Notwithstanding the fact that it could have been done much earlier, it is still commendable on the part of the Government of Sri Lanka to recently approve a limited number (50) of overseas workers to return in every Srilankan Airlines Cargo flight. Sri Lankan Foreign Missions and the Expatriate Associations in the Middle Eastern countries had relentlessly pursued the Government for approval. Even though it is only for those who pay to be quarantined in hotels, it significantly reduces the pressure on queued up demand to facilitate special repatriation flights.
Having worked in the Middle East for the last 30 years earning much required FOREX for my motherland, I too had to retire from my last post in Dubai and needed to get back home before the mandated exit date. In this context I was able to secure a seat in one of the cargo flights. With me in that flight were also the pregnant, the old, families with little children and some who needed wheelchair assistance and not everyone was after the gym training. As usual the Srilankan Airlines did not fail us from the check in at Dubai to the touchdown at the Bandaranaike International Airport. It was another great flight with the ever smiling cabin crew looking after us to their best, operating under pandemic regulations.
It was long since I departed Sri Lanka first and wanted to feel the warmth of home upon my return and to silently kiss its hallowed ground to say I too had proudly and painfully fought in the economic war for the country. Even having accepted that there could be delays on ground, my heart was expecting to be treated with respect as it was in the air. Sadly, it did not take much time to realise that I may have been treading in fool’s paradise before the metaphorical ‘ground reality’ hit me.
Doors opened and we descended the stairway to board a bus instead of the usual aerobridge to the pier. From this point onwards we were directed by people clad in white overalls, kitted with Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) assuring total readiness to deter any biological threat and we did not know whether they were from Airport and Aviation, Sri Lankan Airlines, Health Ministry or from Sri Lankan Military forces. Ideally, they could have had a tag to indicate who they are, nevertheless I realised they needed to be in full gear and we just needed to obey their commands with the gullibility we are known for.
Limiting the number of passengers was to ensure distancing and mitigate any contamination, but it all seemed nonsensical from the way the bus was loaded with passengers standing shoulder to shoulder defying advocated protocols and may be in hindsight acknowledging that we were already PCR negative before we boarded.
There was a sSort bus ride to the ground floor boarding gate closest to the main terminal building. I called this the staging area 1 where there were about 60 chairs, few packs of water bottles on a table were meant for us. There were two single (female/male) washrooms in this section, to be used by one passenger at a time. The solitary Bio person manning the area announced that there will be no washrooms after this point, and up to which point had to be a guess.
The clock was ticking. We had landed at 5.15 am and it was about 5.45 when I overheard the guy next to me calling someone impatiently in an “Indglish” accent to ‘do something’. Before it struck 6.00 the Bio man shouted, ‘Are there any IPL Cricketers, please come’ and the two Indian guys disappeared out of the door. We looked at each other and speculated they were to be part of the on-going Lanka Premier League (LPL) and it was of great importance to the country to whisk them away. We have always been good to foreigners before our own. Before I could snooze, someone whispered sleepily with inside information that they are still clearing the earlier flight from Qatar. While the children cried and sick tried to manage their pain, around 7.00 am we were shouted marching orders to walk to a nearby cargo handling building, which I call the staging area 2.
As we walked in, there were many of them Bio Warriors barking orders without any respect whether we were Economic Warriors or not, it did not matter to them, they simply carried out their battle plans. We were made to sit in rows of plastic chairs set closer than close. Whilst I looked at it from a higher standard, I accept that our first line of defence had done their best to establish a makeshift arrangement with the limited resources at their disposal. We were in for a long game and there was no way to know when the next command to fall in line. It was not possible to take a snooze either with the deafening cargo tractors driven to win F1 pole positions, business as usual for Cargo Operations but a risk to unassuming passengers.
Time kept making us older and it was about 9.00 when we were called into the disinfection channel, 30 meters straight ahead to be sprayed. Next, to leave the bags in a stacked row of baggage trolleys, it took some effort to push the bags through the tight space. This is not well planned. Instead of the trolleys, they could keep numbered cardboard boxes or numbered painted squares on the floor, easy to store and to retrieve. It has nothing to do with limited resources, but all to do with common sense.
Having wasted 4 hours from the landing I was now close to the much sought-after PCR process, yet it appeared far when I was to sit again in another line of chairs. This was when I figured out why it took so long to process 50 passengers. There was ONLY ONE registration desk manned by two Blue cladded Bio people from a private hospital. First person would collect Rs. 8,000 for the PCR test. Some passengers had no idea of the amount and the payment methods. One can pay in Sri Lanka Rupees, Foreign Currency or in Credit Cards. It leads to delays if people oblivious to these details would think long to decide. Once the payment receipt is issued the next Blue person will check the passport and register, write a sticker to be pasted on the test container. Move to the next section where another Blue person will insert swabs into the throat and both nostrils. Compared to multiple PCRs in Dubai, this was more invasive and painful. I had seen little ones and old people struggle. I am no health specialist to judge, this may be a better and a deeper probe.
I was done with the PCR around 11.00 and moved to another area I call the “graduation hall” where we waited for our batch to complete their examination, final disinfection, get new masks and gloves to move into Terminal Building for Immigration and Customs Clearance. Passport stamped fast in one of the two counters, handover health declaration and collect the lined-up baggage to be screened by the Customs. It was fast and done in an hour, and then another chokepoint after queuing the trolley at the two counters manned by the Military Police (MP) for allocation of the Quarantine Centres and transportation.
I had no idea which hotel I was going to be allocated. As I approached the counter, I asked the MP politely if there is a choice of hotels and he replied harshly ‘you take what we give you’ and informed me that it was going to be a hotel in Waskaduwa, 12.30 pm we boarded a bus and waited for all passengers to join. After another 45 minutes, two busses and other protocol vehicles with an Army pilot car rolled down the airport road. I called home to say that we should be in the hotel in an hours’ time via the Southern HWY, but it was not to be as they took the old Katunayaka road chasing the pilot car with the foot on the breaks and hand on the horn to push the other vehicles out of the road. Not a pleasant ride and the reason for bypassing the HWY was for a drop at Mt. Lavinia Hotel. Must be some influential passengers who managed to override ‘You take what we give you’.
We reached the hotel at 3.00 pm 10 hours after we touched down at Katunayaka. This hotel had seen better days and I am not sure how they selected it, but it added insult to our injury. With a chaotic lobby process some of us were checked in by 4.00 and some had to be transferred to a nearby hotel, probably a hotel better than this. It was not easy money to us, Rs.12,500 per night as same as for a star rated hotel, no discrimination against low-cost hotels, never mind if the guests were served with sub-standard food and linen but needed to keep the friendly hoteliers happy. Here is the math, 12,500 x 14d x 2 Batches x 50 rooms = 17.5 million a month. Will leave the net profit to be guessed after deducting the relatively low cost for food and maintenance.
Having sweated for my country for 30 years as a so called ‘Rata Viruvo’, after 3 days in this hotel I requested for a set of new towels and linen, and it blew in my face when I was told that they change only after 7 days. I asked whether it is the standard practice, he said ‘no’ but Health Ministry orders. I asked if HM is advocating unhygienic practices and it was a face saving ‘yes’. I was aghast and told him politely what I thought of their low standards to cut corners. I was then told they would do it as a special favour for me which I vehemently refused and told him that I had paid for it and so have others with our hard-earned money and to treat all guests alike. I do not think it happened.
Thank you, Sri Lanka for that memorable welcome to this land like no other.
Given tourist arrivals are going to be facilitated off Mattala with the East Coast hotels and incoming repatriation flights continued to be processed at Katunayaka, we need to iron out the bottlenecks to improve the current unfriendly and insensitive processes.
If the PCR process is going to continue at the airport then there should be an increase in the number of registration desks and extractors (may be from multiple private hospitals), so the wait time could be reduced significantly, and flight arrivals could be accepted with shorter intervals as well.
If it is feasible, eliminate the PCR process at the airport and move it to the hotels and the Government Quarantine Centres so that the passengers do not have to go through similar ordeals. In that case receive the arriving passengers flight by flight through the escalator to the immigration lobby and process them faster through the standard immigration and customs channels. This way the arriving passengers will not meet the departing passengers. They could even process multiple flights.
Let us be efficient and win the hearts of our citizens, like the recent change eliminating the secondary (home) quarantine of 14 days post the primary quarantine, else it will leave an awfully sour memory.
In response to The Editor, Thuppahi’s Request, priya provied the following bio-data [emphasis added by Editor]
My basic data are given below.
Name: P Ranapriya Camillus Cooray
Date of Birth: 13-04-1962
National ID: 621040464V
Address: 507D, Anagarika Dharmapala Mawatha, Thalawathugoda
Occupation: Retired (40 years with HSBC Bank, 30 of those in the MENA countries)
Education: St. Sebastian’s College Moratuwa
Activities: Vice President CandleAid Lanka
Sports: Former Sri Lanka National Basketball Captain
Parents: Pater – Major Camillus Cooray (Retired Sri Lanka Army, 89 years)
Mater – Thilaka Cooray (Deceased, 2019 December, 83 years)
Siblings: Elder Brother Squadron Leader Theja Cooray (Retired SLAF, Former Sri Lanka National Basketball player, Lives in MEL Australia) – 62 years
Elder Sister Asha De Silva nee Cooray (Former Sri Lanka National Basketball and Netball Captain, Lives in MEL Australia) – 60 years
Younger Brother Sriya Cooray (Retired from Freight Links, Former Sri Lanka National Basketball Player, Lives in Moratuwa Sri Lanka) – 58 Years
Younger Brother Anuradha Cooray (Former Sri Lanka National Basketball Player, Lives in MEL Australia) – 52 years
ITEMS added by THE EDITOR, THUPPAHI ….. for REFLECTION
Dr Lucian Jayasuriya: “Expriencing a Quarantine Camp in Sri Lanka. An Incoming Doctor, “ 17 April 2020, https://www.srilankan.com/en_uk/coporate/news-details/328
Michael Roberts: “Confrontation. Covid-Quarantine, Ordeal,” 19 September 2020, https://thuppahis.com/2020/09/19/confrontation-covid-quarantine-ordeal/