We are currently in the middle of an international crisis where most countries have implemented travel restrictions that make all but essential international travel impossible. I live my life in two countries. I am an Indian citizen presently working in Iraq. My family is in India.
COVID-19 has changed many aspects of life or put them on pause altogether. When we first began to quarantine, the thought of traveling distances both near and far seemed more daunting than ever. As the year progresses, more destinations are reopening their borders to travellers with new safety and health measures to keep you protected every step of the way.
A few days ago, I saw a news that India and Iraq has agreed on a travel bubble, which allows travel between the two countries. Air bubbles, Travel bubbles, or corona corridors are systems established between two countries that perceive each other to be safe and allow citizens of these countries with valid visa to fly either way without any restrictions. It is different from repatriation flights, which are only one way and the passengers have to register themselves with the embassy to board such flights.
In July, India had initially established travel bubbles with the United States, Germany and France. Since then, India has formed agreements with 10 other nations — United Kingdom, Canada, the Maldives, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Nigeria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Japan. India is reportedly in negotiation with a few more countries to resume international flight operations. The news kindled my hope to visit home and meet my friends and family. I called up the Indian Ambassador and he also confirmed the news. He said he along with some other diplomats from the embassy were also planning to visit home.
Of course, zero transmitted cases is unlikely at this point in the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean low-risk travel has to wait. Travel bubbles do require a certain amount of faith and trust in partner countries and their ability to contain the virus, including widespread testing, contact tracing and effective quarantining. The mandatory requirement is to get a RT-PCR test done within 72-96 hours of the flight to check whether the traveller is tested negative for the Coronavirus responsible for COVID-19.
I immediately applied for vacation and and booked my tickets to fly by Emirates for Oct 22. I went for the test on Oct 19 at an authorised lab in Baghdad. The lab is a nice one, clean and hygienic, manned by very polite staff. They have a nice system and procedure to ensure that hygiene and social distancing guidelines are maintained. I was told that the report would be available on Oct 21. I went to collect the report on Oct 21. They again checked my passport to ensure that the number is correctly recorded in their system. After sometime, I received my “NEGATIVE” report, duly signed and stamped. Thank God!
As per the requirements of Ministry of Civil Aviation, every international traveller into India has to fill a self-declaration form online within 72 hours of the commencement of the journey. After getting the negative test result, I logged in my self-declaration form and immediately, I received the form in PDF on my email.
I will be entering India from Delhi airport. If a traveller has a negative RT-PCR test result, then he/she can request for exemption from mandatory 7-day institutional quarantine. I opened the site for seeking exemption. It asked for the self-declaration reference, which automatically filled in the common data elements. I had to upload an image of my passport and the lab test report. It was a seamless experience. I immediately received the acknowledgment on my email. I checked my email after 10 minutes, I found the approval of exemption. It was so swift and prompt. I was really surprised by the speed.
On Oct 22, I left for the airport a bit earlier than the normal travel. The rush was much less and the handling of the COVID-19 is well-entrenched in the system. There are many levels of security checks in Baghdad. The COVID-19 test report was just like checking of passport and tickets at every place including the check in counter. There was not a single moment of delay for this additional requirements. There were a few thermal checks inside the airport. Yes, mask is necessary and I did not remove it for a second except at the emigration counter, when I was asked to slide it down for a brief moment to check and image capture at the passport control desks.
After I went through all this, I went to the Diamond Lounge in the airport. It’s a new lounge in the airport and is used by many airlines, including Emirates for their Business class passengers. The lounge was empty, when I checked in there. Later on, a few more passengers filled in.
The things in Dubai was normal only the crowd was less than the normal. While boarding from Dubai, Emirates also handed us a face shield. We reached Delhi on time. I was expecting some delay for checks for COVID-19. I was greatly delighted at Delhi airport, the way the health check guys were handling the checks. I got several copies of self-declaration forms, exemption forms, test results expecting I might have to submit at various places. The guys were handling the things quite professionally. They just asked to see the exception form and then led me ahead, where a guy put a stamp on my left forearm. After that I proceeded for immigration. While leaving the airport, I found a few desks of health personnels. If anyone reaches airport with test result then he/she can get it done there and they said that result would be available in circa 4 hour-time. I was not stopped there when they saw the stamp on my forearm.
Entire travel was so seamless and the process was handled quite efficiently at every level that the travel experience this time under the pandemic is no different. Only thing is that the mask was put on every time and people were not jostling and were trying to keep some distance. I hope the return journey will also be pleasant one.