On pre-Covid assignments to Syria, Ukraine or the Central African Republic, we left our loved ones knowing they were safe at home. But now, maybe the trip makes me think, “I can bring the virus back and infect my fiance, who can infect others and who can end up in bed, hospital or worse.
So I said yes, and started preparations. Instead of the malaria table and bulletproof jacket that I needed before, I had a box of surgical gloves, two types of face masks, antibacterial wipes, and hand sanitizer.
Traveling by taxi to Heathrow only takes 20 minutes, about half the normal time. But if the empty road looks strange, the departure hall is scary. Usually full of businessmen and tourists, there are only 20 people who check with agents protected behind plastic screens.
Together with my colleague, correspondent Phil Black and photo journalist Martin Bourke, I did my best to keep my distance, joking, “I will shake your hand but …”. Phil and I even retreated, leaving our usual team effort, to let Martin handle all the equipment.
After going through security, the only shops that are open are newsagents and chemists. If I want white wheat milk, or a new shirt from Thomas Pink, this is not the place.
As we waited, I realized that this empty terminal would not be an exception in Europe. This could be a lasting image for some time to come – a new normal.
With no direct flights from London to Stockholm at this time, our trip will take 6 hours with changes in the Finnish capital, Helsinki. Just as we drifted into the clouds, I saw a British Airways plane parked, like the rest of the world, at home.
As we sat on our three-hour flight, the bite of my mask around my nose began to feel. Even breathing becomes irregular. There are no more than 20 people on the flight. We spread, leaving a gap between us. The cabin crew with protective gear offered sandwiches, opened trays for anyone so we didn’t have to touch anything.
Helsinki Airport is as gloomy as Heathrow. More shops are closed. More planes flew into the savannah and the rarity of people is now estimated.
Fly to the old world
However, with continued flights to Stockholm shifting gears occurred. People sit side by side in a two-by-two configuration. That’s uncomfortable. Suddenly everyone is too close.
Even from the air, it’s easy to see the situation in Sweden will be different. I see a sign of life: traffic. The first trace of what was once normal.
At our hotel, I was asked to sign the terms and conditions of my stay on the iPad with my finger. Is it right? Then I look around the lobby bar which is busy with friends for a drink. I saw a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Not a mask or gloves that look. That is not normal. Give me the hand sanitizer.
When we start work, we try to keep our distance and clean it as often as possible. But soon it became clear that some compromise was needed.
We have to travel in the same car. We can’t expect Marty to alone load, carry, and arrange gears for shoots.
After 6 weeks of being locked up in England, it was amazing to see so many people on the streets, going to work, going to school, and even socializing. We stood in Stockholm’s main shopping street, confused, when people went in and out of H&M or took coffee.
The next day, when we searched for the broadcast location, we found a bar filled with people who play and relax in the early spring sunshine.
If I sound jealous, it’s because of me. However, I am also conflicted. How nice it is to wander around, pull a chair and enjoy a beer. But I also know that the death rate in Sweden is now much higher than many other countries in Europe, with 2,500 dead.
They used to say there was security in numbers. But the number of dead and infected people across Europe shows the opposite.
I think the most abnormal thing about visiting Sweden is the trip there. But actually, the “normal life” view that is taking place in Stockholm now, at first glance into our own past, now seems the most abnormal thing in the world.