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The Perils of Pandemic Travel

The Perils of Pandemic Travel



When I received an invitation to cover the just-concluded sixth European Union – African Union summit in Brussels, a series of long winding tales on pandemic-travel travails I’d read over the last many months played out in my mind. I knew there would be the usual hustle for visas and all – luckily the hosts went all out to ensure these went smoothly, but the real crux of the matter for me remained navigating airports and flights, unsure of what the expected public health protocols and other COVID-19 bureaucracies would look like. The palpable uncertainty notwithstanding, I knew that as an experienced pre-COVID traveller, I’d make things work somehow. Or would I?


For starters, I checked in online 30 hours before take-off in a bid to give myself an airport-queue head start. Seeking some extra comfort, I went on to pay a little extra fee to reserve a seat in ‘Premium Economy’ (You know that part of the plane where seats have some extra legroom? Yes, that one). And staying true to the travel-light maxim, my check-in suitcase weighed 17.6kgs, way below the assigned weight. Other than that I kept with me a laptop bag; no belts, no jewellery and bulky lace-up shoes. 


And yet it took me two and a half hours from the immigration desk at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) to the boarding gate!


The first queue was outside terminal 1A, not your usual passport and flight verification stop but the first COVID health inspection. “Check your emails for Panabios!” shouted an airport official. The strange email that had sneaked into my inbox and gone unchecked finally made sense. Through the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (ACDCP), the African Union uses African-built AI technology to verify a traveller’s COVID-19 certificate. Once tested for the virus at an approved laboratory, travellers receive an automatically-generated email with a reliable and verifiable travel clearance code, which can be used internationally. 


As soon as I was done with the first security check, I had to go through a booth where travellers’ documents were being scrutinised before they were allowed into check-in counters. What’s your final destination? Brussels What takes you to Brussels? I’m a journalist. I’ll be covering the EU-AU summit. Why are you going through Paris? My sponsor organisation is Paris-based. Have you been fully vaccinated? Yes. Here’s my certificate. Did you take a COVID test? Yes. Here’s my COVID-19 result certificate.



Do you have a return ticket? Yes. Here’s my travel itinerary. Are you connecting via another flight? No. I’m taking the train to Brussels. Have you converted your vaccine certificate for France? Yes. Here is the code. Have you converted it for Belgium? Yes. I have the certificate on this app. Where is your Passenger Locator Form (PLF) for Belgium? My what…? I’d imagined I’d covered all my bases, but here I was, being sent to the sidelines to fill up the Passenger Locator Form which I’d just learnt about. 


What You Need To Know


To navigate this COVID-19 stirred world, passengers are advised to be on the lookout for new health regulations being enforced by their destination country. Even though I was travelling within the Schengen area, it was apparent that each EU country had its own fair share of COVID regulations, which weren’t static. This fluidity of regulations makes staying up-to-date a headache for international travellers, considering even EU citizens – some of whom I interacted with – are struggling to move freely within the 28-state conglomerate, needing comprehensive guides to help them navigate. 


To Travel or Not To Travel?


Kama usafiri hi hivi, ni heri tukae nyumbani,” murmurs Victor, a Tanzanian colleague travelling to cover the summit. A radio journalist with Radio France International (RFI), Victor is flustered by the additional requirement for a Passenger Locator Form. He shuffles dozens of documents in search of details needed to fill up the PLF: 


      • Personal data (name, age, gender) 
      • Airline, Bus or Train line
      • Seat number 
      • Home address
      • Vaccine certificate details
      • COVID-19 test certificate
      • Your previous consecutive stay for 14 days 
      • Address at your final destination

By the time Victor and I are done with the PLF, queues have snaked out of the two booths across the hallway, from where we came from. It’s another one and a half hours before we are done with the rest of the security checks and arrive at our boarding gate. 


Not Everyone Gets So Lucky


Despite the many hoops that we’ve had to jump through during the trip to Brussels, we’re lucky that as journalists travelling on the invitation of an international organisation, our visas, COVID tests and transit costs have all been covered by our host newsroom. 


Not everyone gets this sort of support. 


“Most Africans don’t travel for leisure. We mostly travel to pursue higher education, for health reasons or for work,” Zahra, a journalist with Uganda’s national broadcaster tells me when we meet in Brussels. “When you’re travelling for these reasons, you’ve already drained your pockets. The additional COVID requirements then become a burden.” 


I ask Zahra about her experience travelling from Entebbe via Amsterdam, Paris and finally to Brussels. “Surprisingly, it was more hectic in Entebbe. The officials at the airport had some information gaps. One official told me I couldn’t board my flight because I needed to take a new PCR test at the airport,’’ she says. ‘‘His supervisor had to explain to him that the test I had taken a day earlier was enough. Then there’s the technology barriers for Africans. I saw many stranded passengers who did not have a phone with the QR code needed to verify their vaccine certificate.” 


Africa’s Bigger Brunt 


Other African journalists slowly chime into the conversation. The shared observation with my interlocutors is that COVID-19 travel rules are slowly creating a wider divide between Africa and the rest of the world. Although migration is on the agenda for African leaders when they finally meet their European counterparts in Brussels, the more pressing issues in Africa’s in-tray take centre stage. Local vaccine production and distribution, security matters against the backdrop of numerous military coups and the big agenda; money! The question of vaccine passports is barely mentioned.


I had three PCR tests to take before the end of the summit. And after wrapping up at the summit, I took the train back to Paris before boarding my return flight to Nairobi. “Give yourself at least three hours at Charles De Gaulle airport,” Khalid, a Moroccan journalist warns me as we prepare to leave Brussels. I take a quick look into my backpack. The blue file housing my travel documents is still intact. This is the new reality, more so while travelling while Black.



  • Asha Ahmed Mwilu

    Asha Ahmed Mwilu has spent more than a decade weaving intricate stories of people and their relationship to power through reportage, investigations and documentary filmmaking. Some of her most notable work include her reporting on Al-Shabaab’s terror grip on East Africa, Nelson Mandela’s final days and death, official corruption in Kenya, the struggles of Kenyan workers in the Middle East and extrajudicial killings in Kenya’s urban towns. For her reporting on Al Shabaab activities at the Kenya-Somalia border, Asha was awarded the 2016 CNN Multichoice African journalist of the Year. A 2015 Chevening scholar, she received the Head of State’s Mzalendo Award for her COVID-19 reporting inside public hospital wards. To cleanse herself of all the heavy subjects, Asha collects records, paints and is a new bird watcher.

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