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Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire

By Jinho Yoon, Grade 11
Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire

On the morning of 17 March, four Korean students and I entered the desolate Jolly Grant Airport in Dehradun, India welcomed by the few that worked there with glances of suspicion and disgust. It was 10 a.m., a usually busy time for the airport with no empty chairs and long lines. But these days, almost no one wants to travel, or go outside.

Everyone in sight—from the traveling monk to the lazy security guard—took a role in a bizarre dystopia of expressionless faces labeled blue mask, white mask, or black mask. We observed this trend from Jolly Grant Airport to Singapore Changi Airport to Incheon Airport on our 36-hour trip. Each exhausting hour passed leaving us anxious on the off-chance the chair we sat on or a passerby could be leaving us with unwanted germs carrying COVID-19.

The cohort of Korean students were some of the last to leave our boarding school in India, as most had stayed back for Quarter Break. Following the announcement of the school shutdown, we had to juggle the weighty decision of whether to remain or leave.

Leaving would guarantee we would not be able to return to school regardless of the situation, since foreign visas were suspended until 15 April, provided the situation did not worsen. A subsequent self-quarantine period of two weeks would leave only about a week of school to attend in the remaining semester. Staying back at school was also a gamble, however, with the local outbreak of the swine flu and limited health care.

In hindsight, with the official declaration by the school to close its doors for the remainder of semester, leaving was the right decision. In those moments, though, with the pouring rain and dreadful clouds of Mussoorie, we Korean students were drowned in rumors and uncertainty.

Korea is no safe haven, and we knew that.

Once out of India—a crowded bedlam that was beginning to dip its feet into the coronavirus waters as it confirmed 100 cases—we would land back into trouble in Korea, which as of 21 March had more than 8,700 cases (that figure is now at 10,990).

Out of the frying pan, into the fire.

Once decided, the journey back to Korea was no stroll in the park. No direct flight connected India to coronavirus-rampant Korea, and the students picked a last-resort zigzag route with a layover in Singapore.

On arriving at Delhi Airport, I was confused.

Half of the people at the airport, regardless of whether or not they were employed, were without masks. Those who wore masks had flimsy cheap blue ones, which are not effective and ironically may lead to more hand contact with the wearer’s face. In contrast, in January, at Incheon Airport in Korea, it was impossible to see a soul without a mask.

The women behind the counters lazily glanced at travelers’ papers and worked at a snail’s pace as if to say in sheer irony, “The doctors get all the praise for working amidst COVID-19, yet I’m working dangerously in an airport with little pay and little praise.”

The masks stayed glued onto every passenger even on the airplane. Like an alarm, a cough from someone provoked stares from passengers all around.
Singapore was no safe place, with its own 300 cases, but showed more diligence than Delhi with no person without a mask. A hand sanitizer bottle was stationed at every corner. Some travelers ate in the food court with Armageddon-esque hazmat suits and gloves; others wore the sort of glasses required when conducting a dangerous lab experiment. Nobody gave these people particular attention; maybe they’re hysterical and exaggerating the problem, or maybe they’re more prepared.

After more than 32 hours, we arrived at Incheon Airport to another swarm of masks. Luckily for our growling stomachs and tired legs, there was no special medical check on travelers. We were not even asked to present our duly written health certificates from school. I was so relieved that no more paperwork had to be done. We merely walked out of the building. Then again, maybe that isn’t such a good thing.

I have been back for three days but there seems to be no sense of emergency.
Through my window, I see flocks of people leisurely walking on the streets under the weekend sunlight, everyone wearing masks. I visited the nearby mall anticipating the possibility of immersing myself in a cinematic post-apocalyptic scene from 28 Days Later, yet the mall was crowded as usual… with everyone in masks, of course.

Restaurants continue business as usual. Whether the restaurant workers are there for the passion of cooking or for the need of money is debatable.

It is more apparent when convenience stores have remained open, with college students working at the cash register, unable to risk their minimum wage to preserve their health.

Carry on, no need for panic.

Jinho Yoon is a Grade 11 student at Woodstock School, an international boarding school in Mussoorie, India.

This piece originally appeared in the Woodstock School student newspaper, The Woodstocker.

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07/08/2020 - Ms. Chhikara
Good to know you guys reached home safe!
Well written piece Jinho, hope to read more of your experiences back in Korea.