I flew into Covid-19’s reality on the wings of apocalyptic fiction
On a flight destined for a changed world, my journey conjures images of Miranda and the Georgia Flu in ‘Station Eleven’
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January 24: Coronavirus: China to build new hospital within 10 days - Punch NG
Beyond momentary nervousness during turbulence, I have no real fear of flying. And yet I move through airports without cheer. Mostly I’m wary. Of the officials in Lagos whose questions imply that I might be a sex worker, or the security guard in Frankfurt who runs her fingers through my braided hair, of the immigration officer in Nairobi who insists I open my luggage after I’ve left baggage claim at 3am. Since encounters in them often feel preternaturally laced with the possibility of escalation, I arrive in airports primed for departure, eager for a journey to end or begin.
In Lagos, I have found a spot from which I can bear witness to the improbable certainty of flight. As I watch planes take off and land tonight, I think about the last plane to land in Severn City Airport as the Georgia Flu spreads across the world in Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven. In the novel, at first all seems normal as Air Gradia 453 makes its approach, lands without incident, then taxis to a stop. From Concourse B, stranded passengers watch this plane move as far from the terminal building as it can go. No ground crew goes to meet the aircraft, the cabin doors are not opened, and the passengers will never disembark. The reader is never allowed on board Air Gradia 452. Stuck in Concourse B with the stranded passengers, we stare through glass panes at the aircraft, transfixed. But soon, haunted by imagination to a degree we might never have been by knowledge or memory, we look away.
A few days ago, I watched a video of ongoing construction at the Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan. And now as I walk into the jet bridge, I wonder how long it took for passengers to disembark from the last plane that landed in Wuhan before the city was locked down. It doesn’t occur to me as I watch Lagos recede into darkness, that a lockdown might happen here.
28: First Case of Corona Virus Disease Confirmed in Nigeria - NCDC
29: Coronavirus: Latest patient was first to be infected in UK - BBC
In Station Eleven, Miranda comes to terms with the Georgia Flu while she’s on a trip to Malaysia. Up till this point she’s considered the disease a distant, shadowy threat. The health crisis is elsewhere, over there in Georgia and Russia, too far removed to have material relevance. Like Miranda, as Covid-19 rages across through China and arrives in Europe, I remain consumed with the immediate dramas of my own life; ever-looming deadlines, the storms that rattle the UK almost every weekend, the euphoria of returning to my alma mater as a fellow. Covid-19 is elsewhere, in Wuhan then Daegu. But ailments we’ve assumed were over there have been moving next door for centuries, arriving on horseback and in boats. Travelling through trade routes and returning with religious pilgrims. More recently, ensconced in Boeings and Airbuses, germs have sped across the globe as true international citizens undeterred by visa requirements. And still the illusion of distance persists – uneroded by technology that has enabled us to shrink thousands of miles to a negligible point and in defiance of historical evidence – until what was over there arrives here.
As I go from one news site to the other, I feel like a fairy tale character who has just woken up from a year-long dream.
In the university library, notices advise anyone who has travelled to the UK from mainland China, Thailand, Japan, Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia or Macau in the past 14 days and is experiencing cough or fever or shortness of breath, to stay indoors and call NHS 111, even if symptoms are mild.
5: Coronavirus: first UK death confirmed as cases surge to 116 - Guardian UK
18: Coronavirus: Nigeria places travel ban on US, China, others - Guardian NG
21: Nigeria closes all of Airports to International Flights - Guardian NG
23: Nigeria closes all land borders over coronavirus - Guardian NG
I sing Happy Birthday while I wash my hands.
Again, C suggests that a Skype check-in would be better than meeting up for lunch as planned and I decide to catch up with the news. For at least a week I’ve been too concerned about deadlines to do anything online besides checking e-mails and now as I go from one news site to the other, I feel like a fairy tale character who has just woken up from a year-long dream. I abandon my schedule and spend the day refreshing live blogs, trying to comprehend the unfolding catastrophe.
All the stores in Norwich seem to have run out of antibacterial wipes. I stop writing in the university library. I stop taking the bus. I wash and wash my hands in scalding water while I sing Happy Birthday joylessly. I call Lagos and Antananarivo to dispense unsolicited and unnecessary advice about sanitisers, advocate proper decontamination of inflight tray tables, and get into protracted disagreements about face masks. Eventually, my exasperated sister reminds me that she is the one who earned a medical degree. My lover reassures me that he is being careful. Meanwhile, I attend a reading and hug old acquaintances, worried about seeming rude or standoffish. As I wander through the city centre after, I justify the hugs to myself; there were no cases in Norwich yet, no cases in Norfolk even. In Tesco, the toilet roll shelf is empty.
And then I have about 48 hours to get on a plane before Nigeria stops allowing flights from the UK to land on its soil. It’s six weeks before I’m due to leave Norwich. I spend 24 hours trying to change my ticket and suppress thoughts about Miranda’s fate in Station Eleven when airports close before she’s able to get on a flight back to North America.
An air host goes from seat to seat in my cabin, crouching beside passengers and asking them how they’re feeling. I’m terrified that he might lean too close, so I wave him down the aisle, surprised that I don’t worry about seeming rude or impolite. When the captain tells us we’re minutes away from commencing our final descent, I read Nigeria’s new instructions for returning travellers again. I fall into the category of those who are to self-isolate. And though my lover will be waiting to pick me up from the airport, already my sister has sent reminders about social distancing, including a text that instructs me to handle all luggage without his assistance. We won’t be sharing giddy hugs in front of the terminal building this time.
As the plane begins its approach, I think about the stranded passengers at Severn City Airport, those men and women who, even though they did not know it yet, had entered a changed world when they stepped onto the jet bridge.
Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ is the author of Stay with Me, which won the 9mobile Prize for Literature and was shortlisted for the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction, the Kwani? Manuscript Prize, and the Wellcome Book Prize.