Social distancing only option: Qatar airport staffer from Assam
Guwahati: While the world manages with COVID-19 lockdown, there are many fighting on the frontlines to make sure we get our essentials. One such persons is Suman Kalita (name changed) from Assam who has been working for Qatar Airways, and is currently stationed at the Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar.
Kalita is toiling thousands of miles away from home to ensure smooth transportation of cargo with essential commodities like medical equipment, drugs, personal protective equipment (PPEs), etc, which are needed in every country.
Here are the edited excerpts from an interview with EastMojo:
EastMojo: What does your work entail?
Suman Kalita: There are many repatriation flights for stranded tourists and travelers who are still in the play. Along with that, most flights are operated as cargo. Belly hold cargo, which means pax airplane, is used for only cargo compartment operation. As you know, most of the airlines have stopped but due to several requests from embassies and demand for PPEs from all over the world, we have been in operation since day 1.
Qatar Airways is flying as low as 25 flights a day, which are all either repatriation flights (almost like a taxi) flying empty, from Doha to Lahore, for example. From Lahore, they carry British passengers and fly directly to London Heathrow International Airport. Then after dropping the passengers, it returns empty to Doha. I also had the experience of a flight from a US destination full of passengers only from Indonesia. It had a quick transit for crew changing in Doha but passengers were still on board on its way to Soekarno Hatta International Airport (Jakarta). Also, if I am not wrong, we are flying a lot of stuff into India as well.
EM: Tell us about a day in your job with regard to the present scenario
SK: I move from my apartment with gloves and masks and drive all the way to my work. Once I park my car in a sparsely crowded parking lot, I walk towards an almost abandoned airport. No cars, no passengers, only a few ambulances, police vehicles, and security cars.
I proceed to the staff security checking area where they check my body temperature through thermal cameras, then I walk through the automatic barrier. Once my pass is verified by security personnel, I walk all the way to my office.
The airport has only 25% of manpower inside. So it’s pretty much empty. As I reach my office I proceed to my locker to collect my stuff and I sanitize the lock and also my stuff with a sanitizer. Now I head to my actual office room where we have allocation by area and the team and vehicles are the same.
For example, I am driving the same car or with the same team, no rotation in staff or vehicles. Here, we are briefed especially about flights where confirmed COVID-19 cases were reported. Such aircraft goes for deep sanitization and must be entered only after 2-6 hours.
Though they are scary, we have to attend them. During the entire time, I regularly sanitize myself with my sanitizer and hardly remove my mask, maybe only to drink water or tea. Gloves are never removed, but I sanitize them. Once my job is over I reach home and sanitize my cell phone, wallet, watch and remove them. I sanitize my clothes and myself as well.
EM: So how are you keeping up with your safety?
SK: We are working with 25% of manpower which is changed after a period of 10 days when the other 25% team shows up. We are using face masks, gloves, and eye protection glasses. The company has also provided us with the necessary sanitizers. During this moment, we are working with the same group and using the same vehicles and if someone is identified as a positive case the others get quarantined for a period of 14 days as well. Even while using our company vehicles we are personally cleaning it with alcohol sanitizer like dashboard, steering wheels.
EM: Has there been any case of anyone from your colleagues’ circle to be infected with COVID-19?
SK: As of now, I have known 10 colleagues who have been positively identified and this is the highest number in my department. But most of these cases cannot just be ruled as airport transmission, for some happened to be working mostly in office in a secluded manner.
EM: As you work with maintenance of the aircraft, are you also required to oversee and help in the sanitization of the craft?
SK: No, we have a dedicated cleaning team that uses special sanitizers to clean the aircraft in general. However, aircraft, which handle COVID-19 cases, are attended by these cleaners wearing specialized hazmat suits.
EM: Any other experience or lessons to share?
SK: I will talk about perception here as in India and some other Asian nations have gone for lockdown because they are crowded and have fewer resources. But, sparsely populated nations haven't gone for complete lockdown except protecting the young and old ones. But, the success of lockdown can only be accepted once lockdown is over.
I have already known daily workers in countries like the Philippines where they are at the mercy of donations by government. As for self-protection, social distancing is the best option.
This virus can get you from anywhere. Emphasize on cleanliness, good food, healthy habits, lifestyle, and follow physical distancing at all costs. And please don’t be judgemental, the world is already bleak enough due to the pandemic, we do not need any more communal hatred.