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Travel in the time of an epidemic

The 24-hour news cycle has instilled fear in millions of people by broadcasting minute-by-minute updates on the rising death toll around the world due to the spread of coronavirus.

Iqbal Ahmed | New Delhi |

I phoned my mother in Srinagar a week ago to tell her about the threat of an epidemic in the UK. Although she had heard about an outbreak in China she wasn’t aware of its extent and suggested that I return to Kashmir as soon as possible so that if all of the family have to die, we would, at least, die together.

The 24-hour news cycle has instilled fear in millions of people by broadcasting minute-by-minute updates on the rising death toll around the world due to the spread of coronavirus. In 2001, I didn’t own a television, having given mine away the year before. I dropped into the West End office of a friend during the afternoon of an ordinary day in September, to find that he was watching the news on daytime television, which was showing, live, the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York. I felt distraught to be seeing it in real-time and therefore bearing witness to it, and I regretted that I had gone to see my friend that day. I would probably have heard about the attack on the Twin Towers a day later by listening to the news on the radio. In those days I didn’t own a mobile phone either and therefore no one could have sent me a text message to break the news to me. I have inadvertently used the distressing word ‘pandemic’ in my new book, An Open Book and Empty Cup. Border screening is ineffective in stopping a pandemic.

The reality is that we are living in a world of multi-layered interdependence. Although Kashmir is a remote region and one doesn’t expect an epidemic to reach there so quickly, my mother told me that they have been advised to wash their hands throughout the day. The valley had been in a state of lockdown for many months during the last year for political reasons. Most people in the West find the prospect of a city under lockdown terrifying but it has been a frequent occurrence in Kashmir for the last 30 years. Lockdowns take a mental toll on the population, something that is evident in every town in Kashmir.

A few days ago I had to travel to Paris on an errand and thought twice about making the trip. Then it occurred to me that I work in the hospitality industry and rely on people travelling from one city to another for my livelihood. If everyone is unwilling to travel in the time of an epidemic, I, together with hundreds and thousands of other people who earn their living in the hospitality industry, will be out of work. The concourse of St Pancras International train station is eerily quiet at midmorning. Today, no one can be seen or heard tapping the keys of the familiar public piano.

The man checking passports at the immigration counter is wearing clinical gloves made of latex. It is the first time that I have travelled by Eurostar since the 31st of January, when the UK formally left the EU. Two American women on board the train talk about buying a certain hand-wash that is reputedly good for killing germs. A sharp-suited banker is making a frantic phone call, letting someone know about the perilous effects of Coronavirus on his business. I think of the legendary American man travelling through Africa in the mid1960s who didn’t learn until three months after the event that President Kennedy had been assassinated. The green shoots of early spring are visible on both sides of the tunnel that connects Britain to Continental Europe but the overcast skies make the landscape look cheerless.

Before pulling into Gare du Nord station, the train runs past buildings in the Paris suburbs that are covered with grime and graffiti. The electronic boards that usually display train times flash messages advising people to wash their hands regularly. Yet some of the soap dispensers in the Gents at St Pancras station are out of service, having become broken due to constant use. I board a Metro train from Gare du Nord to Réaumu-Sébastopol. As it jolts in leaving the station, a lady standing in the middle of the carriage hesitates to grab the vertical handrail, then takes a tissue from her pocket to wrap around the brushed steel bar. It makes her companion smile.

On alighting from the train, I walk past a few porters from the Indian subcontinent who are standing at a street corner with their trolleys, waiting to be hired by shopkeepers to carry their merchandise. They look like broken men who have hit the bottle. I pop into a shop in Rue d’Aboukir to meet its owner. I had visited his shop a few years before but find that he has since moved to a new location in the same street. There are no customers in the shop and he is listening to Dabke music on his laptop. I ask him if he is from Syria. He tells me that he is from Aleppo but left the town of his birth a long time before it was destroyed in the recent war. I remember a friend telling me that Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. The shopkeeper is saddened by the renewed flare-up of war in Syria, reminding me that some unfortunate people have other significant concerns occupying their minds… I decide to walk back to Gare du Nord rather than ride the Metro since there are a couple of hours to kill before the departure of my return train to London. I’d like to wander around the Musée d’Orsay for a while but am not sure if it’s open since the Louvre closed its doors to the public a few days ago, so I decide against the visit. It is already evening when the Eurostar train reaches St Pancras International. I spot a large pink neon sign, an artwork by Tracey Emin, hanging in front of the big Dent clock. The sign reads ‘I want my time with you.’ Such intimate words strike me as very poignant in this time of epidemic and self-isolation.

(The writer is a London-based author. His latest book An Open Book and Empty Cup was published recently)