When James graduated high school here in Cameroon in June, we had little reassurance that he would make it across the globe to begin college. All borders were closed. Europe was closed. The US would welcome us home, but there was no way to get there without going through Europe. Could we rent him a fishing boat to sail across the Atlantic? We debated delaying his studies by a year. We debated cancelling our own trip to the US. But we didn’t have peace about that. We had medical check-ups we really needed to take care of. We had family we needed to see. And most of all, James was ready to move to college and begin life as an adult.
The day before our “scheduled” trip (3rd itinerary attempt) the transformer in our neighborhood blew, and fried the motherboard of our backup power system. We gave away or tossed the contents of our fridge and defrosted the freezer and put cell phones and laptops on a friend’s generator. We unplugged everything and left the washing machine with dank, soapy water for a neighbor to handle later. The day before travel, I hauled the sewing machine next door where it was hooked up to a generator and I sewed masks for our trip. It would take 30 or so hours to travel, so we would need several masks for each of the five of us. The generator was very powerful and the sewing went very fast!
After two date cancellations, we were SO grateful to fly out July 9 (on Joel’s 16th birthday!) At the time we left, the COVID numbers were much lower here than in the US and Texas in particular was in the middle of a surge in numbers. It was easy to fear. As I packed our bags, my assigned Bible reading included Psalm 91 and these words hit me:
Those who live in the shelter of the Most High will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty… He will protect you from the deadly disease. He will cover you with his feathers… Do not dread the disease that stalks in darkness… For He will order his angels to protect you wherever you go.
It felt a little presumptuous to me at the time to believe that we could travel so far and be exposed to so many people to a hotspot big city and then all return without any of us catching Coronavirus. I had only a mustard seed of faith that He could do that for us. Every time we would have to pass through a crowd in the Paris airport, or eat strange airline food in tight quarters, or hear someone on the plane cough, the fear in me would rise. I would almost hold my breath, trying not to panic through the stifling masks. And He would gently repeat to me, “Do not dread the disease.” It became a phrase on repeat in my brain throughout our trip. Do not fear. Do not dread. Even if this Almighty protection was temporary, it is still better for me to stop the fear. It gains nothing.
By a miracle of God’s goodness, we were able in the midst of pandemic social distancing to accomplish: 32 Flights flown (4 each to Texas and 3 each to return), even more security checks! 5 Wellness Check-ups 4 rounds of bloodwork 3 Follow-up Visits with Specialists 5 Dental Cleanings 2 Follow-up Dental Visits 12 months of prescriptions and supplements acquired 6 Houses stayed-in 1 Car driven 4,325 miles driven 2 stops at Buccee’s 8 or so hours sitting on hold 39 Amazon Orders Countless outdoor meet ups with so many! Countless cups of ice cream and blueberries consumed!
Some people brought us food. Some people cooked us food to share on the back porch. Someone helped pick up books we needed for school this year. Someone lent us another book. Someone gave us their home for a week while they were away. Someone gave us use of their pool. Someone gifted us a week at their condo. Someone gets our mail all year long and keeps our important papers filed. Someone let us haul boxes in and out of the storage area in their attic. Someone quilted James’ graduation quilt. Many gave him graduation gifts that allowed him to furnish his dorm room and set up a bank account with healthy savings. Even though we were socially distanced, we felt very close and supported and loved by our church and our team.
One friend hearing about the crazy circumstances and struggles we had asked, “Have ANY of your trips to the mission field been EASY?” … Um… I couldn’t think of one. There was the trip we all got ill. The trip we had things stolen. The trip of tummy bugs. The trip of visa stress. There really is always one obstacle or other. We’ve come to expect it. And despite the obstacles of 2020, this summer we were equipped to return to Bible Translation work to thrive in Cameroon another year. This super-packed summer of business and activities really was a miracle!
I was intrigued on this trip to see the euphemism “rough air” replace the long used “turbulence.” Probably some focus group somewhere preferred it, but anyway, I thought it was not a bad description of some of the chaos we’re going through these days —whether you see it as turbulent, or merely “rough”. So I promised earlier a description of other bits of chaos, so I’ll try to do that here, but with more pics. :-)
When I took this pic, I had no idea how iconic it would feel in retrospect. At the time I was just mad, having confirmed the testing center address the day before, to see a slapped up sign telling me to go somewhere else. It wasn’t far, but it just smelled of an “I don’t care to get things right” kind of attitude. But this attitude (even if I smelled that correctly) is, I think, a natural consequence of the chaos we’re in. If testing centers are opening and closing every couple weeks, why change your docs to reflect where you’re actually testing? And why pay for a more professionally printed and durable sign? Investing in things that change this quickly just doesn’t make sense.
I joked to a teacher friend that she should just make plans for the fall on a whiteboard, and wipe off and rewrite as necessary. That is something of a fatalistic attitude, but there is also realism as well. Things are changing, a lot. So we change (via re-thinking, or not) how we invest in our infrastructure and planning, to reflect the fact that it isn’t a particularly long term that we’re investing and planning for.
I get why we can’t hug in church, but wow, we must also admit that it definitely changes the interpersonal dynamic. To have our main posture toward one another be a fear of contagion, or fear of offense (for not following rules, or risking someone else’s health) is just not normal in a healthy church. We are there for each other, crying on each other, and yes, hugging each other. Anyway, I’m not arguing against this policy, just acknowledging it as a big change, and hoping we can move back to more inter-personally intimate (and healthy!) church context.
In the midst of all the above, some things remain pleasant:
So after all, there is lots of chaos, rough or turbulent, but there are also lots of things to enjoy, as well. A missionary colleague once told us her secret to contentment was finding something she enjoyed in each place she went to —like
I’ve written before about triviality, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about its application to our current times. That is, for missionaries and others working cross-culturally, there is always an element of adjusting to a new environment and culture. This includes how to find your bedroom light switch in the dark (if you’re moving house), but also how to not insult someone on the road, and how to not be insulted by someone else on the road —i.e., knowing when someones behavior should be offensive, and when it is just normal for your new environment.
But the kicker in all the above (and many other things to adjust to) is that knowing the new reality is only the first layer of adjustment. Being able to point to your light switch after thinking for ten seconds is not the same as being able to reach it intuitively —in the dark, and while still mostly asleep, when your brain is not really working yet. This is where the concept of triviality is helpful (to me, anyway!). Normal life has lots of trivial items in it: how to shop, how to make food, how to greet, how to get around town. There is some adjustment when these things change, but the goal is normally to move these things to a place were we just do them, without having to think through them each time/day.
So the twist that hit me this morning, is that whether we’re talking about culture shock, or reverse culture shock (or reverse reverse culture shock…), the transition is normally from one more or less stable environment to another more or less stable environment. The problem is that one house isn’t laid out the same as another house —but they’re both houses, and neither changes much over time. Similarly, moving from one culture/city to another requires adjusting from one status quo to another, but there is a status quo in each place, which doesn’t change much over time. But this is not what we find in 2020.
Rather, this year we have political and medical facts which seem to change on a regular basis. Then the recommendations, orders/laws, and rulings, which change in response to those facts (or not), then the implementation of those recommendations, orders/laws, and rulings on various levels, which must respond to all of the above. So the question “should I wear a mask right now?”, for instance, has been a non-trivial question for months, for many people. Are the CDC and WHO recommending masks right now, or not? What kind of masks, in what situations? What are the relevant recommendations, orders/laws, and rulings of our federal/national government? And of our state? Of our County? Of our City? And perhaps most frustrating of all, how do we respond when the neighboring nation/state/county/city says something different than ours? Or when the state says something that contradicts what the county says? Most of us are simply not accustomed to thinking through all these issues on any kind of regular basis, much less each time it might be appropriate to put on or take off a mask. And masks or not is not the only question (e.g., distancing, quarantine/isolation, and contact reporting), nor are on and off the only answers to that one question (e.g., public/online shaming, rebellion, political advocacy, and non-/violent public protests)
Now, if there were one set of rules imposed (for better or worse), this might just be a matter of adjusting to them, however much time, energy, and libery that takes. But when the info we’re basing a decision on changes every couple days (on some level), we have to re-evaluate, and the decision never has a chance to become trivial –so we continue to spend energy we shouldn’t on menial, daily tasks.
There is, of course one condition where this problem doesn’t apply. Namely, if your allegiance to a particular body medical/political/whatever is significantly strong to trump all others, then you make your decision once, and only change it when that one body changes advice —and hopefully that’s not often. But I have a hard time distinguishing that from bigotry, especially in the current political climate in the US. That is, if your response to the mask question is really just a badge of political affiliation (as I’ve heard from MANY people), then can you still say you’re wearing a mask (or not) because it is the right response to the pandemic?
I read twitter enough to know that for many people, there is only one correct answer to the mask question. But there seems to be a strong correlation between those people and the many who feel there is only one correct answer to the “which party should be in power” question, on both sides. And I, for one, have never felt fully comfortable voting for either party, as neither seems to represent me particularly well. So for me, my conscience dictates that I continue to reevaluate both questions, as new data comes in.
And I know there are many people out there that feel (at least a bit) the same. I’ve heard from many the difficulty of adjusting to constantly changing goal posts. And I think that this idea of having a culture shock (or lack of triviality) that has no real end in sight, is a large part of it. Even in this context, I feel obliged to continue to insist on my right and responsibility, as a human and as a Christian, to think, to use and develop my conscience, and to pray for the Holy Spirit to give guidance, and to follow that guidance even in the face of direction to do otherwise from lesser authorities:
But Peter and John answered [their rulers and elders and scribes, in council], “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”
Acts 4:19-20 (ESV)
So where do we go from there? I think the bigotry answer, as flawed as it is, has something to it. That is, in the midst of a storm, hold one to one thing that doesn’t move. But I think we want to be careful to not make our one thing a human or human institution, which will all fail us, sooner or later. Rather, Jesus tells us
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.
Matthew 7:24-25 (ESV)
So let us continue to read what Jesus had to say, and try to put it into practice, and let the storm flow around us as it will. Not that I think this will be easy, but I think it’s the only answer that doesn’t result in our eventual destruction.
I’m going to try to give an account of my travel from Cameroon to the US and back in July/August 2020. But I feel a few caveats are in order, before I get started. One observation that I found almost everywhere I went is that COVID-19 policy implementation is in complete chaos, due to the frequency at which the data changes, at which the recommendations, executive orders and rulings based on that data (or not) change, and as people at multiple levels of society try to keep up with the above and their implications. I got push back in making the observation “no one knows what they’re doing” exactly once, from a medical professional. Almost everyone else was saying this before I could even ask what they thought.
Two examples to show what I mean. Before arriving, I was told that the mask executive order in Texas was contested. Apparently there are counties where sheriffs have gone on record saying they would not enforce it. Someone else told me people are asking where (cities, stores) they can shop without being asked to wear a mask, and getting concrete answers. Another conflict between state and local governments arose with regard to the opening of the school year. We have friends who are teachers, who ask how they are to manage being physically in a school building (as teachers) without being able to send their child to one (if school is going to be online only). Their county announced (during our visit) that no school in the county could open except online in the fall. That same week, the state responded by saying schools need at least some butts in seats if they want any funding at all. Neither of these political bodies employs our friends, but the school districts that do have to decide how to respond to these government bodies soon, and our friends will then have to respond to those decisions. You can imagine it is unsettling to not know yet what your employer will do, because the government bodies they are subject to haven’t finished sorting out their relationship yet…
Anyway, in this context, I think the one productive thing I can do is share my experience, in the hope that it will help someone. We have often been in the position of pioneering, and were some of the first of those we know to leave Cameroon on commercial (i.e., not evacuation) flights, and some of the first to return/come here since the borders closed in March.
I’ve already mentioned the politically charged atmosphere of most discussions of COVID-19; odds are, whoever you are, you will disagree (perhaps vehemently) with something I describe here. Still I offer my experience, as I sought to make this trip in a clean conscience, and hope that perhaps you would find better solutions to the difficulties we faced.
And finally, as with any anecdotal data, your mileage may vary. I assume some of what we went through is part of the new normal —and might be something you would encounter on a similar trip. Probably other aspects of this trip are in such transition that what you would see today is already very unlike what I experienced. I remain hopeful that someone will be helped through these transitions by the sharing of my experience, however different their experience might be.
Normally, when we travel internationally, we set dates and buy tickets months in advance (having done advance planning before that), based on our understanding of strategic priorities on the field and in the US, including airfare cost. There have often been Department of State warnings about going where we go, but that has pretty much always been part of the job —not that we ignore those warnings, but we consider them alongside other factors, like the fact that security situation isn’t likely to change in the near term, while the need for our work is there now. This is the first time we have dealt with actually closed borders, for any reason. We’ve had difficulty getting across borders before, like clearing immigration on each side of Lake Albert, going from D. R. Congo to Uganda. But we do the research, figure out how to make the logistics work, and get it done one way or another. This year, borders closed, and planes simply stopped flying. So when we needed to get our eldest to college for this fall, we were up against another logistical problem altogether.
So we bought refundable tickets (taking two trips downtown to make that happen) and paid more for them than I can every recall paying for plane tickets. Then a week later, they were (categorically and unilaterally) cancelled by Air France, who said the flight was needed for a medical supply run. We had heard that the president had authorized one Air France flight (only) to come and go each week, so we weren’t sure what to make of the multiple weekly flights we saw scheduled and offered to us. Maybe they would book lots of flights, then cancel all but one of them? We don’t know what they were thinking, but certainly they have a profit to make, as does any for-profit corporation. In any case, most of the people we know who were trying to get out of the country had at least one set of tickets cancelled —one had five sets cancelled, another had to change airlines. But we all had uncertainty, up to and including the day of the flight. That is, we had some kind of problem when we checked into the airport, and it wasn’t immediately clear that they would actually let us on the plane. Once the plane took off, there was a lot of relief, but that meant that the time and energy we would normally spend planning a trip like this just wasn’t there. Yes, we planned, but I only have so much time and energy for planning and re-planning a trip as the airline cancels tickets, so I (at least) didn’t plan as much as we normally would have —not by a long shot. And this is in addition to the fact that that ticket change made a (already short) four week trip into one just over three weeks, which meant it went at light speed, in terms of international trips (with transition, get lag, etc. on each end).
Another wrench that sucked time and energy from our planning were administrative questions that seemed to keep coming up. We kept a close eye on Cameroonian decrees, of course, but we also constantly heard of new recommendations, orders and rulings, and their implementations at various levels and locations in the US, and had to figure out how to deal with those (e.g., if I needed to be locked in a house for two of the three weeks in the US, then the trip wouldn’t make sense at all —so the quarantine rules and implementation were fairly important to clarify in our planning). We thought we had covered all the new COVID-19 policies of the organizations under which we work (which were also in flux), but a week before our trip another set of policies came down, and it was unclear how they would apply to us.
So needless to say this trip was necessary (we really didn’t want to put James on a boat, and just hope he made it across the Atlantic ocean to Galveston…), but probably the least well planned international trip that I have ever taken —both in terms of having the logistics organized ahead of time, and in terms of Kim and I thinking through (and together) our objectives for the trip and how to achieve them.
There were two documents we prepared for the trip to the US, based on information we had about documentation requirements. The first was “INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL CERTIFICATE TO MAINLAND FRANCE FROM A THIRD COUNTRY*”, which we understood would be required by France. We had a source that said that it wouldn’t be needed for transiting through the Paris airport (CDG), and another that said it was required even for transit passengers. The first version we saw had no allowance for transit passengers (i.e., there was no legitimate reason allowed on the form for us to travel —we don’t have a primary residence in France, for instance), but ultimately we found a version that had the line “Third country nationals, transiting less than 24 hours in an international area to reach their country of origin and who are holders of a travel document to this country;”, so we checked that, and brought that along. Spoiler alert: we never needed this document, in either direction.
The other document we prepared before leaving Cameroon was entitled “Declaration Sur l’Honneur”, and basically said
je soussigné(e) …. Attests sur l’honneur ne présenter aucun syumptôme lié au COVID19. Date.
I think I saw another version of this that added also that one hadn’t had contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the last 14 days, but not on the version we ended up with. In any case, to spoil it again, I was never asked for this form. Maybe I should have subtitled this blog entry “having lots of forms, many of which I didn’t actually need”.
Traveling to The US
So on the trip itself, I had an interesting problem in check-in. Because we were travelling on two different confirmation codes (being more than four people), but wanting to sit together, I had this great idea: have two computers open side by side, and Kim and I each log in and pick seats together. Well, I don’t know if it was because I tried this, or for some other reason, but Kim and James got to log in online, and I couldn’t. I just kept getting an error message, whatever I tried. Since I didn’t want to leave this for the airport, I sent Air France a message on twitter. Interestingly, they responded a couple days after we landed in the US. And after several rounds of me explaining how the flight was booked and sold by (as well as operated by) Air France, they continued to insist that I couldn’t check in because Delta was operating that flight. Despite the fact (also) that Kim checked-in online for the same set of flights… Anyway, I ultimately realized that everyone was probably at least as stressed as I was, and that helped a little, but it was a very stressful time.
At the airport, when I tried to check in, they pulled me into a back office (where they sent a number of people), where I basically just watch this lady make changes to our tickets. I don’t really have any idea what she did, but some half an hour later, we went back out to the check-in counters, and checked in as usual.
I say “as usual”, though by this point I had already put on latex gloves, which I had bought at a pharmacy for the purpose of not touching things going through the airport (and especially security). Unfortunately they were both cheapy and small, so I went through a few gloves before getting to security —once my thumb got caught in my backpack (IIRC), and I lost that part of the glove altogether. Anyway, I got a box of 100, so we didn’t run out, and the kids rather enjoyed the experience.
At security I pulled out my doctor’s note saying I needed to bring my own protein-based food onto the plane, and had no questions about my boiled eggs —perhaps for first time.
Once through security, there was a longish wait (as we hadn’t know how long the formalities would take, and I think we beat the rush), so we got some food and hung out. I sat in a section that had the only electrical outlets I could find, until people came along and told me I should be elsewhere. Throughout the airport, every other seat had a “don’t sit here” sign on it, as in this blog post.
On the plane (NSI-CDG), we were told by Air France personnel that we couldn’t wear the masks we made (and brought five copies of for the several flights home). We had to wear “surgical” masks. I asked the guy who gave me mine I what I should do when it got wet or dirty, as it surely would on this (long) flight, where we are eating and drinking multiple times. He said “leave it on,” and ultimately “if you take it off, the sky marshals will escort you from the plane.” So I left the mask on, even after I sneezed in it (the breathing of which I do NOT recommend).
Other than being packed in the plane like sardines as usual, the flight was more or less uneventful. In fact, it was only on our next flight, where I wondered why they had so completely NOT distanced us on that flight, especially given the WHO recommendation that distancing is more important than mask wearing… Anyway, this is another lesson in implementation. Each corporation (and individual) has to figure out what to do with all the rules and recommendations, in a given situation. And almost certainly, whatever they actually decide to do in a given situation is not going to make sense to at least one witness to that event… but I digress.
Our flight to Paris arrived more or less on time, and had a fairly simple immigration check to depart the gate (maybe the second time I have ever experienced a check of any kind to depart a plane/gate). But they were not asking for COVID-19 forms of any kind, neither a negative test result, nor the “INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL CERTIFICATE TO MAINLAND FRANCE FROM A THIRD COUNTRY*”, which I was told we would need. We got put aside while we waited for our whole family (since we had been seated throughout the plane, and didn’t all leave the plane together). In the mean time, I saw the national police screen a large section of the plane. They were basically asking typical immigration questions —not actually giving visas, but looking through passports to confirm that each person had a right to be there, either an ongoing flight, national status, or a visa, etc. A few people had problems and got set aside for further treatment later; I think one had a plan change en route, and simply didn’t have the documentation, I think another assumed he had the right to be there, but didn’t. Anyway, they were asking about immigration issues, not COVID-19.
Once in the airport and at our (first) departure gate, we found that our flight was “at least” three hours late. No explanation, and no idea when the flight would actually leave. And no way to fix our third leg (which we would now miss) or our seats, which had been reserved in random places (recall I hadn’t been able to check in before arriving at the airport). That was all a Delta problem, and there were no Delta people there until later in the day (we were told).
But eventually (after a couple hours, including a gate change and some exploration) we found someone from Delta, explained our situation, and they got us set up fairly quickly with new flights, boarding passes and seats. One seat apart from each other, despite the fact that we were all in the same household… But they also provided a few lights snacks we couldn’t eat, and vouchers for airport food, because of the delay. So it wasn’t a total loss. Though the Starbucks not being open yet remained a bit of a loss for some.
The next flight (CDG-ALT) was also fairly uneventful, though also fairly empty. Every other seat was empty, as were many others. It was hard to tell how much of this was explicit booking policy of Delta (as were told) and how much of this was people just not flying yet. One issue I am confident was at play was the fact that US policy said only Americans can fly into the US from France (among other places), so I assume anyone else that would otherwise have been on the plane simply wasn’t able to be yet. I should comment that the bathrooms were the cleanest of any I’ve seen in any airplane (perhaps in my life, which is a lot of airplanes), perhaps because of how unused they were.
Somewhere between my seat on that plane and security in Atlanta, I set down my phone, and couldn’t get back to it. I wrote DELTA, talked to multiple TSA agents, and called ATL lost and found, which provided no results. I don’t know if it was stolen, or just lost in an unrecoverable manner, but not having my one constant organizational tool at the beginning of an already minimally organized trip was NOT ideal.
On the plane, we filled out info pages for the CDC with our contact info. Getting off the plane, we were given CDC info cards, suggesting home isolation on arrival. Several days later we got semi-informative texts asking us to do things that had no force of law, as far as we could tell (some of which were also practically impossible, without a TARDIS).
So we made it through customs and security (me multiple times, looking for my phone), and found a food court low on food (or at least meat). We found a place with hamburgers, and got Wendy’s Frosties, though they ran out of chocolate after about two…. I think some of that was the growing pains of airport services (like restaurants) figuring out how many people they were serving, as things were much shut down, but not entirely.
Our final trip (ATL-DFW) was similarly semi-booked, and mostly uneventful. Though I did have the dubious honor of trying to use what I believe was the smallest airplane toilet I have ever seen (again, in my somewhat lengthy airplane experience). Rarely have I found that kind of pain while trying to relax…
In the US (Texas only)
One of the largest take-homes from our time in the US (only in Texas) was that there were lots of different expectations. These seemed to vary often by political affiliation, but many very divergent opinions and practices existed within even one church community.
As we got around, we saw lots of “must wear a mask” signs, but also lots of non-conformity (e.g., beard masks, as we often see in Cameroon —I’m sure some lawyer somewhere is making a killing litigating what exactly “wear a mask” means…)
Almost everywhere we went, we were asked about our travel history, and for the most part it wasn’t a problem. But doctor offices were particularly weird —I went in for a sleep study consultation, but my wife (who observes my sleep more than anyone else, get the relevance?) was not allowed in. In fact, she was asked to fill out paperwork in the hallway (where there shouldn’t be any COVID-19, right?). The greater irony for me was seeing a woman (who I had just seen not wearing a mask, in the office), leaned in to do something medical (I think it was measure my neck? —which I could have done myself, BTW) and commented jokingly about doing something non-COVID-approved. Anyway, lots of different implementations to deal with.
Our last couple days were full of packing the containers we had just bought (for this purpose) full of the resupply stuff we had bought on the trip, and also figuring out what to do with the COVID-19 test.
Getting the COVID-19 test
So, before even starting this trip (back in the almost non-existent planning phase, if you recall me describing that), I was asking how to get a COVID-19 test. The doctor at the clinic told me (what she repeated when I arrived) that the location and availability of testing sites seems to change so rapidly that she really couldn’t make any recommendation. Apparently there are a number of companies making tests, and different medical offices giving them. And they all want to win the war of being known for being the fastest and most reliable.
So at the beginning of the last week of our trip, I found a clinic that claimed to have drive through service with 15-30 min results. And they communicate by SMS, so I was in (not wanting to sit on the phone, nor be chained to Email). But they didn’t have timely answers to my questions, particularly when I found out that Cameroon didn’t require just any test, but a PCR test. In case you aren’t familiar with these, there are three different kinds of tests:
Antibody tests look for your immune system’s response to the virus that causes COVID-19. I took this test on my first days in the US, to confirm that I had not previously (i.e., in Cameroon) had COVID-19.
Antigen tests look for specific proteins on the cell wall of the virus that causes COVID-19. This test is often very rapid, but considered to be less reliable (as low as 50%, here and here).
PolimeraseChain Reaction (PCR) tests look for genetic material of the virus that causes COVID-19. PCR is a methodology that is well understood, and with a significant history (I performed PCR studies as part of my work as an undergraduate assistant in a lab at Oregon State University). It is also the gold standard for confirming presence of the COVID-19 virus. Unfortunately, results (at least everywhere we asked) take at least two days, more likely 14.
So what’s the problem? Couldn’t we just get a PCR test, and be done with it? No, we couldn’t (at least again, not without a TARDIS). The problem was that the PCR requirement, both for France and for Cameroon, includes the fact that the test must be less than 72hrs (=3*24hrs) old. There was some lack of clarity upfront as to whether it would need that age when we started our trip, or when we started the last leg of our trip, 22hrs (i.e., almost a full day) later. In France (i.e., after we were on our trip), it was confirmed that they were checking for the 72hr timestamp as we boarded the plane in France for Cameroon. So that means we need to
take a test (at time t),
get the results (at t+r, where r is the amount of time it takes to get results), then
board the plane (at time t+r+b, where b is the time between when we get our results and when we board the plane, presumably a positive number), and
travel to France to be ready for the boarding of the flight for Cameroon (at t+r+b+l, where l is travel and layover times from the start of our first trip, to the start of the last leg).
The French border police are looking for a test dated where (t+r+b+l) – t <72hrs (or r+b+l <72hrs, if you remember your Algebra I :-)) . That is, we need to wait to get results back, get on the plane, and travel to our final leg, in less than 72 hrs.
Given (r>2 days) for any PCR test we were offered, and that (l ~ 1 day) for our itinerary, (r+b+l <72hrs) was practically impossible to achieve, even if r = 0, i.e., we grabbed our results and immediately jumped on the plane (which I wouldn’t recommend for sanity’s sake, even if it were achievable).
So I called Air France, and asked what to do. When I did, I was politely informed that not only did Cameroon require a 72hr PCR test for entry, but France now did as well. I pointed out the Email I had just received from Air France, saying that such a test was “recommended”, and she clarified that the rule had just been changed. But because of the recent change, they wouldn’t be enforcing it yet, until Aug 5 (which is now past; implementation again). So what can my wife do with this impossible situation, I asked? She leaves in two weeks. Well, she can call the French consulate and ask for intervention… No kidding, this was the best answer I got. Well, there was another answer, which you might think is better, or not: wait a week and call again. Maybe the rule or the implementation of it will change (again). Wow. Never thought that would be good news…
Anyways, I was told (twice) that the test at the center where I made a “Drive-Thru” appointment was PCR, so I tried to calm down and wait. Recall that (r+b) can’t be more than two days, so I had to take this test Friday morning at the earliest, for a flight leaving DFW on Sunday —and I had other things to do before that flight. So I tried to trust that our appointment would work out, and that our results would all come back negative, and in a timely manner. I had an appointment for 8:30am Friday morning, and was asked to arrive at 8:15. Upon doing so, I found a (cardboard and marker) sign directing us to another (nearby) location. There I found a line of some ten cars waiting, and a policeman directing me to remain in my car on the road, so as to not block the employees parking spots (since they might leave any minute?). We waited in line, filled all the paperwork, then were told to wait in the parking lot across the street until called. We finally finished the “Drive-Thru” test after 10am. We then had to drop a carload half an hour away and get Kim out of our B&B by 11am. So when I was asked to wait another 45 mins for our results, I just said “I’ll be back.” I should have thought of “Drive-Thru” like “Drive-in”, as in “Drive-in Movie”. Because while I did stay in my car the whole time, I was there a solid two hours (before waiting for results).
So we dropped our stuff, and checked out of the B&B late, with pretty much everyone tired and hot. It wasn’t until about noon before we got back to the clinic for our results. But when we got the results, while they were negative, but clearly marked as antigen tests (i.e., not the PCR tests we needed). After trying hard not to sound like Karen, I was eventually told that I could get a PCR test that day, and have the results in 14 days. This after spending LOTS of energy all week texting (and even calling) their center for precisely this information…
So it was now Friday morning, and I had results from the wrong test, and even less time to try to get another test done. In addition to panicking, I filled out the form and submitted our results to the Cameroon Civil Aviation Authority, at the address as requested at the bottom of the form entitled “COVID-19 PREVENTION TRACKING FORM FOR PASSENGERS TRAVELLING TO CAMEROON”.
The form was already out of date (it was for May 4 to June 30, 2020), but I didn’t have a new form, and don’t know whether another version of it (or something else) would be required. As of this writing, the French version is found here, from a link in this article. You might find an English version by searching for “Prévention COVID-ENG-v3.0”. The English article corresponding to the above is not there (again of this writing), but it may be missing because of site maintenance. I don’t recall getting this document from anywhere else (though I frankly can’t recall why I would have looked there, either —I assume Air France gave me this doc, and I’ve just forgotten it). I also have it under the name “Attestation pour l’entrée au Cameroun_Prévention COVID-FRA-v3.0.pdf”
Anyway, I sent this form and scans of our (clearly marked “antigen”) tests off by Email at 14:43 (Central time), expecting to not get an answer, ever. But in hopes of one, I asked. And I bluffed a bit about the test (about getting a test other than the one I asked for), but hoped he would say it was OK. I wrote:
As indicated in the attached documents, we plan to arrive back in Yaoundé on 3 August, 2020, on flight AF 0982. To comply with Cameroonian regulations, we asked for rapid PCR COVID tests, and these are the (negative) results we obtained. Before traveling to the airport, we would like to confirm that this is sufficient documentation. Is this enough, or are you looking for something else? Thank you for your quick response, which will allow us to return to our home in Yaoundé, Cameroon.
I included a French translation as well, not knowing who would read this. At 11am Saturday morning (Less than 24 hrs later), I got the most concise and beautiful Email I have ever received (which, if you know me well, is high praise!):
Bonjour, Oui les documents que vous avez transmis sont suffisants et conformes. Merci et bon voyage. Cordialement
So I worked out a way (through a gracious friend) to have this printed, in addition to the other docs I had already planned to bring along. And it was the first document I showed every official that said anything about COVID-19. I assume if the Cameroon Civil Aviation Authority says we’re OK, no one else should have a problem. Interestingly, it didn’t seem like anyone cared much —not the French police, nor the vaccination card checker when we landed in Cameroon. But it sure gave me a lot of peace, knowing I had that Email in case of need.
Returning to Cameroon
In addition to documentation and qualities of the COVID-19 test itself, I also asked the Air France employee on the phone about the “INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL CERTIFICATE TO MAINLAND FRANCE FROM A THIRD COUNTRY*”, which I had not been asked for on the way through CDG the last time. She assured me that I would need it this time; they were now requiring it even of transit passengers —though that did not turn out to be true, at least not for us.
So about 24hrs before my flight left DFW, I had some assurance that I had my documents sufficiently in order, and that I would be allowed on each flight. Possibly my second least planned international flight, only beat by my coming to the US three weeks earlier.
So in terms of how things actually worked out, I wasn’t allowed to check in (again), and was told on the phone it was because of document checks, and that I should arrive at the airport three hours early to make sure I could resolve them all before my flight. Note that I was doing this with two of my children. Kim and James accompanied us to the counter for the documentation check process, which I was grateful for —I had forgotten they would be able to do this, as DFW isn’t one of the airports we know that has a security/boarding pass check on entry, meaning only those flying can enter (e.g., Entebbe airport).
So I went to the counter, by means of our normal bag shuffle (someone on each end, everyone else shuttling bags…) and I met a Delta agent, who turned out to be from a West African country (Benin?). I found this out when he mentioned that he knew French (in looking at the CCAA Email), then later I asked him about his interesting name (which is just one of many details that I don’t still have in my head…) Anyway, he looked at our cartes d’organisme and the CCAA Email and the tests, and pretty much just checked us in. This normally takes some time, so I’m not sure how much more this took, but maybe only another 15 minutes —definitely not another hour, as I feared based on what I had been told on the phone. I think it helped that I had everything in order.
Based on what I’ve seen from airlines and immigration rules in the past (i.e., that they are held responsible to repatriate people they bring into a country illegally), I assumed I should be fine at least entering France, as the Air France person had told me I would be, on the phone.
Going through TSA was mostly uneventful, though Anna got selected for additional screening. The TSA wondered for a bit what to do with her gloves (latex, that we had all put on again), and they ended up testing the outside of them only. Not sure what they thought that would do. After TSA, we got stuck watching CNN for a couple hours before we could board.
The first leg (DFW-ATL) was pretty uneventful, with notable changes being that the Mexican place in the Atlanta airport had meat (though they were out of beans and rice!), and Wendy’s had enough chocolate for three Frosties. We hung out at our departure gate, where a French Air France employee was screening people for COVID-19 docs and informing them what they would need to enter France (i.e., “INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL CERTIFICATE TO MAINLAND FRANCE FROM A THIRD COUNTRY*”). For those whose final destination was not France, he wasn’t worried, and just let us through with a temperature check. There was an interesting moment where a few women in hijabs with lots more kids were asked if they wanted to pre-board, because they could, but it wasn’t clear that they understood English at all, and they didn’t. They also weren’t really wearing face masks, but no one bothered them —I don’t recall seeing them again later.
One weird thing, boarding the flight for Paris, Air France had us look into a facial recognition device to verify our identity. No boarding pass check at all; they didn’t even want to see them. I assume they got the photos to compare against from our passports, but it was rather on the freaky side. I’m sure that tech could never be used for anything less innocuous… But they provided “surgical” face masks when we showed up with our cloth ones.
Arriving in France (CDG), I don’t recall any check on exiting the aircraft/gate. Neither immigration check (as when coming from Yaoundé), nor COVID-19 check (as I was told to expect by the Air France agent on the phone). We made our way to the connection counter, and waited behind Americans yelling in English. One had some kind of ticket problem, and called his mom on speakerphone —who swore at him for probably a half an hour for whatever he was trying to apologize for. Another pair of women had no test, saying they were never told they needed one. I don’t know how that resolved, but the Air France agents were out of their minds about that —not sure how it came about, but good thing to avoid.
One big change at CDG was that the Starbucks was open this time around. And we had one gate change, again, and waited for our flight (I only saw one guy with a “Trump 2020” hat; I assumed he knew he was in France —maybe reading “A Tale of Two Cities”).
There were piles of people trying to get on this flight (to Cameroon), all trying to push forward in line, all being told to sit down to no avail. Once we started boarding, there was a check by a couple French national police, which seemed to take a long time. It seems like many of the questions I had been wrestling with over the last week, were being addressed here for the first time, for some people. Apparently some people arrived at this moment with tests that were more than 72hrs old, because they had been travelling a day or more to get here. I don’t know if people were criticized for having the wrong test; I thought that I heard that at one point, but I can’t frankly recall now.
Lots of frustrated people later, an Air France agent got on the loudspeaker and announced that there were people who had tests over 72 hours old, and they had called Cameroon to find out what to do about them. They said the Cameroonian authorities said they should be let through, and would be tested on arrival in Cameroon. But there were supposedly less than 15 of them, so it shouldn’t be a big problem…
Except that once this news came down, the checking procedure seemed to totally change. There were one or two more people checking, and no way they checked as thoroughly. The agent who checked our docs was not with the French national police, and she didn’t read our documents. I showed her the CCAA Email, but she didn’t care. She asked for the tests. She counted three tests, and wanted to see the word “negative”. Which I think she could have seen on one of the tests, but not on all three —and then we were through.
We scanned our boarding passes (no facial recognition here), and they told us to get some “surgical” masks on the way to the plane. We boarded maybe an hour after we were supposed to take off. Maybe not quite, but it was easily an hour after our scheduled departure time when we got an announcement that it would be another 20 minutes, because someone didn’t show, so they had to remove bags from the hold. A full *two hours* after that, we finally took off (i.e., three hours late). I had heard “repasser” in the French version of the announcement, so I joked that maybe they were opening bags and ironing all our clothes… About two hours after we boarded, when Joel was about finished with his first movie of that flight, I mentioned that we were still on the ground —to his stunned disbelief and amazement. Hello, the real opiate of the masses.
When we landed at Yaoundé (NSI), we were asked to social distance by remaining in our seats until there was six feet of space in the aisle in front of us. Which no one did, of course. We found (as elsewhere) that you can sometimes control the space in front of you, but almost never that behind you. As we were getting off, there were a number of people getting VIP treatment and rushed through the crowds by agents of some kind or another, including one woman who brought a newborn baby to greet what was presumably its father and a number of friends at the door of the airplane.
As we walked the gangway into the airport, people rushed past us, some with escorts, others without —even after we were standing still because there was no distanced space in front of us. The marks on the floor to distance ourselves were basically ignored —there were two columns indicated, and many people just went past us in between them. We were not the only people passed in this way; many Africans were trying to distance as we were.
When we got to the front of the line, three things happened. First, they sprayed our carry on bags (we had a heads up on this, having seen it three weeks earlier, watching the people leave the plane that would take us out of Cameroon). They didn’t spray us (!), just our bags, but they did make us face a temperature scanner, and accept some very thick hand sanitizer. Once we did that, the rest was basically as normal.
Except that where they check for yellow/immunization cards, they also asked for the COVID-19 tests. The guy that checked us seemed uninterested in the cover letter from the CCAA, and not obviously able to read the test result, which was written in English. Anyway, he eventually let us through, without taking the “COVID-19 PREVENTION TRACKING FORM FOR PASSENGERS TRAVELLING TO CAMEROON” forms we had prepared. And while that form has two options, each of which contain the words (more or less): “sign a commitment to self-confinement upon arrival in Cameroon for 14 days”, there was no requirement to do so at the airport, nor any opportunity to.
That is, the health check guy did not ask us to sign anything about a quarantine or isolation, nor present any opportunity to do so if we had wanted to. There was no mention or even a suggestion of quarantine or isolation —so maybe that form is completely out of date after all.
Or maybe that was never the intention at all: on this page, I find the following text:
Par contre, les passagers n’ayant pas de résultats de tests négatifs au COVID récents ont eu à souscrire à un engagement d’auto-confinement à domicile ou pour des hôtels de leurs choix, pendant une période de 14 jours à l’issue de laquelle ils se sont engagés à refaire le test.
That is, it is the people who don’t have recent negative tests who will be asked to sign quarantine or isolation forms. Anyway, I just looked up the government’s letter (of 11 May 2020) allowing Air France flights to start up again, and it doesn’t mention quarantine (just auto-confinement, as above. I.e., self isolation —only— and without any duration). So maybe any requirement of quarantine or self-isolation of any particular length is already going beyond the decree of the Cameroonian government.
The final bit had two tweaks. First, our bags took forever. I know someone’s bags have to come out last, and maybe this time it was just ours. But it took forever. I think this might be in part because they were disinfecting our bags, but I don’t really know. Anyway, customs was as usual (no questions this time).
But my largest surprise was the lack of a staple at this airport —lots of people hoping we’ll hire them as taxis or porters, right outside the airport doors. One of the ATMs was down, so I had to use the other, but usually by then, I would have seen whoever was there to pick us up. So I now had the cash to hire a taxi if I needed to, but no idea if someone was picking me up or not, or who (not having heard back before my flight, and not having internet yet to check).
So we wandered around for a bit, and eventually went to the larger parking lot, where the crowd of people stood trying to get our attention. Apparently doing that 50 yards away from the airport doors is less COVID-19 exposure than doing it at the airport doors? Anyway, as soon as we got there, we recognized the guy there to pick us up, and followed him to his car.
Our organization has since sent out policies on this, but at that time there were no policies about drivers, e.g., why it would be safe for them to be in a car with us when we are supposed to be in quarantine. And there were questions about our baggage, some of which were destined for other people —how they would be processed through quarantine.
And we got to be the first (IIUC) in quarantine after returning to Cameroon, so there are of course bumps along that road —apparently mostly because the center on which we are living is basically shut down, apart from the people who live here and aren’t bound by (or apparently aware of) the quarantine rules we’re under.
But we are grateful to have been able to make the trip, to get James settled in college, to make some important doctors visits, and to resupply. We’re grateful for the many people we got to see, and the many that reached out to us, that we couldn’t see. And for the many people and churches that provided logistical and financial support to make this trip happen. And we are thankful for the Cameroon government, for opening up their borders, just in time for us to squeeze in this trip.
Anyway, having written all this down now, I think my take home is that chaos is the order of the day, so we might as well get used to it. People are making rules based on a constantly changing context, rules that apply to others in a situation they are not themselves subject to (in at least some cases), and apparently not everyone has the same information, nor the same interpretation of the information we each do have. But given that this is our context, we might as well get used to it, and find a way through. This has been my goal the last week: find a way of being OK in our accommodations, and of making it better for those who come after us. This is one reason I’ve written this post, and I hope it helps someone.
At the end of it all I find perspective in scripture:
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.
Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 (ESV)
So we follow our consciences and pray, knowing that God is in charge of even this chaos, and that He is the one to whom we finally owe account.
I heard this morning from a friend in our Cameroonian church that there was news that things would start to open up soon, so they were starting to make plans on how to do that at church. This surprised me, and since I haven’t looked at the stats for awhile, I did so today, and was surprised by what I found.
First of all, there are a few things I look for. As we talk about flattening the curve, one thing I look for is the shape of the curve, and where we stand in that shape. Is the increase linear, or exponential? Is the increase decreasing, even if the over all numbers are still rising? The other main thing I look at is how longstanding the trend is. There were many days where I wasn’t sure what to make of the numbers for Cameroon. Were we seeing a new trend, that was only a few days old, or a glitch in the numbers/reporting? There were several times where there were few/no numbers reported, then a few days later, the stats caught up. So it is helpful to see data work out over a week or two, to be able to extrapolate past dramatic shifts of a day or two, that represent reporting irregularities more then pandemic progress.
This stat is a nice one, because it allows a quick overview of the situation, and a quick comparison of how many total people have been sick, and how many of those have already recovered (as well as how many have died). For instance, this set of numbers shows a large proportion of those who have or have had COVID-19 have recovered (15k/18k = ~83%), and a very small proportion have died (395/18k = ~0.21%). So this is a good thing for Cameroon. But I’m sure not everyone reading this is into numbers.…
So this one shows the total cases in Cameroon:
As you can see, the curve is clearly flattening. There is the section where the curve was exponential (up to maybe June 1), then it straightened to a line (up to maybe July 14), and now it is leveling off. But that’s not all:
So we see the same thing here, that the number of total deaths is also leveling off, and may not go much past 400 total deaths. Yay! We see a similar thing for new cases:
As well as for daily deaths:
The above graphs can be summarized in the number of active cases over time:
That is, the number of cases at one time was stable at about 1,000 cases for some time (through April), then went up to as high as 4k cases (May-June). It is now back down to about 2k cases (and falling), meaning people are now recovering at least as fast as people are getting sick.
Comparison with other places
In case the numbers and graphs don’t mean much to you, I also found the same data for other places, for comparison. This is the total looks like compared to in the US, with a red and blue state (each where we know and love people) for comparison:
That is, whereas in Cameroon there are some 83% of cases recovered, in the US generally, there are almost half of the cases (that have ever been, 2,664k+165k)/5,201k =~54%) still active. Sick people still producing virus, potentially still infecting other people. The ratio of recovereds in Texas is slightly better than average (345k+8k/500k = ~70%), and in Oregon much worse (4k+0.36k/21k =~20%). Recall that the purpose of these ratios is just to understand where on the curve we are. In Cameroon, we are on the back side of the curve, with fewer and fewer cases. In the US, we are still at the middle or nearer the front of the curve.
The daily new cases in the US looks like it is nearing the back side of the curve:
And maybe so for Texas
And for Oregon (though less clearly so):
For total cases, the US seems more clearly not flattening:
and the same is seen in Oregon and Texas (maybe flattening a little here):
Anyway, if you want more stats than these, or if you want to see how they are when you’re reading this (since things change), or how they are in your state, county, or country, you can find all that at https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/ (including data showing the resurgence in France, which last I had seen was on the back side of the curve!).
The bottom line is that, compared to other places, Cameroon is a pretty safe place to be these days, with regard to COVID-19.