When COVID fears almost derailed a trip back home to Toronto

Heathrow Airport, one of the busiest in the world, was literally empty. It was a sight to behold.

March 20 was an unforgettable day for me. I was in India on personal work and debating when to return to my home in Toronto, Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, himself in self-isolation with COVID-19, had asked all Canadians to return home immediately. India had announced it was closing its airports to all international flights from March 22.

Uncertainty was the subject of the day. It looked like I would be stuck and stagnate in Bangalore for an indefinite period. My wife, Geetha, and I were determined to somehow return to Canada as soon as possible. A close friend whispered to me, “I just now received a top secret message from a very strong source in New Delhi. The government will shortly announce a ban on all incoming and outgoing international flights from March 22.” My ticket from Bengaluru to Toronto via Mumbai was on March 21. Yet, there was an element of uncertainty.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi had just urged the country’s 1.3 billion citizens to stay indoors to protect themselves from the fast-spreading coronavirus. The ban on all international flights from landing in the country starting March 22 was formally announced.

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I was originally scheduled to return on April 7 while Geetha was to leave on March 27. A friend helped us to get fresh tickets for March 21 from a travel agent he had known for long. The price was exorbitant, but we had no choice.

We checked the ticket and found that though our flight from Bengaluru to Mumbai was at 9.30 pm on March 21, the connecting flight was at 2.15 am on March 22 from Mumbai to London en route to Toronto. I panicked. “Would we be stuck in Mumbai?” Geetha was  optimistic and said, “Don’t worry, we will go to Mumbai and see what happens.”

Before getting ready to leave, we met another friend who frowned on hearing we were leaving at 9.30 pm. “No, that will be too close. Leave by the earlier flight.” He called the travel agent and forced him to advance the ticket to an earlier flight at 6.30 pm.

The normally bustling Kempegowda International Airport was unbelievably deserted. The person at the airline counter hesitated and after some persuasion gave boarding passes only up to Mumbai. He refused to give boarding passes for the Mumbai-London-Toronto leg. He said all flights would be grounded from the next day. “I will give you up to Mumbai. You try at Mumbai airport to get the boarding passes for your onward journey. Our best wishes to you!”

We also discovered that our original flight at 9.30 pm to Mumbai had been cancelled. We thanked our friend and the stars for advancing our flight to 6.30 pm.

We were tense and confused. “If we get stranded in Mumbai, what will happen? Though we have a few friends in Mumbai, who would take the risk of accommodating us during this time of coronavirus?”

We landed in Mumbai and hunted for the British Airways counter. It was yet to open. Unable to withstand my anxiety, I went looking for someone to talk to about our onward flight. I zeroed in on one official who looked at a digital chart and pronounced the dreaded sentence, “Your flight is cancelled.” I gasped.

Probably, my shocked reaction prompted him to see the chart once again. He said it was actually ‘On Schedule’ and went away, without even apologising for his mistake.

Our counter opened. There were just around 20 people in the line to begin with. “Would the flight take off?” The tension was unbearable. We finally got our boarding passes and we again thanked our luck, ancestors and anyone else we could think of while both of us hugged each other in relief. Our flight was among the last to leave that day.

A huge aircraft, the flight from Mumbai to London was almost full.

Deserted look of the Heathrow airport as international flights were cancelled due to the spread of COVID-19.

We gawked on reaching Heathrow. The airport, one of the busiest in the world, was literally empty! It was a sight to behold.

More than 80 percent of the staff at Heathrow was absent. There were only 12 of us in the line to Toronto. We again worried whether the airline would run an entire aircraft for just the 12 of us. However, to our relief, more people arrived and the line to Toronto got longer. Eventually, when the flight took off to Toronto, the aircraft was full. With no further ado, we reached Toronto.

From the airport, we headed straight home. Our son had exited the house so we could remain in quarantine for 14 days. He had thoughtfully kept all essentials at home. So, as of now, a week has passed with no signs of any infection. We hope to clear the rest of the quarantine too safely. But, occasionally, remembering our trip from Bengaluru to Toronto gives us the shivers. For, the coronavirus almost stranded us far away from home.

(BV Nagaraju is a senior journalist based in Toronto)

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