Flying Back from India made me Scared Sh**less of COVID

A family health emergency took me to India in the middle of the pandemic. I wasn’t prepared to see what I did both in India and back in the US.

The trip crept up on me somewhat unexpectedly. After days of agonizing over “Should I travel? Should I not?”, I caved in. Googling out travel procedures turned out to be unhelpful. Indian government COVID websites are a mess. India is a union of independent states. The central government, like the US federal government, has decided to delegate to each state implementation of COVID response and protocols. So each state has its own COVID travel advisory website, often confusing and poorly implemented. After spending time in that mess of websites, I posted this plea on Twitter.

I didn’t get that many helpful responses, and why I am taking the time to write this even if it’s going to become outdated any day now. I got a COVID test in the US, booked my ticket, and focused on family matters. The COVID test in the US (administered by my provider Kaiser) was not easy to schedule. Once scheduled you have to drive there or have someone drive you there for drive-through testing. Uber and other rideshares are not permitted. I kept wondering how inaccessible this is for people without means.

Armed with a negative result (2-day turnaround), I went to SFO. I was made to download and install a contact tracing app built for the Indian government before I boarded the plane. My trip was SFO -> DEL (first port of entry) -> BLR (my final destination). Delhi requires a negative result within 72 hours of arrival or you go to a makeshift camp in the airport where testing happens en masse. Since my results didn’t fall in the 72-hour window, I was shepherded to the camp where I got an RT-PCR test on the spot and waited for my results to arrive.

I was allowed to proceed with my transfer to BLR only after a negative result confirmation (If you test positive, you are transferred to a gov. medical facility directly from the airport), with an expectation that you will self-quarantine at home for 14 days. That was not a problem for me. After my quarantine, I went out for errands, and let me tell you one thing — mask usage in India is spotty. In big cities, you can get fined for not wearing masks. So folks wear it perfunctorily just covering their mouth, as chin diapers, or carry around as talismans around their necks. And don’t get me started on lack of social distancing. I just think Indians are incapable of imagining personal space, in general. I had to learn it myself when I emigrated out of the country.  There is a lot of theatre around COVID safety in India, but there are few things they seem doing right:

1. The entry procedure is tight and testing is mandatory.
2. Local flight hygiene is remarkably good. Disposable gowns, masks, face shields are mandatory and provided by the airline at the gate before boarding.
3. There is some attempt to do contact tracing, even if it’s not perfect.
4. Testing is widely available and cheap (RT-PCR cost me 800 INR in Bangalore; that’s around $11)

In other words, tight border control and easy/cheap access to testing seem to make up for poor mask discipline and lack of social distancing.

If you really want to understand the kind of sh*tshow US COVID response is, you should fly back home internationally. Before leaving India, I tried looking for any travel advisory and I couldn’t find anything concrete. So I called United and to my surprise, they said there is no testing needed nor any other procedure. I decided not to trust the call center person and got tested the day before flying. My return flight was BLR -> DEL -> SFO. The Bangalore to Delhi part was with disposable gowns, masks, face shields all provided by the local airline. No such thing with the Delhi to SFO leg of the trip. One tip: If you are flying business class, you will find business class lounges open in Indian airports. Don’t use them! You’re better off waiting in open spaces than sit in comfy seats in closed spaces.

When I landed in SFO, the procedure was no different from non-COVID years. The officer was more interested in knowing if I had packed sweets and spices from India than seeing my negative COVID result. As I left the immigration area, there was no advice on quarantine. My partner picked me up at the airport and we both plan to quarantine for 14 days (we got supplies before I arrived).

As of this writing, the JHU COVID tracker lists around 10 and 20 million cases in India and the US respectively.

These absolute numbers are misleading. If you normalize by the population counts that’s 0.1% and 6.7% for India and the US. In other words, historically we are 10x worse.

The thing about being steeped in drama all the time (as with the current administration), is you stop being sensitive to what’s happening. Before traveling to India, I was taking a lot of precautions but I still assumed our institutions will step in and do the right things when the apocalypse strikes. I’m highly unsure of that today. If there is any takeaway from my border re-entry story, it is that we cannot rely on our institutions to do the right things. We all should be scared shitless of COVID and take it upon ourselves to research and do the right things. Many folks (like Balaji Srinivasan for example) in the Valley have been saying this since last December and getting criticized for it, and I accepted it intellectually. But to actually experience the incompetence has made me embody that advice. I wish you all a very safe 2021.

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