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Flying Back to Canada During the COVID-19 Pandemic – Panic Spreading in Santiago (Part 1)

Last Sunday afternoon, Feng sent me an email.

“Just a thought… you can stay in Santiago for another couple of weeks if you feel like it. Let me know, I can call Air Canada tonight or tomorrow.”

My return ticket—long gone are the days when you can book a one-way international flight—was for March 19 from Santiago, Chile. I didn’t foresee the pandemic when we planned the trip, it’s just that leaving on March 19 meant I would arrive in Canada on March 20, a day before turning 37.

I call Feng back when I got his email.

“Sure, why not?”

Remember last Sunday? The epicentre of Europe’s coronavirus was in Italy and most neighbouring countries seemed to think “being careful” was enough. First cases were being confirmed all over the world. We had just learned schools would be closed for two weeks following the traditional March Break holiday in Ontario. The USA wasn’t yet an epicentre of the global pandemic and lockdowns were only an option.

The situation was very serious but it hadn’t spiralled out of control yet.

Staying in Santiago didn’t sound like a bad idea. South America was still relatively spared from the virus (most cases had been tracked and imported from Europe or the US), it would be reliably hot and sunny in Chile’s capital until mid-April, plus I know Santiago and it’s a city I’m comfortable in. I could deal with the ongoing protests, I speak Spanish well enough to keep up with the news, and I had some work to keep me busy. Besides, the coronavirus travels with travellers—staying put sounded like an acceptable option.

Feng couldn’t reach Air Canada on Monday. “I’ll try again tomorrow,” he said. “If I get through, do you want me to go ahead and book you on a flight for early April?”

“Sure,” I agreed. “But no later than that. I miss you guys!”

That night, at 3 a.m., I sent him this email: “l’ll call you tomorrow, hold on, don’t change my ticket yet.”

What had happened?

Well, pretty much everything at the same time.

I had started to read French, Canadian and Chilean news every night for updates and I had just learned Chile had entered “risk phase 4.” Fase 4 included closing borders for 15 days and a series of other measures like closing schools and universities.

It wasn’t just in Chile. Most South American countries were closing borders and Peru had gone straight into lockdown with military patrolling the streets.

Border closures didn’t worry me that much since it was clear you could still leave the country. However, if the next step was a curfew or complete lockdown, I was screwed. It would be a logistical nightmare to get groceries, updates, etc. I can live out of my backpack, but I can’t live though a weeks-long lockdown in an Airbnb.

I was also scared Piñera, the President of Chile, would be tempted to kill two birds with one stone—deal with the COVID-19 crisis and go the extra mile to stifle protests.

Shortly after, Canada closed borders to anyone who isn’t a Canadian citizen or a permanent resident. Meanwhile, most airlines started to reduce services and cancelling flights.

Staying in Santiago had seemed like a good idea—24 hours later, it sounded like a very risky move.

“Come home, you don’t want to be stuck in Chile,” Feng wrote.

I called him. “Yep, coming home. I’ll be here… well, Friday, as planned.”

Meanwhile, panic was spreading in Santiago. On Monday, everything was pretty normal but for the fact that “alcohol gel” (hand sanitizer) and “mascarillas” (face marks) were sold out in pharmacies and supermarkets. On Tuesday, “Fase 4” prompted panic-buying. Like in Europe and North America, Chileans started stocking up on pasta, cleaning products and toilet paper. Toilet paper for a shitty situation, but pasta? As far as I know, Chileans aren’t big pasta eaters… I can’t imagine what happened in Argentina where pasta is a staple food!

I started to sleep with the phone under my pillow, like I do when I have to deal with a crisis with my French family. Barely awake, every day, I checked CBC for the latest updates, then my emails, then Le Monde, then various Chilean news websites. Rinse and repeat throughout the day—who know what had happened again, what had been decided at the highest level while I was out.

Powerless, I was still determined to enjoy Santiago. I went out for long walks under the sun—it wasn’t very hard to avoid crowded places, streets were much quieter than usual.

Reading lots of news about COVID-19 and strengthened screening measures at airports triggered new hypochondriac tendencies. I was worried about my throat—it was very dry, probably because my body was adapting to dry heat after months of tropical weather, plus I had been exposed to tear gas. “Do you have a fever?” my mom asked. I toyed with the idea of buying one of the best-sellers of the week from vendors street, a thermometer—it’s pretty hard to do forehead test alone, especially when it’s 30⁰C.

On Wednesday, many small businesses were closed and there were long lineups outside the supermarkets because only a certain number of people were allowed in at the same time. I bought bread, soup and yogurt at the Venezuelan corner store instead and grabbed my Kindle to go to the Quinta Normal Park… but it was closed, and so were most public places. There were many people standing in front of the LATAM Airlines office, probbaly waiting for news since the company had just cancelled 90% of its flights.

It was a weird day. It was a weird week. Hell, it’s a weird year.

I emailed my Airbnb host to let him know I was leaving on Thursday as planned. “I won’t come over to pick up the keys,” he replied. “As for checkout… stay as long as you want.”

Just in case my Italian last name meant “the traveller who brought the plague to Chile,” I emailed back and added that I wasn’t coming from Europe or North America, that I had been travelling in South America for three months. He sounded relieved.

I packed once again, one last time, digging out the clothes I wore when we landed in Lima in December—jeans, t-shirt, hoodie.

Phew, my jeans still fit.

Shit, I need socks too, right?

More digging into my backpack to the sound of the “Journal de France 2,” French TV 8 p.m. news I’ve been playing every night this week on my computer for the latest update.

Air Canada sent me the email I was waiting for—“It’s time to check in online!”

Phew. AC 93 would be here.

I was flying back to Canada with a mix of sadness and relief.

(To be continued…)

Santiago from the top of Cerro Santa Lucía
Santiago from the top of Cerro Santa Lucía
Last picture in Santiago, top of Santa Lucía
Last picture in Santiago, top of Cerro Santa Lucía
Santiago from the top of Cerro Santa Lucía
Santiago from the top of Cerro Santa Lucía

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