I am a Canadian who works as a journalist in Canada and Mexico. On Sunday, March 29, I flew into Toronto’s Pearson International Airport from Mexico City on Air Canada, fully expecting a rigorous response on the part of the airline, my government, and my fellow travellers, to the threat of COVID-19.
Boy, was I wrong.
The first worrying sign was when lining up to check-in at Benito Juárez Airport in Mexico City. Two metres of social distancing might have been impractical – the line would have extended to who-knows-where – but to stand aside at one metre seemed reasonable. I did that.
“Hey, can you move it forward?” said a man behind me. He was among a cluster of six travelling Canadians. No masks. They were all in a pretty good mood.
I mentioned that I was trying at the very least to keep it to one arm’s length. He accepted that I wasn’t going to move forward, but didn’t pull back.
As the line snaked toward the check-in counter we all ended up bunched together, as if it were any other flight. I did my best to stand aside, coming in to nudge my luggage forward when necessary.
Before going through security, a Mexican official took my temperature. This was no casual effort. I stopped, and he put the temperature sensor directly at my forehead for some seconds.
Sadly, once I got to the departure lounge I was again in an alternate universe. The lounge was, understandably, almost empty. I took a seat. An elderly Canadian couple, no masks, sat directly opposite me, our knees almost touching. They were yakking about something inconsequential.
I moved, and from a distance watched as the passengers did what passengers do all over the world, though presumably not during a global pandemic: they stood in a crowd waiting for their zone to be announced. This, in a near-empty departure lounge.
"There was no instruction to depart from the plane one at a time, in an orderly matter. Instead, people stood up, bunched closed together. They reached over each other to get their bags from the overhead compartments."
I waited until my zone was almost boarded, and then rose to get on the plane. There was limited staggering. I was jammed on a gangplank with a small crowd, trying to keep my distance.
On the plane, it was the usual melee of people looking for overhead bins, falling over each other to get into their seats. I estimate that at most one third of the passengers had masks.
According to the CBC, Canadian airlines are now required to provide gloves, masks, wipes and sanitizer to employees. However, on my flight it appeared as though these workers may have been left to their own devices, given that each flight attendant had a different mask.
One attendant, in her second trimester, was wearing a paper mask identical to one I had purchased at a Mexican pharmacy. I was horrified. What on earth was a pregnant woman doing working an international flight with a flimsy mask and a plane full of non-compliant, potentially infectious passengers?
There was no in-flight service. Instead, we were handed little bottles of water, which I wiped down. I did not see one passenger – not one – using personalized hand sanitizer. I didn’t smell any, either.
Upon arrival, the attendants made an announcement in French, English and Spanish. This was not a recorded announcement, and could easily have been updated daily. In the announcement, passengers were told to report symptoms upon arrival, and also to inform authorities if they had been to China in the past two weeks.
That’s right. China. Just China. On March 29, months into a global pandemic where Europe is on its knees, and the United States has the highest infection rate in the world.
When we got to the gate and the seatbelt sign went off there was the usual scramble. I sat and watched, dumbstruck.
There was no instruction to depart from the plane one at a time, in an orderly matter. Instead, people stood up, bunched closed together. They reached over each other to get their bags from the overhead compartments.
Meanwhile, the flight crew hid at either end of the plane.
At this stage I was more stunned than panic-stricken. I simply couldn’t believe my eyes. I was feeling reassured, however, knowing that the Canadian government had now put strict measures in place for a 14-day quarantine.
In fact, I was looking forward to being read the riot act, knowing that my fellow travellers, any one of whom could be a super-spreader capable of killing dozens, and many of whom appeared to be unaware of the seriousness of the situation, would get a strict talking-to from government officials.
No such luck.
I was given a piece of paper as I exited a moving walkway, advising me of my mandatory self-isolation. I noticed that those passengers who were not on the walkway, or who were driven in a cart, were not given the sheets.
Why? Because there were only two people handing out the sheets, and they couldn’t cover off all the passengers.
I have a Nexus card, which allows me to pass through customs faster. It’s possible that other individuals were subject to at least some questioning.
But I can tell you this: no one took my address and contact information, as I was expecting. As well, judging by the speed that people were getting through, I’m confident that my fellow passengers were also not having their addresses, contact information and quarantine plans assessed.
I didn’t have my temperature taken upon arrival. I was wondering if I somehow missed it. What the hell was going on?
Pearson International Airport is a ghost town. There are plenty of personnel to conduct this very simple procedure. The Mexican authorities took my temperature; in fact, I had my temperature taken on a domestic flight within Mexico.
However, no foreign authority should be relied upon. Canada needs to temperature test all arriving passengers. This simple procedure should have been in place weeks ago. The fact that temperature testing is not a mandatory occurrence for international arrivals at this stage of a global pandemic is jaw-dropping.
Every moment is an opportunity lost, and an unacceptable risk to Canadians. The Canadian government, at the critical juncture when people are coming home, has the opportunity – and the responsibility – to impress upon them the importance of the 14-day quarantine. The assertion of the legal requirements would be a powerful detriment to a cohort of Canadians that, as my own eyes can attest, are not behaving in a manner that would suggest an understanding of the seriousness of the situation.
The result of the slack approach, I can guarantee, is that more Canadians will be put at risk. Some will get sick, or even die.
I was quite confident that I didn’t have COVID-19 upon boarding my flight in Mexico City, having been in self-isolation for two weeks previous
Now, thanks to the inaction on the part of Air Canada, my government and my fellow Canadians, I’m not so sure.