Paula Zimmerman first came across the news of a new, worrying coronavirus variant while idly scrolling on her phone in the departures lounge at Cape Town International Airport on November 25. “There was no name, and we didn’t know anything about it being more or less contagious,” she recalls. Zimmerman turned to her husband and said the couple were lucky to be getting on their flight out of South Africa to the Netherlands, due to touch down at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport the following morning, November 26. The flight went smoothly, and as night turned to day Zimmerman and her fellow passengers prepared for a weekend in the Netherlands. KLM’s KL598 flight from Cape Town to Amsterdam arrived at 10:35 am on November 26—20 minutes ahead of schedule.
But rather than taxiing to its normal gate, the plane took a different route. “They drove us to a remote section of the airport,” says Paul Rebel, a businessman who was also on the flight and had traveled to the Netherlands for his mother’s funeral. The pilot’s voice crackled over the plane’s loudspeaker: Nobody could get off the plane, because the Dutch government had put a travel ban on South Africa. The ban was due to take effect from midday that day—in a little under 90 minutes. Flight KL598 was stuck in a strange, variant limbo.
“I think they purposely held us in the aeroplane until after 12 o’clock, then released us to the airport,” says Rebel. A KLM spokesperson says the airline had no choice but to comply with rules set out by the Dutch government and the GGD, the Dutch health service. “Passengers were not allowed to disembark before there was permission from the Dutch government and the GGD,” the spokesperson says. “The only thing we could do was comply and hold the passengers.”
Flight KL598 and one other, flight KL592 from Johannesburg to Schiphol, had flown through an invisible wall. As Zimmerman, Rebel, and their fellow passengers were flying north toward the Netherlands, South African health authorities alerted the world to a potentially dangerous new variant—one we now know of as Omicron. And in response, much of the world had closed its borders—inadvertently leaving 624 people stranded on the tarmac. While flying over Europe, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, had proposed pulling an “emergency brake to stop air travel” from southern Africa entering Europe. Then the two planes landed.
It might now have a name, but there is still so much we don’t know about Omicron. Despite that, much of the world, terrified by the potential of a more transmissible, vaccine-dodging variant, quickly moved to try to stop it from spreading. The European Union, United Kingdom, and United States imposed travel bans on several southern African countries. Israel and Japan closed their borders to all foreigners. Governments and scientists are still waiting to see what Omicron does to our planet and our population.
“I was a little shocked at first, because I thought it had to do something with terrorism,” says Zimmerman. “The captain explained that it was about this new variant and that the government didn’t want us to get into the country. Then I thought, ‘Well, you know, it’ll be fine. I guess.’ They said it would take about half an hour, and we probably would get off and get tested.”
That half-hour turned into two hours. Then four. Passengers became agitated. Flight KL598 had landed at 10:35 am. It was now 2:27 pm. In the time between, neighboring Belgium reported its first case of the variant. At Schiphol, elderly passengers and parents of small children were among those struggling to remain seated and comfortable. Lacking food and water, passengers—some of whom needed access to medicine stored just feet below them in the cargo hold—were becoming restless. And that’s when Lorraine Blauw’s phone started ringing and pinging.
Blauw, an expat teacher now living in the Netherlands, is connected to a large number of South African Dutch diaspora through an expat Facebook group. And when the South Africans stuck on the tarmac started to worry, she was one of the first people they contacted. The first message came from a family friend. It asked for help for her parents, stuck on the runway without any information.
Blauw hit the phones. She called the South African embassy in the Netherlands but couldn’t get an answer. She then rang the IND, the Dutch immigration and naturalization service—a subsection of the country’s Ministry of Justice and Security. She quizzed the officer about what was happening, but they didn’t have any details. KLM was meant to be in charge of processing the passengers and running the testing center that would allow them freedom—or place them into quarantine, claims Blauw, which the company denies. “None of that happened,” Blauw says. “KLM gave empty promises. They gave us the runaround for everything.” A KLM statement, issued on November 30, apologized for “the dissatisfaction felt by passengers,” adding that the airline would be holding discussions with Schiphol and the municipal health authorities.
An already complex incident was made more complex still in large part because it was a virologist’s nightmare. Paul Hunter is an expert in infectious diseases at the University of East Anglia, who has spent four decades analyzing the spread of things like Covid. Part of his past work involved contact tracing a meningitis outbreak on an airplane. “It’s not easy in these sorts of contexts,” he says. The reasons are multifarious. It takes time to figure out who’s positive. Polymerase chain reactions—which give their name to PCR tests—for Covid-19 positivity usually take place after two days of potential contact. But they don’t confirm for certain that someone isn’t carrying and incubating the virus. Even tests taken seven days after exposure aren’t 100 percent effective. “And of course, swabbing isn’t 100 percent effective either,” says Hunter.
While understanding of the risks of transmissions on planes has evolved since the start of the pandemic, when it was overestimated—a Harvard School of Public Health study found there is a very low risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission on aircraft—there is still a risk any time you get a large number of people in a confined space for a prolonged period of time. KL598 is an 11-and-a-half- hour flight. And its sister flight, KL592, which touched down at Schiphol shortly after the Cape Town arrival, isn’t much shorter at 11 hours, 10 minutes.
The risk might be low, but Covid, especially since the Delta variant became dominant, has regularly dodged contact tracers. If someone picked up an infection while on the plane, for example, it’s unlikely they would test positive for another five days. This raised difficult questions for officials: Should everyone on the flight be quarantined? And if not, did they have enough details to conduct contact tracing should they later test positive?
As officials worked to free the passengers from limbo, the situation aboard the two aircraft was deteriorating. The pilot on the Cape Town flight made a point of walking down the aisle to try to reassure his passengers of what was happening. He reportedly got into an argument with the airport sewage removal company when it refused to take the plane’s toilet waste for fear of contamination, according to several people on the flight. Then water to flush the toilets ran out. Catering declined to bring water or food to the plane. The doors had to remain closed. “That was the first time I got a little bit worried,” says Zimmerman.
At around 2:30 pm, four hours after they landed, the passengers on the Cape Town flight were allowed to deplane. They were taken by bus to an area in Schiphol’s Terminal G—about as far away from other passengers as possible to get without leaving the airport altogether. The passengers might have been isolated from others at the airport, but there was little space to process them safely. “They were placed on top of each other in rows, with no social distancing,” says Blauw, who was in almost constant contact with those on the ground. The passengers were given forms to fill in. Some phoned KLM’s help desk to find out what was going on. At 2:57 pm local time, Blauw received another text message from a passenger: KLM staff were, they said, clueless as to what would now happen to the passengers. “From the moment the people got off the plane, we weren’t able to make decisions,” a KLM spokesperson says.
By 3:15 pm, the first passengers from the Cape Town flight were tested. Half a dozen health care workers from the GGD took down passenger details on laptops, then another half dozen staff took swabs. “There was no control inside the terminal,” says Rebel. “There was no social distancing. Everyone wanted to get tested first so they could get their results first.” Because of this, passengers began rushing to the front of the line.
It took another 90 minutes—until 4:42 pm—for the Johannesburg passengers to be deplaned. It took nearly four hours for all passengers from Cape Town being kept in a holding area at Terminal G to be tested. Around the same time as the final Cape Town passengers were being tested, KLM released a statement outlining new rules for passengers arriving from South Africa, including the need to quarantine at a hotel. Blauw was on the phone again, asking KLM where the quarantine hotel was. Nobody she spoke to from the airline could say. By then—alongside the UK and Netherlands—Singapore, Italy, France, Israel, Japan, the Czech Republic, and Germany had tightened restrictions on travelers from southern Africa. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the US was also considering its position. In Africa, Kenya tightened its requirements for travelers from southern Africa. And $96 billion was wiped off the UK stock market.
By 8 pm, around nine hours after the two flights landed, the passengers being held in the terminal were told the test results were unlikely to be processed until beyond midnight. The variant that some feared the passengers harbored within them had now been given a name by the World Health Organization: Omicron. At around 8: 15 pm Dutch time, the US announced it had banned travelers from eight southern African countries. Back at Schiphol, a KLM representative told passengers that after 11 pm the airline would not be able to help them as staff needed to go home. Everyone on the Cape Town flight had been given two small sandwiches and a soft drink to keep them going. Passengers on the Johannesburg flight, who had now joined the others in the terminal, didn’t receive anything. Temperatures in the airport began to drop, and elderly passengers complained of feeling the cold. Thirty blankets were found to share between 600 people, Blauw says. Canada banned travelers from southern African nations. The World Trade Organization scrapped plans for an upcoming meeting in Geneva over fears about Omicron. Switzerland, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco all began banning travelers from southern Africa.
As midnight passed, Blauw began calling the Dutch border police to ask them to send more blankets to passengers—which she says they told her they couldn’t do, as KLM was in charge of the passengers. Blauw pointed out that the KLM staff had left the airport terminal an hour earlier. At one point, Blauw held two phones together to try to get some help: On one, a skeptical border police call handler; on the other, the father of a friend on the flight. The border police eventually agreed to help, and blankets and sleeping bags arrived.
But conditions in Terminal G still weren’t great. The toilets weren’t being cleaned for fear of contamination, and several passengers, cooped up for hours without the chance of a cigarette, began smoking in the bathroom. Loaves of bread were delivered to sate the passengers’ hunger but were just left in the middle of the terminal building—with passengers grabbing for food cheek-by-jowl. One passenger’s relative rang Blauw at around 1 am on Saturday to say her diabetic father with high blood pressure was in severe pain. The man had packed enough medication in his hand luggage to last the flight but not the next 12 hours of being limbo. Another passenger who rang Blauw in the middle of the night had a 2-year-old and a 3-and-a-half-year-old who were growing restless. She begged her to help get them a pram. From that passenger, Blauw also learned that the airport’s escort for an 84-year-old lady in a wheelchair had left the terminal building when their shift ended.
“I started to feel annoyed about the lack of communication, the lack of hygiene, and the lack of organization to separate positive- and negative-tested people,” says Zimmerman. “And I was deeply surprised that there wasn’t a plan. Nobody knew what was going on. Nobody knew what to do.” (A spokesperson for Schiphol airport says the events were “extraordinary” and required them to act quickly at the request of the Dutch government to isolate the passengers. “We understand that many passengers have negatively experienced this extraordinary situation,” they say. “We are currently evaluating Friday’s situation.”)
By 1:32 am on Saturday, Blauw was still receiving messages from people in the terminal. They’d read news alerts on their phones that said some passengers on the flight were positive—but hadn’t got results themselves. By 2:13 am the first results for the Johannesburg flight started to trickle through to passengers, but only those with a Dutch government digital ID could access the system. Three minutes later, one mother tried to break through the quarantine barrier with her two children, frustrated at the stress it was causing the kids, but was brought back by police. At 2:38 am, passengers were told to stand in a single queue to present their test results—mixing the Covid-positive passengers with those who hadn’t contracted the virus. Those who were negative could leave but had to quarantine in their own homes; those who were positive were taken to the Ramada hotel near Schiphol airport.
The results, when they came back, were stark. Sixty-one out of 624 passengers onboard the two flights tested positive for Covid-19. Thirteen of them had the Omicron variant. “If I was getting that degree of positivity, I would be quite worried about everybody” on the flight, says Hunter. Despite being required to quarantine at home, those that tested negative still had to get there. Zimmerman and her husband, who had both tested negative, asked a GGD staff member if she could take the train and was surprised to be told that yes, she could. “I looked at her, and I couldn’t believe what she was saying,” Zimmerman recalls. In the end, Zimmerman and her husband didn’t take the train—when they got to Schiphol’s train concourse it was 4:30 am, and services had not started for the day. Instead they took a cab, potentially exposing another person to the virus.
Others were outraged by the way passengers were treated rather than by the lax attitude to where and how they got to their quarantine locations. “I understand the government was trying to figure out what to do. But I don’t care if you don’t know what to do, you still treat a human with decency,” says Blauw. “You don’t even treat prisoners like that.” (At least two passengers seemingly agreed: They were arrested for fleeing the quarantine hotel despite testing positive, caught while in their seats waiting to take off from Schiphol for Spain on the evening of November 28.)
As the sun rose on November 27, Rebel had a tough decision to make. He’d flown 6,000 miles from South Africa to the Netherlands to bury his mother. He’d now miss the funeral, as he had to quarantine at home away from his family. It was a journey he’d made a year before, in 2020, for his father’s funeral. Then, he’d flown into Schiphol and decided to spend more time in the Netherlands to console his mother. While there, the Netherlands, like most of Europe, went into lockdown. Rebel ended up staying for seven months. He was determined not to repeat the experience, and he worried about what could happen to European border policy in the time he spent quarantining away from his grieving family. Instead, he called his family and told them he’d be turning back, heading from Terminal G to the departures hall and onto the next flight back to South Africa. Getting stranded again was a risk he simply couldn’t take.
Not everyone made the same decision. On any given day, around one in three passengers arriving into Schiphol airport are catching a connecting flight. Of the 624 passengers on the two flights from South Africa, more than 400 were transiting to another country. Those who tested negative were allowed to carry on to their connections—albeit placed onto later flights, given the long delays they faced for testing. “There is no reason why we should restrain people from traveling if they have a negative test,” Willem van den Oetelaar, a spokesperson for the Public Health Services of the Netherlands, told The New York Times. “We don’t know where the passengers went and see no reason why we should know.”
That statement sounds definitive—but perhaps isn’t as clear-cut as it seems. Zimmerman, and all the other passengers on the two flights, received an email on November 29 from the Dutch public health authority asking for more details of where they were and what they were doing. “It is important to know your whereabouts, so that health departments in various countries can contact air transfer passengers, to prevent further spreading,” read the email, which also asked passengers to take a PCR test five days after their arrival. “Although you may not currently have any symptoms, you could already be infectious,” it warned. The email confused and annoyed Zimmerman. “The system isn’t working,” she says. “The main problem is our [Dutch] government, because they don’t take firm decisions,” she says. “They say one thing and the next day they say another.”
That, of course, is the underlying challenge. No one knows what should happen—or what Omicron means for the future of the pandemic. Days after the chaos at Schiphol airport, the facts have changed. Dutch test samples indicate Omicron was already in the country on November 19—six days before the flights took off from South Africa. Epidemiologists are beginning to wonder whether they got the journey of Omicron backward—if it went from Europe to southern Africa, not southern Africa to Europe.
We’re also still uncertain about how dangerous the variant is. As testing ramps up, scientists are detecting more cases of Omicron but, so far, hospitalizations and deaths have not increased alongside it. But the data is limited, and it is still early days for the Omicron era. As such, it’s impossible to know whether this is the next big setback in our battle against Covid-19 or just another blip. Opinions are split. Moderna’s chief executive Stéphane Bancel fears the current vaccines may be near useless against the Omicron variant. Others say that the variant’s increased transmissibility has to be as a trade-off to its potency and that there’s nothing much to worry about. Both sides are, at this minute, guessing.
Many watching the spread of the coronavirus across the globe worried at first that the arrivals of those two flights into Schiphol had seeded Omicron in Europe. We now know it was already here—but any mass movement of positive cases from one place to another can cause havoc. Which is why the detective work to try to track down who those carriers are, where they came from, and where they’ve ended up is so vital.
The situation at Schiphol, and what has happened in the days since, embodies the broader challenge epidemiologists and virologists face in coming years: A fast-moving virus which constantly evolves and can quickly throw the world back into chaos. It’s in large part why many countries, when they realized Omicron was upon them, quickly shut their borders to try to keep the variant out. But it’s a fool’s game. “Ultimately, we know border restrictions are going to fail,” says Hunter. “There is not a cat-in-hell’s chance you’re going to be able to keep this out of Europe for long. And when it’s in Europe, you’re not going to be able to control it, other than by reducing the disease burden through booster vaccinations.”
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