His visiting card had two office addresses: one in Scotland and the other in Estonia. There was nothing wrong with it, but the architect who just shared his card explained the oddity. He told us about his dual citizenship. Worried that his business in the UK in a post-Brexit scenario could take a tailspin, he had opted for an e-citizenship of e-Estonia. Yes, you read it right. The Estonian Government has created a cloud based public-private consortium to make most of its services, including citizenship, available online. Our Scottish friend maintained that under this new arrangement, he could still avail all the benefits of the European Union (EU) despite his mother country being politically severed from it.
And why would Estonia allow e-citizens? Because it is crowdsourcing funds through e-investments and e-citizenships: a win-win proposition. What prompted Estonia to adopt such extreme measures is even more interesting.
"In case of any foreign intrusion, which is not unlikely given this Baltic country's former conglomeration, the country will simply disappear in the cloud securing all the resources of its citizens," the card owner explained. Imagine a strategic online retreat in place of a military defence, how ingenious! Well, not so unique if you are a Star Trek fan who is used to the concept of being beamed up.
I remembered this chit-chat on the issue of hiding in the cloud out of fear of something ominous while passing through the clouds on a special flight to Bangkok. Fear necessitates innovations. The emergency health protocols in every household, every office have come out of fear. Sanitisation, distancing and protective gear are the new normal paraphernalia risen out of fear. And of course, except for some essential work, we too have moved online, albeit by default.
My daughter and I took a special flight to Bangkok. When my wife, who works in the Bangladesh Embassy in Bangkok, told us that we could avail the plane meant for shipping back 160 Thai nationals, we were not very sure. My daughter in particular was afraid of airport safety. Then my wife hurled the unassailable diatribe: what motive could I have in staying in Dhaka while our activities were being done online? I guess fear is one factor that made me seek station leave and come to Bangkok.
On May 23, we went to board a flight organised by the Royal Thai Embassy in Dhaka. The airport had a deserted look as ours was the only flight. The officials of the Embassy made sure that we had the medical clearance and government papers to fly—their diligence was exemplary. They guided us every step of the way, quite a contrast to our immigration, where it took three individuals in two counters to clear one passport. The supervisor was dictating what commands to press on the keyboard, what to type to merge my new passport with the old one. And they were not even apprentices. In their casual remarks it was revealed that the officer had been doing this for four years. Quite a long way before we e-transit, I sighed.
The Thai embassy officials gave every passenger a goody bag that included some snacks, a face mask and a pair of surgical gloves, hand sanitisers and wipes, and a cash refund of 314.20 Thai baht that they got through negotiated discounts from the airlines. Every passenger got their share of discounts from the already purchased e-tickets! Imagine such honesty in our culture even at the time of Ramadan. I don't think the fear of after-life grilling would have brought out such righteousness in many of us. A small gesture goes a long way in giving the impression of a country.
On the plane, each alternate seat was kept empty. There were three male stewards, all wearing PPE. We felt like human subjects abducted by aliens. Thailand has suspended all its flights until June 30, and the major airports have been shut down. Our plane was taken to Don Mueang domestic airport which had been re-designed to facilitate the repatriation of stranded Thai nationals from different parts of the world. The entire place was barricaded by human shields of staff wearing PPE. We were seamlessly processed through six different tables. It took us less than five minutes to have our temperature checked, papers verified, on-arrival visa endorsed. Our bags were not given on the belts. They were isolated and bleached and brought to the bus bay. A special bus carried us through the runway all the way to the parking lot to reduce any chance of contamination. The Thai nationals, however, had to wait to be processed for the quarantine centre where they would have to stay for two weeks. Some of these men were wearing Italian-Thai Development jackets, which made me guess they were engaged in the Dhaka Metro Rail projects. I offered them my gratitude in silence.
The Bangladesh Embassy had to vouch for our home quarantine. The Thai government has identified 14,000 Thai nationals who needed repatriation during the pandemic. They are bringing them in batches to ensure proper accommodation at the quarantine centre—so the flights are coordinated with the availability of space there. It is not only fear but also care that necessitates innovations.
Thailand is beginning to relax its lockdown, and it has shown amazing professionalism in handling the crisis. Like everywhere else, there was pressure on the government to lift the lockdown. In response, this is what PM Prayut had to say: "We have received calls to ease certain restrictions, but we have to think about being prudent. We have to listen to information from medical experts. I do not want to make decisions under duress. They should be based on facts."
Thailand was the second country to be affected by the disease when Patient Zero came from Wuhan. A taxi driver who carried this Chinese tourist was later tested positive in January. The situation aggravated when the disease spread during a Thai boxing event. Thanks to strict curfew measures, contact tracing and testing, the country has managed to recover from initial setbacks and reduce the number of affected patients to 3,045, with 57 succumbing to Covid-19. The three new cases today are all from inbound passengers who have been brought back to the country. There is comfort in the way things are planned and executed.
Right now, Bangkok is slowly transitioning to a new normal mode. Social distancing is going to stay. Working online is going to stay. The future has suddenly been pushed back to be present at the present time.
Our journey to Bangkok seemed like a scene from a dystopian world. We were happy to give up our rights to free mobility not only because we were afraid but also because we felt that we were being cared for. There was comfort in our discomfort. We overcame the fear of flying at a horrid time, out of love. I think a lot can be done if you are pulled by the double-piston of love and fear. Wasn't it Oprah Winfrey, who once said, "every single event in life happens in an opportunity to choose love over fear"?
Shamsad Mortuza is a professor of English, University of Dhaka (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.