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Postcard from Bali – travels with a face mask

January 30, 2020

Should we go or should we stay? These were the questions that kept bouncing back and forth within my family since the coronavirus story started to unfold. But we are not in Wuhan, where the consensus seems to be yes, get the hell out of there if you can find the means to do so.

Our dilemma arose because we were due to leave the UK for a holiday in two places fairly close the the epicentre of the virus – Bali, and then Thailand. What would we find when we arrived? The virus had already spread to Thailand, but we weren’t due there for a couple of weeks.

In the days leading up to our departure, I scoured the media for information on the new virus. In one sense, I was in familiar territory. I’d been in the Middle East when swine flu broke out, and I spent a good year glancing nervously at passing camels when it emerged that the MERS outbreak had its origins in a beast best beloved by my Saudi friends.

Before MERS, we had SARS, another coronavirus. Both killed people, but fortunately MERS was less eager to jump from human to human. The new one seems to be up there with SARS in terms of virulence, but less lethal then MERS. What should we call it, by the way? WURS sounds like a cross between a self-fulfilling prophecy and a continental sausage, but nCov2019 doesn’t make the grade as an easily recognisable term.

After much deliberation and a trip to the DIY shop for builders’ masks (it seems that much of the UK has run out of the surgical variety), we decided to go.

We arrived in Bali via Stockholm, Doha, Phuket and Kuala Lumpur. In each stop-off you could judge concern among travellers and authorities over the possibility of exchanging vapour trails with the infected by the number of people wearing face masks.

In Stockholm, very few mask wearers were in evidence, apart from those of Chinese origin who tend to wear them come rain and shine. The mask count got higher in Doha, where we were able to buy a box of 50 from an airport pharmacy just before the next customer hoovered up their remaining stock before staggering off with boxes balancing perilously on each arm.

Phuket was mask city. All the workers and all but a few western passengers were wearing them. That included us, though I felt I was betraying the stiff upper lip by hiding it behind my mask like an ER doctor. It also didn’t help that every time I breathed out my glasses steamed up, which wouldn’t have been useful if I was performing heart surgery.

Kuala Lumpur was similarly masked, though Bali – our final stop – was less so. Either they don’t read the papers in Bali or they’re displaying their usual cheerful fatalism in the face of world annihilation. Perhaps the fact that no cases have yet been reported in Indonesia had something to do with it.

The flights had the usual assortment of coughers and snifflers, of whom the worst was an Indian lady in the row next to us, who suffered a ghastly coughing paroxysm every ten minutes. By the end of the flight I was muttering “into thy hands O Lord I commend myself”. But she was wearing a mask, so one could only hope that whatever toxic exhalations she was producing remained confined to herself.

One of the vaguely reassuring bits of news was that several airports were screening passengers for signs of infection. Not so reassuring was that only in Phuket did we encounter someone who waved a thermometer in our direction. I can only assume that the others had thermal imaging kit that showed you lighting up like a Christmas tree if you had an abnormal temperature.

Since we arrived in Bali we’ve spoken to a few locals about the virus. Most of them have reacted with nervous laughter and told us that no, we don’t have a problem here. The devil inside me thought no, you don’t know you have a problem yet, but the chance of your escaping when Thailand has cases is zero. Only a matter of time, dear friends.

Anyway, our calculation is that in our advanced years we can die of any number of things. The restorative effect of a few weeks of calm in Asia while Britain V-signs its way out of the European Union, Donald Trump lives to fight another day and the people of Syria endure yet more unspeakable catastrophes must surely mitigate the risk of ending up dead in a faraway oxygen tent.

Not that we’re being complacent. We have our face masks, our antiseptic gel and we wash our hands as religiously as Howard Hughes.

If in the meantime Thailand turns into a secondary version of Wuhan, we’re resolved to up sticks and go home. One thought that occurs to me is that while Thailand plays host to a large number of tourists from Wuhan, on previous visits we’ve noticed that Chinese tourists tend to buy package holidays. Because of language difficulties they often seem to stick together rather than interact with the locals. Common sense (rather than any knowledge of epidemiology) would suggest that infections would be more likely to occur within tour groups rather than among the locals. No consolation for the unfortunate people of Wuhan, but potentially good news for the Thais.

But should we turn tail for home, is there any guarantee that we won’t find an equally worrying outbreak back in our home country?

What the hell. Much as Sinophobes are delighted to denounce the people of Wuhan for their predilection for eating exotic animals, this could just as easily have been a flu pandemic, in which case we wouldn’t have anyone to blame. The upside for those of us who survive this virus is that each successive plague – be it flu, coronavirus or haemorrhagic fever, increases our ability to deal with the next one.

More updates on the impact of the virus in this neck of the woods when I have them, assuming I’m still around to tell the tale.

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