early mayhem of the first coronavirus wave and what it is like to cross European borders with Covid-19 regulations in place.
The initial chaos
When news broke out in March that education will take place online for at least two weeks due to Covid-19, many international students made the decision to leave the Netherlands and go back to their home country. There are also quite a few people that stayed, hopeful that the situation will only last two weeks. For me at least, two weeks is quite long compared to the short breaks we usually get in between the blocks. My parents decided that it was best for me to come home to Qatar, which is where they currently live. On a different note, as far back as January itself, I had already decided to go back home at the end of the fourth block, but since I now had to fly back earlier, I changed it to March instead. I was supposed to leave on Tuesday afternoon. My mom wanted me to come back as soon as possible, since Qatar was to close their borders by Thursday for at least two weeks. People could not come in, but they could leave as they wished. I booked the flight the day before Monday morning. The whole afternoon, I was busy packing and informing some friends that I was going to leave for at least two weeks. Unfortunately Monday evening arrived and because the number of Covid cases jumped from 4 to 40 in just the span of one day, the border closed completely. I had friends who flew back and denied entry upon arrival in Qatar and had to either go back to their departure destination or travel elsewhere.
Approval of my entry
Hence I ended up spending most of my quarantine days “stuck” in Rotterdam. It wasn’t half bad, but I really missed my family. Months passed, until I received news in early July that Qatar would start reopening the border. For non-citizens, we could apply for an entry permit from the first of August. The process was not so bad, since the Netherlands at the time was still considered a low-risk country. As the days passed, I kept seeing stories on Snapchat of people in my old high school flying back one by one. I got super anxious as to why I had not received my entry permit yet. The seventh of August 7th rolled around. Around 11am, I got an email saying that my entry had been approved. I got so excited that all my documents were approved. I wanted to go back the same day, but seeing that the flight was around 14:00 and I still needed to pack and go to Schiphol, I knew I couldn’t leave the same day. Hence I decided to fly the next day. That day was quite busy as you can imagine, from packing to printing documents, and just making sure I was prepared for the day of travel.
The next day I travelled to Schipol. I brought a few face masks in a ziplock bag, some being reusable masks and some disposable because it can get quite stuffy wearing the same one for a prolonged period of time. I also brought a small hand sanitizer. I arrived at the airport quite early just because I was excited to go home. On top of that, since I recently renewed my passport, I was afraid it would cause some problems. I brought both my expired and renewed passport just in case it was necessary. Well, it was definitely needed and I was almost denied to fly because of the document and got held up at the baggage drop because my documents were considered “invalid.” My residence permit to Qatar was tied to my old passport, but because I couldn’t go home, my passport expired and so I could not update my new passport in the residence permit. I remember exactly when I was told I cannot go home because my documents were “invalid,” I really was about to break down because it seemed so insignificant that I couldn’t renew any of my documents because I was abroad in the Netherlands and unfortunately it was not within my control. I was told that they had to contact the relevant authorities first, even though I assured them that from the information stated in the travel restrictions that it was fine to fly with the expired documents because they were abroad. I waited for two hours until I was finally allowed to drop my baggage, received my ticket and could board the flight.
A very empty Schiphol. Usually during this time of the year, the airport is super crowded
With my ticket, I also received a face shield that I had to wear inside the plane at all times until I reached my final destination, which was my home in Doha. In the airport, you can find the “keep your distance at 1.5m at all times” sign almost everywhere. It was definitely not as busy as Schiphol usually is. The seats were also marked such that there is at least one empty seat in between. Inside the plane, seats were also marked similarly with an empty seat in between.
I had very few hours of sleep the day before. The whole fiasco wore me out, but I was finally boarding and couldn't wait to sleep (I slept the whole ride and woke up only to eat while watching an episode of Friends!)
Arriving in Qatar
Before the days of corona, the arrival process was actually quite simple. Go through the immigration process, get your baggage and you are done. However, with the new corona restrictions, things are a little different. The government introduced an app for all visitors and residents to use as a way to keep track of our location. Afterwards, we had to go through a swab test. After completing the swab test, the app will indicate that you have to go through quarantine. The process took almost 2.5 hours. By the time I got through immigration, my luggage was already set aside. I went on a home quarantine and then after 1 week, I took another swab test. This is probably the only “test” that I would like to get negative results in. Luckily, for both I got negative results. The app then updated such that I was no longer in quarantine. I talked about the app quite a lot in this section. This is because in order to get to places around Qatar, I have to show that I do not have any positive results and I am not under quarantine. The essence of the app is in a way to help the citizens. For example, if one person has tested positive, the government can track where they have been for the past week and also notify the people around to get tested.
Though my case travelling outside of Europe might be very different than others who travelled during the same period, I thought it was quite interesting to share. Stay at home and stay safe! We will get through this together (not physically) !