American Airlines passenger planes crowd a runway where they are parked due to flight reductions made to slow the spread of Covid-19, at Tulsa International Airport in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Picture: REUTERS/Nick Oxford
American Airlines passenger planes crowd a runway where they are parked due to flight reductions made to slow the spread of Covid-19, at Tulsa International Airport in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Picture: REUTERS/Nick Oxford

Last Wednesday, the front page of The New York Times carried a story saying that the EU is prepared to block Americans from entering its political and economic zone because the US has failed to control the spread of Covid-19.

“That prospect, which would lump American visitors in with Russians and Brazilians as unwelcome, is a stinging blow to American prestige in the world and a repudiation of President [Donald] Trump’s handling of the virus in the US,” the newspaper said.

How did it come to this? For many of us growing up in the 1980s and 1990s in the shadow of the Cold War, the US was a beacon of scientific and medical prowess. It was a country you looked to for science-led innovations and solutions to humanity’s challenges. Russia was the country of Chernobyl; the US was the man on the moon and the “giant leap for mankind”. What could have happened to bring the country so low in its response to Covid-19, let alone international diplomacy and leadership?

There are many medical, political and economic reasons that could be advanced.

But consider my journey from the east to the west coast of the US. It is anecdotal, but perhaps it will add to the understanding of why the coronavirus has exploded across the US and why that country’s leadership in the world is waning so precipitously.

A tale of two countries

Last Sunday I landed in Washington, DC, from SA, one of the nations Trump included in the class of “shithole countries”.

But I was immediately struck by how scarily lackadaisical the US government is about limiting the spread of the coronavirus compared to SA and, perhaps, other countries. Measured against SA’s public health measures, the US’s efforts seemed negligent at best and criminal at worst. It’s chalk and cheese, a true tale of two countries.

My surreal, dystopian flight from SA started at SAA head office (the airport was totally locked down) with my luggage. My hands were sanitised, my temperature was checked for signs of a fever and my prepared health questionnaire was rechecked verbally by airline staff.

Then we got on a bus – social distancing measures were implemented – to the airport terminal. At the entrance to the terminal my temperature was checked by health department officials and my second health questionnaire was checked. Sanitisers were offered before and after every interaction with officials and airline staff at the airport. Everyone wore a mask.

On the 16-hour flight to Washington my temperature was checked four times by SAA staff to detect signs of a “developing fever”. Crew checked on the wearing of masks regularly. Toilets were disinfected several times. Airline crew wore disposable lightweight coverall hazmat suits.

Then we arrived in the US. No one at Dulles International Airport checked passengers’ temperatures. SAA had given each passenger health forms to fill in for the US authorities. No one asked for them. No sanitisers were on offer. No social distancing was practised in the immigration queues. People literally breathed down my neck. In Joburg the 2m apart rule was strictly observed.

At the immigration counter my passport was stamped and the very nice border policeman said: “Welcome to America.”

I waltzed over to baggage reclaim, got my luggage and left. I could have walked into the US coughing, sweaty and feverish and not a single authority would have known — they hadn’t bothered to do a basic check that I wasn’t indeed feverish.

Contrast this with New Zealand, where two women who travelled from the UK to the country earlier this month tested positive for the coronavirus. They became New Zealand’s first new infections in 24 days. They’d been allowed to leave isolation four days early to visit a dying relative. Health officials said the arrivals had not been tested for Covid-19 before leaving isolation, despite new rules saying they should be tested on the third and 12th days of isolation.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called the episode “an unacceptable failure of the system” and immediately put the military in charge of border quarantine processes. In the US, there was not a single query about my future movements.

I went onwards on my journey to George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas. On both the flights from Washington and Houston there were hardly any masks among passengers and airline staff. Literally one wet wipe was given to passengers to wipe down their seats.

The only indication that a pandemic may be ravaging the globe was that shops and kiosks in the terminals were shut — except for two in Houston. Staff there did not wear masks.

On the plane, social distancing measures were ignored. The front seats were packed without an empty seat between passengers. Not that the passengers were complaining. When we landed everyone jumped up and breathed on everyone else.

In SA, everywhere you go, there is a sanitiser station. Shopping mall entrances, shops, fast-food places, garages. Our hands are raw from sanitiser. In a six-hour layover in Washington, I didn’t see a single sanitiser station. At OR Tambo International Airport, I had gone through five sanitiser stations.

It was only at the third US airport I got to, in Los Angeles, that I saw a sanitiser station. Still, there must have been about 120 people milling about the baggage reclaim area. I swear I was the only one who used it in the 30 minutes I waited for my luggage.

It’s not about poverty or inequality

This is not a comparison between SA and the US; it is an observation of two experiences — travelling in SA and in the US through airports, which are major vectors for the spread of the virus. From this experience you immediately realise why the virus may have gone wild in the US, which has the tools to contain such a pandemic.

The answer is not poverty. It’s not inequality. It’s really the politicisation of the medical response and, in particular, the wearing of masks.

Trump continues to not wear a mask, apparently fearing it will project weakness and defeat, according to CNN. In all three US airports I travelled through, I saw the results of such ignorant leadership. It was mainly men who didn’t wear masks, spitting in each other’s faces as they shouted out their bravado. In airport buses, people sat hugger-mugger, talking to strangers with no masks on.

Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to matter that masks aren’t about the person who wears them. It is about stopping your own spit from falling on surfaces and other people.

The mask is a social contract — it is worn to not to spread the disease to others. Vanity Fair has reported on studies that show that if 80% of a closed population were to wear a mask, Covid-19 infection rates would statistically drop to about one-twelfth the number of infections, compared to a live-virus population where no-one wears masks.

Well, particularly at the airport in Houston, very few wore a mask. When we boarded the plane, many men laughed at the stewardess literally begging them to put them on.

There is a price for this: on Wednesday, Houston’s intensive care units reported that they are running out of beds. Apple, maker of the iPhone and iPad, closed seven stores in the Houston area because of exploding Covid-19 cases, while new cases across the US reached their highest daily level since April.

After my journey through the US, I am not at all surprised. Even the biggest public health budgets, scientific breakthroughs and widespread testing (which Trump wants to shut down) will crumble in the face of poor political leadership.