Risking pandemic infection, airport immigration staff brace for contact

By Lam Thanh, Ba Do   March 18, 2020 | 08:00 pm PT
Serving thousands of passengers from all over the world each day, Vietnamese airport officials risk contracting Covid-19.

At 4.30 a.m on March 2, Vietnam Airlines Flight VN54 landed with 201 passengers on board. Standing near the immigration desk, Hai told a female passenger to stand in line. "Get your passport ready, and stand behind the line please."

The woman obeyed, saying nothing. Everything happened in 40 seconds.

Customs officials at Noi Bai International Airport don masks while at work. Photo by VnExpress/Ba Do.

Customs officials at Hanoi's Noi Bai International Airport don masks while at work. Photo by VnExpress/Ba Do.

Five days later, Vietnam confirmed its 17th Covid-19 infection. The woman, 26, standing less than one meter from Hai that day, was the patient.

Hai immediately called his wife, telling her he had close contact with "patient 17" and would be placed under quarantine. She was speechless.

"Don’t worry, when the test results come out, you will be the first to know," he comforted her on the phone.

On average, every 40 seconds, one passenger passes through immigration at Hanoi's Noi Bai International Airport.

Sometimes, Hai works in the boarding area, telling people to stand in line before getting on the aircraft.

As an airport police official, Hai must prevent illegal entry and uncover cases of counterfeiting. However, as the first person to meet foreigners on arrival, he often has to answer other questions about traveling in the capital.

"I am the first Vietnamese they meet, I should make a good impression," he stated.

The 37-year-old could not recall how many people he communicates with every day. It could be hundreds, or over 1,000 on holidays and in peak seasons. This can prove a risk amid a pandemic.

Police officers wear gloves and masks while assisting arrivals at Noi Bai International Airport on March 11. Photo by VnExpress/Ba Do.

Police officers wear gloves and masks while assisting arrivals at Noi Bai International Airport on March 11, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ba Do.

Gloves, masks and hand sanitizer have become indispensable for Hai and his colleagues. As the immigration area is disinfected daily, Hai believes he only faces a 1 percent risk of infection. And with most Covid-19 patients in Vietnam having traveled through the airport, "Patient 17" did not shock him at all.

After 30 minutes in quarantine at Hanoi’s Bac Thang Long Hospital, he received a package from his wife. Apart from some clothes, she included cucumbers and salt, his favorite dinner snacks.

Since Vietnam declared Covid-19 an epidemic, Hai only visited home a few times to see his children, though without touching or kissing.

His children, who reside in Thanh Xuan District and used to staying at home without their father, rarely ask after him.

One day after entering quarantine, he tested negative to the delight of his family. 

"This is the best gift for Women’s Day. I do not need anything else," his wife told her husband.

Hai wakes his roommates, all Vietnamese workers from South Korea and Japan, at 6 a.m. every day to check their body temperatures.

"Such a police man, he is good at waking us up," they joked. In the afternoon, they kick about shuttlecocks and run together.

Airport check-in staff face many customers who do not wear masks. Photo by VnExpress/Ba Do.

Airport check-in staff face many customers who do not wear masks. Photo by VnExpress/Ba Do.

Thanh Van, 37, working at check-in counter, faces the same risks. Like others working at the airport, she does not care whether it is day or night and only focuses on her job to take care of flights.

Her shift typically lasts more than ten hours. Sometimes, delayed or canceled flights take her more time to sort out, wishing to see all passengers safely on board.

Each day, Van assist around 300 travelers, communicating over an average distance of 0.5 meters.

When the novel coronavirus first hit Vietnam, she was a bundle of nerves. Holding a Chinese passport in her hands, Van struggled to remain at ease though she was wearing a mask and gloves.

"I was worried, but had to appear enthusiastic and happy to serve customers," she recalled.

Her company operates about 20 flights across Asia. In her 10-hour shift, she has 40 minutes for lunch and a quick self massage.

At 1.30 p.m. on March 12, she was assisting passengers bound for Yangon, Myanmar. A French couple strolled to her counter, without masks.

"But why? We feel so strong," the couple said after Van advised them to get some. It was then she realized the risk she faced dependent largely on passengers.

"My kid got common flu the other day. When we visited the doctor, he asked my occupation, but I did not dare answer," a colleague related.

Van, with three children, protects her family by washing her clothes and taking a hot shower at work before coming home.

These days, the number of flights have reduced by four fifths, though the workload remains the same. Many destinations ask passengers to provide health declarations and travel itineraries for the past 14 days before departure. It is Van’s responsibility to guide travelers to fill out these forms.

Previously, timing was an essential factor in ensuring a successful flight. Now, a trip without any passengers experiencing abnormal body temperatures is good enough.

Health declarations are also mandatory for arriving passengers, keeping Hai’s teammates busy. Since March 7, they have had to check passports, tickets and stamped health declaration forms.

Those who do not carry stamped health declarations will be required to return to the medical center at the airport and finish the procedure.

Eleven staff at Noi Bai International Airport are under quarantine after contact with flight VN54 passengers on March 2.

The quarantine zone is only 15 kilometers from the runway. At night, the sound of aircraft reverberate.

"My colleagues are bracing for the pandemic," Hai explained, saying he wants the quarantine to be over.

If nothing changes, it will be done by March 22, allowing him to return to work.

Meanwhile, his two children miss their father, who does not dare make them any promises.

"I will stay at the airport until the pandemic is over," he confirmed.

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