African Travel Out-Techs America in the Pandemic

Woman at airport sanitizer booth in Benin
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With travel surging during the holiday season, worry and warnings have similarly burgeoned about potential Coronavirus spread. For precaution, America can learn from developing nations in Africa about safety sci-fi style.

Travelers in some settings are stepping through a space-odyssey-like structure, to which I had surprise exposure myself on a recent trip, transferring at Lomé–Tokoin Airport from Lomé, the capital of Togo, to Cotonou in Benin, Africa. I had to go, for the funeral of a dear friend who was like a brother to me.

After de-planing somewhat sleepy after the long flight from the U.S., I was ushered by airport employees along the transfer line, to face a booth, which at first glance seemed like a typical airport x-ray scanner. As I gestured to the guard to question whether I needed to take off my shoes and where to deposit my carry-on for separate examination, he mumbled in French and motioned his head for me to go inside.

Pushing aside the plastic curtains, I cautiously entered the booth and was immediately enveloped in fog, as if in a transporter from Star Trek, the Terminator, or a Disneyworld attraction.

After a short while, disoriented and with hands outstretched ahead, I pushed aside another set of plastic panes, stepped forward, and emerged outside.

Senses regained, I reflected, OK, that must have been a sanitization of me and my belongings.

Later researching the experience, I discovered the booth is indeed a 360-degree sanitizing machine, spawned by the COVID-19 pandemic to serve as a "full-body disinfection channel facility."

A motion-detector activates a spray when a human enters the booth, to kill viruses and bacteria on the person, clothing, and carry-ons.

Busy Hong Kong International airport first laid claim to a trial of a full-body disinfection booth for airport staff back in May 2020.

I was impressed that by August, the small African country of Togo had such a contraption for all passengers, and wondered why my American departure not only didn't have one, but was lax in other measures, like physical distancing on check-in and departure lines, and separated seating. When boarded, I had to insist on sitting alone in the empty back of the plane.

To my surprise and delight, neighboring Benin apparently caught on, as my friend who flew just last month from Cotonou to Canada, and sent me a WhatsApp video demonstrating the process. In French, a man instructs a woman to a stand with a hand sanitizer and temperature check screen, then to enter the sanitation booth, pushing aside the plastic flaps, standing still while being blasted with the sterilizing steam, and exiting through plastic flaps on the other side.

Such walk-through “Thermometry and Disinfection Channel" machines are now big business. Customized sizes and shapes are advertised on the internet for use now not only in airports but in schools, hotels, hospitals, elderly care facilities, factories, stations, subways, resorts, shopping malls, construction sites, public streets, and office buildings.

The time spent inside the chamber can vary from a mere 10-40 seconds.

Some booths sterilize the person completely clothed while others require separate scans of outer clothes and belongings. Pets can also be detected for infection.

Companies worldwide, from India and China to Switzerland, are offering their own engineered versions. The Swiss “sun2MobiDes mobile disinfection airlock” claims market leadership with its technology using solar, grid, or optional generators, that will “become a household product for all commercial buildings across the globe [that] can be delivered and placed at short notice and almost anywhere”.

A company in Chongqing, China even constructed a bulky, heavy metal circular disinfection tunnel which employees had to pass through to get to work.

Cost varies. On one Indian site, choices variably referred to as anti-COVID-19 walk-through tunnels, chambers, gateways, or enclosures, are offered at prices including a not-so-unreasonable USD$1,980.

Of course, science suggests airborne and physical contact contagion is greater than through surfaces. So, a question remains: What is the huge benefit? Yet, according to the World Health Organization, “studies suggest that coronaviruses (including preliminary information on the COVID-19 virus) may persist on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days.”

Airport cleaning plans have gotten even more elaborate, deploying robots with a UV light sterilizer, as well as drones and smart scooters.

In stark contrast to my travel experience in Africa, procedures and passengers in America were lax. While most people wore masks, and some even sported a face shield, lining up was not controlled by authorities nor well self-enforced.

Travelers making recent interstate plane trips within the U.S. gave me variable reports of safety procedures. At worst, passengers were seated next to each other and no one heeded distancing.

Recalling my own recent past experience in a U.S. airport, lack of precautions was disappointing, even from fellow travelers. Though I mentally measured the necessary physical distance between myself and the woman in front of me on the check-in line, when I leaned in slightly to ask her a question, she barked, “Get away from me” despite the fact that she herself was standing smack next to a woman and her little child.

The scene at the boarding gate was not much better, as some people looked around nervously, attempting to distance while others were as close as pre-COVID times.

Granted, stringent travel measures are now being leveled in some places around the world -- enforcing temperature checks, testing, and quarantines – in the face of spikes and threats of a new viral strain, like in London. A friend recently returning home to Southeast Asia from London endured a mandatory 10-day quarantine in a hotel.

In my experience arriving in Cotonou, Benin, all forty-odd passengers, regardless of origin, were ushered to individual stations, where a clerk confiscated our passport, collected $100 cash, and took a blood sample to test for COVID-19. Results, I was told, could be picked up within three or more days at a central city building. If the test were negative, the passport would be returned; if positive, quarantine was necessary.

This process seemed reasonable, but it made no sense to me that someone could be positive and roam around town for the days until the test results were available.

Also, I worried that in the worst-case scenario, I certainly couldn’t quarantine for days, since I would have missed the sad event I came for, and my departure date.

Still, these steps by a developing country seemed way better than those in my own developed nation. The contrast was more ironic given that infection rates in the U.S. (and other countries) are higher compared to Africa.

The Airports Council International quantifies airports’ hygiene methods. Hong Kong's airport was accredited for its many measures, including fast processing of arrivals' tests with results usually available the same day.

Why do I care about all this? For many reasons. I love being on an airplane, free from responsibilities, to watch a movie and eat leisurely; value learning about varied cultures; benefit from attending international meetings to collaborate with international colleagues; and need to travel constantly to conduct in-person psychosocial first-aid trainings and workshops after disasters worldwide.

Epidemics didn’t even stop me -- as I was in Hong Kong during SARS and in Sierra Leone during Ebola to help communities – until recently heeding high-level warnings not to go to the Congo for our health education and psychosocial support project this past summer to stop the spread of the Coronavirus in a remote community. Fortunately, our team on the ground carried out the project, successfully.

Also, I want air travel to thrive, as the sector plays a key role in economic recovery, and, in my psychological judgment, genuine relationships require face-to-face meetings, free from this endlessly virtual world.

And admittedly, I enjoy accruing frequent flyer mileage as if a savings account, and my United Airlines Premier 1K status, even though achieving a coveted 2 million-miles was celebrated merely with a congratulation card and bottle of wine.

The current viral “second wave” and predictions of new strains warrant attention. While media fan flames of ongoing fears of contagion, I note some malaise and “precaution fatigue”, that understandably stems from the drawn-out crisis, as well as anger and rebellion over newly extreme lockdowns and other restrictions of personal freedoms, home life, and business.

The phenomenon reminds me of the “apocalyptic“ thinking after the 9’11 terrorism attacks on the World Trade Towers, where the feared “end of the world” led some people to throw caution to the wind. Singles admitted to unsafe sex, risking HIV/AIDS infection, considering that with uncertain time left to live, they might as well be impulsive.

Market pundits predict that travel will spike when the Coronavirus vaccine kicks in. But skeptics are not so sure, and even with increasing vaccinations, “herd immunity” will take time.

Personally, wise use of that time would be to learn lessons about the silver linings in this dark cloud, namely, about resilience and hope, and to watch out for one's own safety.

And as travelers get back on the move globally, America might take some tech lessons from Africa.

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