Someday, I may appreciate the irony in this situation.
For now, I’m in my fourth hour trapped on the tarmac at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, where officials will not allow so much as a catering truck to bring us water. And an appreciation for irony is elusive.
My flight took off nearly 16 hours ago from Johannesburg, where people were abuzz with the news of the discovery of a coronavirus variant that is spreading in South Africa.
This variant has many mutations, in particular on the spike protein that helps it enter human cells, and is spreading relatively quickly around Johannesburg.
South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases shared what it knew midday on Thursday, and before I even took off, Britain had banned flights from southern Africa. Europe apparently panicked while I was somewhere over the Sahara; by the time we landed, we were told we would not be permitted off the plane.
The irony lies in the fact that I was in South Africa to report on the risk of variants emerging in countries with low vaccination coverage — and on the impressive, multilayered approach South Africa is using to try to protect global public health. I spent time in the labs of the same scientists who, yesterday, made the announcement that has left me hostage with a planeload of strangers while “the authorities” somewhere debate what to do with us.
Everyone on this flight had to show proof of a negative Covid test; most, it seems, are fully vaccinated, as I am. (We’ve all had time to chat.)
The prevailing sentiment among these restive, and thirsty, people is that South Africa is being punished for having some of the world’s most advanced study of infectious disease, a legacy of its battle with H.I.V. — and for being transparent, quickly, about what it learns.
Passengers are reading aloud to each other from news stories that say Europe intends to put us all into mandatory 14-day quarantine, regardless of our vaccination status or test results.
From our windows we can see a flight from Cape Town, also parked out here, stuck in limbo.
For now, I have plenty of time to make my way through the mountain of research that South African scientists shared with me.