16 March, Canterbury, UK

Two days before India closed its borders to the UK and Europe
By Radhika Iyengar

Monday, 16th March morning, two of my four flatmates suddenly informed me that they were returning to their home countries. Europe was moving towards a lockdown and their families in Sweden and Finland respectively, were calling them back. So far, India had denied entry to foreign passengers, but was still allowing Indian passport holders to return to the country, if they wanted.

Since I was at Kent University in Canterbury, UK, on a fellowship, I didn’t want to cut it short. So, I had decided to stay back. I was advised by my friends to stock up on food supplies and home essentials for at least three weeks. Tesco, a known supermarket chain, had refused to deliver groceries to our student accommodation, stating that most items were “out of stock”. So, I decided to head down to the City Centre, 15 minutes away by bus, to visit Tesco personally.

I had been living in Canterbury for the last six weeks and Tesco shelves always had rows and rows of neatly stacked products available – more than required. This visit revealed a somewhat different scene. A few shelves, including the health aisle, had been scraped bare. Thermometers, hand sanitisers and toilet rolls were nowhere to be seen. The cereals shelf too was almost empty, with a few oatmeal packets knocked down – you could tell that people had been in terrible haste.

Earlier, I would find a majority of customers hovering around fresh vegetables, gingerly picking plump tomatoes, carefully smelling avocados or walking through the fresh meats section, selecting poultry and bacon packets, as well as fresh milk cartons. At the back of the store, was the canned food aisle. On this visit, that aisle was crowded. Customers were dropping dozens of pasta, oats, noodles and milk powder packets, as well as canned tins: kidney beans, tuna and other ready-to-eat goods into their trolleys. Some of them were rushing back and forth, cradling food tins in their arms. Was this the first sign of the world coming to an end?

Countries like China, Italy and Spain had buckled into a lockdown, but the UK was far from it. As of March 16, clothing stores, pubs, cafes and restaurants were still running. Schools and universities were still having face-to-face classes. However, self-regulated, smaller communities like Soka-Gakkai UK had taken the weekly community meet-ups to an online platform called Zoom. As of March 20, the NHS website guidelines stated that if an individual experienced any Covid-19 symptoms, he/she was requested to stay at home, practice self-isolation and not visit a “GP surgery, pharmacy or a hospital” for seven days. It said that if at the end of the week, an individual felt that his/her symptoms were getting worse, then he/she had to contact the NHS solely via its website instead of placing a call.

I finally exited the store with groceries which I assumed would last me for at least three weeks. I glanced at my phone and noticed I had received a text from my best friend in India. She wrote: “Not to cause panic, but take a look at this,” and attached a screenshot of a Coronavirus (Covid-19) update. The Ministry of Health in India had announced that it was going to start “prohibiting” passengers “travelling from European Union countries, European Free Trade Association, Turkey and UK to India” from March 18. At this time, the number of cases in India had risen to 114. This was a blanket travel ban for everyone, including those holding Indian passports. That included me.

My country was on the verge of closing its borders. Although the government declaration stated that the ban was until March 31, no one knew whether it would be later extended if the situation escalated. From the looks of it, we were heading towards a lockdown.

While this dawned on me, there I was standing in the middle of a semi-busy street with three large grocery bags packed to the brim, left to make a very uncomfortable decision. Did I have to rush back to campus and buy the next ticket out? What would I tell my administrator at the university or my fellowship advisor? Would I get a ticket back to India in time? How expensive would it be? What about my fellowship – how could I leave it midway? And, what was going to happen to all the food I had just bought?

I called my parents. They advised me to return half of the items, in case I decided to leave right away. If I was forced to stay back in the UK, then at least I’d have some groceries to fall back on. I re-entered Tesco in panic, ramming into scrambling customers with my overloaded bags. I approached a staff member, apologised in advance, and told her that I needed to return most of the products I had bought ten minutes ago. She looked at me quizzically, took a deep breath and smiled, “Don’t worry, hon, there are a lot of people here who’d want buy what you are returning. So, it’s all good.”

On my bus-ride back to the university campus, streets looked emptier, yet some people were still walking about holding hands. The sun was out and the bus passed through leafy boulevards, which was immensely therapeutic. The seats around me were almost empty; when I turned around to count the number of people on board, I heard a girl behind me sniffling. Her country had already closed its borders and now she didn’t know what to do. She used words like “stranded” and “depression” while she was speaking on the phone.

By the time I returned to my campus, students from the other houses were rolling their suitcases towards the bus station. The university had already begun to look like a ghost town. When I entered my campus home, my flatmates were in the middle of packing and throwing out trash. One of them had already left, I was informed.

I rushed to my room and called my brother. “You need to book a flight back to India immediately,” he told me, trying to calm me down. “I’m looking at the flight options – they are disappearing fast.”

Over the last few days, things had spiralled out of control so quickly, I hadn’t had the time to process any of it. Now everyone was leaving. After considering the pros and cons, I took the difficult decision of leaving too. I managed to buy a ticket on a direct flight which had only four seats remaining. The ticket’s price was tenfold, 

I heard horror stories of how several flights to France and Norway were getting cancelled. My Finnish flatmate’s flight got cancelled too and I saw her shaking with fear, thinking she would be stuck. It took her hours, but she did finally manage to rebook another flight in the nick of time.

The international students, scholars and fellows were leaving town, except for Italians, who felt it was safer to live in Canterbury. I left all the food that I had bought to them.

As I sat in the cab to the airport the next day, I listened to radio reports on the situation in the UK. There were cases where two brothers couldn’t hug each other after the sudden demise of their father; a 74-year-old woman who had two doctor appointments and could not reschedule them to a later date, because she would otherwise lose “her place”. The airport itself was deserted – I had never seen it so empty, neither had I felt so alone. But I knew one thing for sure, I was going home.