This is an account of our untimely travel to, experience in, and evacuation from Marrakesh, Marocco shortly after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
I write this sitting with my wife in the lobby of the Berlin Tegel Airport, waiting for our flight to Marrakesh. It’s Friday the 13th, and everywhere you look, the news consists only of dire warnings and coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak. And we’re about to go on holidays.
As we wait for the boarding to start, I wonder. Should we be going? I worry not about our safety, but that of others. We have no symptoms and had no contact with anyone who has them, or even anyone who knows someone who has. We should be clear. But what if we’re not? What if we’re infected? The virus could be working its way through our systems, millions of microscopic appendages latching to our healthy cells. The incubation time is around five days. Great, but how knowing it helps me make a decision here and now, I’m not sure.
It’s not too late to cancel the trip; some of our friends canceled theirs. Even yesterday, a friend called off his tour to Istanbul for fear of contracting the virus. He stomached the cost, fearing for the safety of his family.
When it comes to high-risk destinations like Iran, Italy, or China, German travel agencies offer refunds or rebooking for later. But what about going to a low-risk destination like Morocco, when you’re coming from a high-risk destination like Germany? Forget about it. I would prefer to wait and see how the situation develops, but that’s not an option. We’ll either be on that plane to Marakesh, or we won’t.
A girl next to me has a runny nose. Her friend sneezed into her elbow. Should we take our luggage and walk back out through the security gate? But why? Why would we do something so awkward and embarrassing and give up on a retreat to the heart of Morocco?
Everything looks so normal. People go about their business, no one—except maybe a stray Chinese student—wears masks or gloves. And still, I can’t shake off this eerie impression that we’re like extras, starring in some B-class disaster movie. A man in the airport, working on his laptop, unconcerned and unaware of the delayed drama playing out all around him. Though, I am aware and more than concerned.
Only after someone coughs, a man in a striped shirt, and people around him move to different seats, I begin to think that in this lobby, everyone worries about the exact same thing. We’ve all read the same news, we’ve seen what happened in Italy, we all sense this is out of control, and that it may end in misery. We’d like someone to do something about it, as long as that someone isn’t us, we’d like instructions we could comply with, ridding us of the responsibility and the ridicule of taking action while it is not too late yet. I know I would like someone to tell me that this is real and not just a typical case of Reisefieber. I would like my family to understand we haven’t just given up on holidays because we got cold feet. I suspect many of those around me feel the same. We all worry, but not enough.
So, we check-in our luggage, go through security as if nothing was wrong. We’re all guilty. At this early stage of the pandemic, we all go out in public, dismiss the occasional cough as a sore throat or some irritation after the last meal, and we do it all despite the sense of impending doom because that’s how normalcy is supposed to work.
If things were trully that bad, wouldn’t someone would tell us to stay home, cancel travel, cancel work, close the pubs and schools? If it were that bad, wouldn’t people in hazmat suits test us for symptoms at the airport? But it’s not bad because it doesn’t look bad.
Normalcy bias tells us that if things have worked a certain way our entire life, they will continue working the same despite all evidence to the contrary. It is difficult to disagree with your own mind, even when it’s stubbornly wrong.
Okay, but is that reason enough to stay home? To give up on dream holidays, and stomach the loss of a couple thousand euros we’ve been saving for a while? I…
They’re calling our gate. I guess it’s time to go.
As I wrote this, I had no idea Morocco was going to close its borders the next day.