Flight attendants stare Covid-19 in the face

By Phan Duong   March 18, 2020 | 04:24 am PT
With 500,000 Vietnamese stuck in Europe waiting to be repatriated, local air stewards face the increased risk of Covid-19 infection.

Flight hostess Pham Thi Bac, carrying her luggage, walked out of her house in Hanoi on the night of March 7. She would not go to the airport to prepare for the next flight.

Waiting for her outside was an ambulance. Taking a seat, she headed to the National Hospital of Tropical Diseases where she and four other passengers would be placed under quarantine.

All had contact with a Covid-19 infected passenger on Vietnam Airlines flight VN54 from London to Hanoi on March 2.

That night, at the hospital in Hanoi's Dong Anh District, busy medical staff rushed around, with many patients merely waiting in silence.

After 40 minutes, Bac was taken to a room holding three of her colleagues. Happy to be reunited, the group not talk much and avoided close contact.

Bac (wearing a yellow mask) and her teammates wave at their colleagues from distance at the hospital on March 8. Photo by VnExpress/Vu Anh Tuan.

Bac (wearing a yellow mask) and her teammates wave at their colleagues from distance at the National Hospital of Tropical Diseases in Hanoi on March 8, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Vu Anh Tuan.

"We return to our beds. Then chatted via phone, reminding each other we had entered a second battle," she recalled, adding the battle entailed avoiding cross-infection in an area holding many confirmed Covid-19 cases.

The night before, Phan Ngoc Linh, head of the national flag carrier's flight attendant division, called to tell her the flight four days prior carried a Covid-19 patient, which did not shock Bac at all.

She asked about the patient's seat number and tried to remember what happened during the flight.

"The passenger was in business class, on seat 5K. I served her several times."

The 40-year-old mother immediately left her 2-year-old son, went to another room and made a list of things she must do.

"I am F1, so I have to be quarantined at a hospital. You, our children and helper are F2, and will be quarantined at home," she told her husband the next morning before asking her friends and neighbors to help them with shopping in the next two weeks.

On the afternoon of March 8, the test results came out, which were all negative. Friends and colleagues could not be happier. Bac called her husband immediately.

"The burden is lifted," she exclaimed.

Bac is one in 700 at Vietnam Airlines to have been quarantined since the novel coronavirus broke out, with two having tested positive.

During 15 years at the company, Bac had never faced such upheaval. Since the last lunar year break in late January, many things have changed. Vietnam Airlines has provided masks and gloves to all its staff as passengers struggled to hide their fears amid the Covid-19 scare.

Many international routes have been canceled, while domestic flights have been few and far between during a traditionally busy period of the year. Bac, who used to work 90 hours per month, only flew 70 hours in February.

On February 15, her team was assigned to manage a flight carrying over 100 Chinese, who were stuck in Vietnam due to the epidemic, to their home. At the time, Vietnam had canceled all flights to its northern neighbor.

Many people told her not to go since China was the worst-hit nation by the deadly virus.

"Just like soldiers, who have to fight when the country needs them, flying is our mission," Bac insisted.

On the flight from Vietnam's central town of Cam Ranh to Chengdu in China that day, everyone was emotional. A Chinese woman from Shenzhen could not hide her tears while thanking the cabin crew for taking her home.

Arriving in Chengdu, the aircraft was disinfected, while Bac and her colleagues had their body temperatures checked carefully.

"A Chinese representative wanted to give us a hug but could not. During the epidemic, people avoid contact. We thanked each other via two layers of masks."

Bac (R) wear protective clothes on the flight on February 15. Photo courtesy of Bac.

Bac (R) wears protective clothes on the flight on February 15, 2020. Photo courtesy of Bac.

Nguyen Phuong Ly, 22, receives full support from her family when it comes to working.

At 11.35 p.m., on March 10, 10 minutes before taking off, she talked with her father.

"Dad, the route to Germany is canceled today. I think fights to the U.K. will be halted soon," she said on the phone, adding that she could be placed under quarantine after returning.

"That is okay. It is your responsibility to yourself and your community," her father responded.

These days, Ly's flights head to France, Germany and the U.K., all epidemic epicenters. Talking with her father helps reduce her stress before departure.

After 11 hours without sleep, she arrived at Paris's Charles de Gaulle's Airport. The French capital has recorded over 1,100 Covid-19 patients, 21 having passed away.

All members of the cabin crew "isolated" themselves in the hotel, eating food prepared by Ly's mother and going to sleep early before heading home the next day.

"We strictly followed quarantine regulations while at the epicenter," Ly said.

Majoring in economics, the flight attendant loves the sky and has always tried her best in the last two years, even though turbulence made her turn green at times.

When Ly and her colleagues started donning masks, many passengers were surprised. Most Europeans think masks are for sick people and stared at Ly as she served them.

"Flying with different crews, I have to protect myself, my family, colleagues and passengers," she maintained.

Ly and her colleagues are all used to wearing masks for hours on end, no matter how difficult it is to breathe.

Ly (L) and her teammates on a flight on March 10. Photo courtesy of Ly.

Ly (L) and her teammates on a flight on March 10, 2020. Photo courtesy of Ly.

For those who are not quarantined like Nguyen Trong Vinh, having fewer flights does not mean having more free time.

Since many routes to China, South Korea and Europe have been canceled, many of his colleagues have been placed under quarantine. From March 2-9, three cabin crews in Hanoi were isolated as passengers on related flights all tested positive for Covid-19.

On March 14, Vinh served on four domestic flights, double the regular number. In the last three days, he worked 10 trips spending over 30 hours on board.

"If I do not go, my colleagues will have to face the risk," he maintained, referring to flights to Europe, which is a challenge for many flight stewards.

Last weekend, Vinh was allowed to take a rest. He stayed at home and avoided communicating with his family. His father, making regular visits, is also afraid of having contact with his son.

The flight attendant spent his weekend sleeping, preparing for the next week’s flights to Europe.

"If one person gets infected, all members of the cabin crew will be quarantined for 14 days," Vinh said, adding protective clothes, masks and gloves put him at ease.

Currently, around 500,000 Vietnamese in Europe want to return to their motherland.

Vinh will fly to Germany, Ly to the U.K., while Bac completes her quarantine before returning to work next week.

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