British backpackers arrive in the UK after being stranded in Bolivia amid coronavirus crisis

Two British backpackers who saw an abrupt end to their dream trip have managed to get on an evacuation flight from Bolivia and arrive home in the UK.

Harry Guy-Walters (23) from Bishop Stortford and Molly Holmes (23) from Kings Lynn were stranded in Bolivia, waiting desperately for the UK government to arrange an evacuation flight home.

Bolivia recently closed its borders and cancelled all international flights. The country has begun mandatory 14-day quarantine whilst the presidential elections have been postponed, initially scheduled for May.

There are currently 123 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Bolivia, with 8 deaths.

 

Recently in Bolivia

The couple, who met in Nottingham University, were 7 months into a 12-month trip but found themselves in lockdown in the Bolivian capital, La Paz, the highest elevated capital city in the world.

They were allowed to leave their Airbnb accommodation between 8 am-12 pm, one at a time, to get food. Gun-carrying police are seen on street corners, to enforce the city’s lockdown.

Streets of La Paz, Bolivia. April 2020. (Provided)

 

“Initially we thought the borders were open on the 31st March but were being told it was going to be the 5th April at least,” Molly told me.

In the past weeks, the backpackers spent around £6,000 in attempts at arranging flights, hotels and further travel to try and get home to the UK.

 

How they got stranded

“We started a 3-day tour to the Uyuni Salt Flats but 8 hours in the driver announced the Chilean border was closing, and two people as part of the group needed to get there before it closed,” Harry added.

This turned into a major detour for the pair, including a 3 am wake up call, then went 14 hours to the Chilean border, followed by another 17 hours through the night back to Uyuni, according to Molly’s Facebook post.

Losing two days of their tour and with no refund, they both hopped on a bus to the capital La Paz, hoping for a flight back to the UK.

“The fear of being stranded was the main reason,” Harry admitted.

“Our insurance wasn’t going to cover us unless we leave now since WHO (World Health Organisation) had declared the coronavirus a global pandemic,” Molly added.

 

More drama

Harry had attempted to seek travel guidance from the British embassy in London but was often given little help.

With them having little Internet access their parents booked them both on a flight the next day out of La Paz. Travelling back, further complications ensued. Unbeknown to them, Bolivia had imposed a curfew. This meant passenger night buses weren’t allowed to operate, leading to the driver asking them to hide on the floor in the dark whispering ‘policia curfew’ as they passed military checkpoints.

Finally reaching El Alto International Airport, their flight had been booked incorrectly, leaving from La Paz in Mexico. Abnormally calm, they flew to the Bolivian city Santa Cruz, having been told there were international flights still available from there.

As they reached the airport, they were then told all international flights were cancelled. Now in desperation, they decided to take an 8-hour taxi – costing approximately £250 – to the Brazil border with the hope of getting a flight out of there.

The road trip included breaking the nationwide curfew, torrential floods, a burst tyre, and a police interception whilst the driver was seen taking cocaine. They had a flight booked the next day.

 

At the Brazil border

Finally reaching the Bolivia-Brazil border, tired and with lack of sleep for days, they had to wait until 8 am.

“By this point, we hadn’t slept for 5 days. We just lay down at the border, covered in mosquitos,” Molly said.

But despite their best efforts, Brazil had begun to restrict its borders and refused to let them in. After further attempts dialogue, things only got worse.

“The atmosphere just absolutely changed, the guards put their fingers on the triggers of their guns and lifted them right at us. They were definitely going to be shooting if we walked forward,” Molly said.

Guards at the Brazil-Bolivia border (provided).

 

The couple were told they would be quarantined at the Bolivian border if they didn’t leave, so the couple reluctantly took the bus back to Santa Cruz, and another flight to La Paz, where they currently are now.

At the time, Harry admitted they were treading with caution.

“We’ve exhausted most of our financials. But we’re in a good area. We are worried about the riots at night. Once it hits 7 pm, all you can hear is bangs and crashes. But as a whole, at the moment, we’re pretty safe where we are,” he said.

Harry wearing a mask. (Provided)

 

As he finished his sentence, there was an explosion heard outside.

“Maybe, it’s fireworks”, he joked. Harry works for Mark One Scaffolding, and turned 23 on the day we spoke, admitting he won’t forget this birthday in a hurry.

“I’ll be telling my grandkids about when I turned 23,” he later added.

 

Back in the UK

Molly and Harry both have family currently in self-isolation back in the UK, as they showed coronavirus symptoms. But both are concerned about those in the UK not taking precautions.

“I’m hoping if people back home can hear our story they can start taking things more seriously,” the couple stressed.

On the flight, the staff were wearing masks and handing out sanitizer. As they landed in Heathrow, Harry informed me no-one was wearing masks as they disembarked.

 

Hong Kong: Coronavirus cases rising as new laws, quarantine strategy and repeat clashes take shape

Despite a strong start in keeping coronavirus cases low, Hong Kong is starting to feel the pressure as increasing cases of the coronavirus continue to rise.

Since January, Hong Kong has strictly taken precautions to contain the spread of the coronavirus, with the virus originating only a four-hour train ride away in Wuhan, China. Despite the Hong Kong Government resisting stern pressure to close all of its borders back in February, a handful remained open, angering locals.

As locals were worried positive cases would come from Mainland China, it wasn’t until March when the number of infections would surge. As the coronavirus swept the globe, countries worldwide decided to close borders. Europe and the United States have been the worse affected, prompting for Hong Kong residents to quickly return from overseas back into the SAR.

 

Increasing cases of COVID19 push hospitals to their limits

Experts in Hong Kong previously warned of a wave of new infections due to the returning residents. This has proved correct, as the number of confirmed cases now stands nearly at 900, contrary to only 100 by March 2nd, just over one month ago.

At the time of writing, there are still only 4 deaths. But hospitals are struggling to cope.

“There are 30 to 40 newly-infected cases per day, which is steady. Our isolation beds are nearly used up and we need new PPE equipment from the government. We are focusing on the coronavirus so there will be no more strikes, but we still want the border completely closed,” Chris Cheung Treasurer of the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance told me.

Protesters during the Hospital Authority strikes Kwun Tong, Hong Kong. February 2020.

 

 

Recent new laws

The Hong Kong Government has attempted to prevent the spread of the virus by enacting some recent new laws. As of the 19th March, people entering Hong Kong from overseas must undergo home-quarantine for 14-days.

On the 24th March Chief Executive Carrie Lam banned all non-residents from entering the city for two weeks, but some borders with Mainland China continue to be open.

More recently, in an attempt to further push social-distancing, as of April 3rd, under emergency powers, premises are prohibited to sell or supply of alcohol for two weeks. It is thought to prompt the closure of around 1,200 pubs and bars in the city.

Lan Kwai Fong in March 2020

 

 

Quarantine and accommodation struggles

For those entering Hong Kong from high-risk countries can quarantine at home or in a hotel. Many of which have chosen to stay in the struggling hotels of the city.

Several hotels have voluntarily announced their availability and offered ‘Quarantine packages’ to those re-entering the city, whilst substantially slashing their normal rates.

Hotels across Hong Kong have seen rates slashed in recent months.

 

The Centre for Health Protection stated the Hong Kong Tourism Board has a designated list of hotels working with the government offering quarantine stays. However, it has been discovered many more hotels are allowing guests to stay under quarantine circumstances, and are not on that list.

Not all hotels are taking the same different approach. With the potential risk to hotel staff and current guests, there are hotels that are standing firm and rejecting quarantined guests.

“Guests have to fill in a form at the airport and say which hotel they will stay in. We get a call from the government a day after. If the guest is in our hotel and wants to quarantine, we ask them to leave,” according to a sales official, at a major chain hotel.

It’s not just hotels; alternative types of guest accommodations are struggling to deal with the impact of the coronavirus. Hosts via Airbnb are concerned at allowing visitors with travel and some have even inflated prices, to starve off interested customers whilst hostels have struggled for months, with several closures.

Urban Pack, the city’s most popular hostel, has had to survive on government financial relief. But despite the economic struggle to attract guests, they’ve insisted they are not accepting quarantine guests or anyone with recent travel.

“We’ve had to close several of our units. But we are not accepting quarantined guests” the hostel managers confirmed.

 

Sign outside Urban Pack Hostel reception.

 

 

Arrivals at a record low

Tourism has been appalling since the social unrest swept the former British colony since June 2019. Tourist arrivals dropped significantly during the height of the unrest between protesters and police, but evidently the coronavirus spread has had an even greater effect.

Arrivals hall at Kai Tak Cruise Terminal

Year-on-year, February saw a 96% decrease in arrivals. There were only 199,123 arrivals compared to over 5.5million in 2019,  according to the Hong Kong Tourism Board. Now that non-residents are banned from entering the SAR, tourism is non-existent, whilst March’s arrivals are expected to be even lower.

 

 

Life during coronavirus continues

Since the end of January, Hong Kong has had to cope with the coronavirus as it broke out across Mainland China and into the city. Locals quickly took immediate safety precautions by stocking up on masks and staying home, with the reminder of the SARs virus in 2003, all too recent. Added to the growing free-fall of tourism, the streets of Hong Kong have been deserted, by its own standards, for most of 2020.

Schools also continue to be closed whilst bars, restaurants and hotels are desperately quiet. Supermarkets continue to be busy as people stock up on food, whilst the food delivery service is thriving. People still are queuing up for discounted sales on surgical masks, whilst taxis scour the streets in a desperate search for more customers.

Residents queue for face masks in pharmacies. Sai Ying Pun, Hong Kong.

 

People with the ability to work from home are still doing so, but for the locals who work for themselves such as cardboard collectors, vendors and market traders, life continues.

Although the city isn’t on a complete lockdown yet, life in Hong Kong doesn’t resemble the chaotic over-crowded day-to-day life it normally provides.

Cardboard collector, Sai Ying Pun, March 2020.

 

 

Anger rumbles on

The Hong Kong protests and social unrest have quietened down since November 2019, at least in mass and regularity, but that hasn’t stopped gatherings and sporadic clashes each month.

Furthermore, despite the calls for regular social distancing, clashes have taken place in an unexpected fashion.

On February 29th in Mongkok – said to be one of the most congested places in the world – saw the biggest clashes between protesters and police since the coronavirus outbreak. Road barricades and tear gas were exchanged, and according to the Hong Kong Police, 115 were arrested.

A barricade is set ablaze on Nathan Road, Mongkok during the clashes between protesters and police.
29th February 2020.

 

Similar clashes have occurred on an even smaller scale, most recently in Yuen Long on March 21st, with further arrests and exchange of projectiles between protesters and police. It seems apparent that demonstrations are at the moment more likely to happen if an anniversary event is organised. These events have taken place usually monthly, such as the Yuen Long attacks on July 21st 2019 and the Prince Edward controversy on August 31st 2019.

 

 

Worrying months ahead 

With the world now focusing on the effects of the coronavirus is drastically having on the United States and within Europe, Hong Kong is still in a huge crisis. With numbers of infections increasing seven times in one month – albeit largely due to imported cases – the city has yet to reach its peak of infections.

Hong Kong residents wear masks, April 2020.

As reports in Mainland China state, local infections are lowering, it does offer a light at the end of the tunnel for Hong Kongers who are just next-door. But with the back-end of the coronavirus seemingly some way off, the city must stay vigilant. Complications will be added when the one-year anniversary of the protests in arrives in June, undoubtedly causing further demonstrations. The Government LegCo elections in September then add to the Hong Kong’s woes, meaning the problems for the city still remain firmly ahead.

 

Stay at home tips from the American who was quarantined in Japan & the U.S

Sarah’s Story In Less Than 200 Words

When she first boarded her flight from Los Angeles to Toyko, Japan in January, little did she know the world would be in a global health crisis by the time she returned.

Sarah Arana, 52, a medical social worker from Santa Cruz, California, was one aboard the coronavirus-stricken Diamond Princess cruise ship, docked off the coast of Yokohama, Japan. After her cruise, on February 4th, one confirmed case of the coronavirus ignited over 700 infected patients, out of over 3,800 passengers. With quarantine measures at the time, two weeks of cruise ship lockdown were required. She spent her entire quarantine time in her cabin room.

Luckily Sarah was one of the tested passengers whose results came out negative.

On February 18th, the U.S Government sent evacuation flights to pick up any American passengers stranded on the ship, including Sarah. As she landed in California, she like several others were immediately transferred to a U.S Government quarantine centre at Travis Air Force Base in California. Sarah then underwent a further two weeks of quarantine, including her birthday.

In total, Sarah spend FOUR weeks in quarantine in two different countries, under two different environments.

Since March 2nd, out of both quarantine, Sarah has been deployed by CALMAT (California Medical Assistance Team), providing mental health services for health workers to handle the anticipated overflow of COVID patients, in Southern California.

Converted beds in a temporary hospital to deal with the overflow of COVID19 patients, California, USA.

 

Sarah told me her story whilst onboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship. I published this via the Telegraph newspaper in the UK. You can read that story here.

 

Sarah Arana, whilst quarantined on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship, in Yokohama, Japan.

 

Sarah’s Tips on Quarantine, Self Isolation and Staying At Home

The coronavirus is now worldwide with the United States and Europe currently in the midst of the worst affected outside of China. With many residents on lockdown, finding real-time and experienced advice is key to get you through this. I contacted Sarah who happily sent me her thoughts, unedited, below.

1. First and foremost.

I would say if one has access to WIFI and the Internet, there’s a plethora of great things going on, virtual museum tours, concerts, the symphony, so many things being offered for free right now. A very simple search will reveal many special gems.

Also social media and chatting with friends. This is important because having contact and access to others greatly reduces feelings of isolation and provides that connection that we all need and crave. Definitely stay in touch with family and friends and know that you are not alone.

This one is probably the single most valuable thing when I was trapped on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan, was having contact with so many others both on and off the ship so we could support each other, tell jokes, and just know that there were others going through the same thing.

2. Stay positive.

It’s easy to fall down a black hole of doom and despair if you let fear and anxiety take control of you. Meditate, do yoga, listen to uplifting music, turn off the news, read a good book, and make sure you take care of yourself, drink plenty of water, eat healthily and stay well. This is very important. If you start to feel negativity set in, reset your mood with something that makes you laugh, makes you smile, makes you happy and remind yourself this is only temporary, it will not last forever and this small sacrifice is for the greater good.

3. Do tap into some creative energy.

You can draw, paint, build something, plant nice things in your garden, colouring books, whatever you have access to and feel inspired to do, dive in. There’s a ton of skillshares and tutorials available online for practically anything you can imagine. Get your hands dirty and dive in.

4. Get outside.

Whether you live in an area where you can go for a walk, go in the back yard, go on a hike, sit on the front porch, get outside and get fresh air. If you live in an area with sun, let the sun hit your forehead and forearms for 5-15 minutes a day. This is helpful for reducing anxiety, depression and is uplifting. You will sleep better not to mention get a little bit of Vitamin D.

5. Get exercise.

Exercising during quarantine in Travis Air Base, California.

Whatever you can do; walk, hike, bike, yoga, Zumba, dance, anything, just move your body for at least 30 minutes a day. It helps keep the blood and air flowing and you truly feel better. Get some movement daily.

6. Reframe.

Think of this as a retreat, a sanctuary, a sabbatical, a time out, a break. This is not a bad thing, you are not being punished and if you approach this as a rare opportunity to slow down and do some things you wouldn’t otherwise have the time to do, you might find that you can be very productive. Also, keep in mind that resting and relaxing is productive. Give yourself permission to do nothing. That’s doing something valuable.

If you’re stuck inside, in self-isolation or quarantine, and want professional advice from Sarah during the coronavirus crisis, you can contact her at Wellnessflows@gmail.com.

 

Hong Kong: The New Coronavirus, COVID19 – Q&A, WHO Advice & General Travel Advice

2020 has started off in catastrophe with the rocket attacks between the U.S and Iran, Australia’s devastating bushfires and now the biggest global panic of them all, the New Coronavirus, now officially called COVID-19.

Covid19 has been headline news ever since the turn of the new decade since the outbreak from Wuhan in Hubei Province, China. There have been over 60,000 cases at the time of writing, resulting in nearly 2,000 deaths. By the time you read this, it’ll no doubt be more.

Wherever you are in Asia – Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan or Japan, it’s important to take strict health precautions. The virus is spreading and mutating, with Asia the region to be affected most. Hong Kong may be one of the first in the virus firing line, but others may follow.

 

Q&A from Hong Kong

Hong Kong Island

I’m no doctor, but I am a travel writer and media correspondent based in Hong Kong. Because of the land-border to Mainland China, Hong Kong is the closest city outside of the mainland to the epicentre of the Covid19 outbreak.

If another place gets hit with mass infections second to China, due to its close proximity, it’s likely to be here in Hong Kong.

Also, Hongkongers will tell you, the memories of the SARs outbreak of 2003 spring sharply to mind, adding to the panic of catching the new and deadly virus.

 

 

What is Hong Kong’s link with the virus?

At the time of writing, Hong Kong has suffered over 60 infected patients of the new coronavirus, and one fatality has been confirmed.

Hong Kong has multiple crossings in and out of the mainland that include transport by train, bus, and ferry. Most of the borders have been closed due to the epidemic, but much to the displeasure of Hongkongers, not all of them.

Thousands of medical workers took action and went on strikes – such as doctors and nurses – to ensure complete closure of Mainland China, from 3-7th February.

Since the 8th of February, anyone coming from mainland China into Hong Kong will have to be placed in quarantine for 14-days.

 

Is Hong Kong being affiliated with the increasing flights cancelled to and from Mainland China? 

Flights in and out of Hong Kong to multiple destinations are beginning to wane. Originally, international airlines across the globe restricted and cancelled flights only into Mainland China.

Now, they are punishing Hong Kong too.

Taiwan – less than two hours flight away – has announced a temporary ban on foreign nationals who have come from Hong Kong or Macau since February 8th. American Airlines Group and United Airlines are suspending all flights to and from Hong Kong after February 20th. Virgin Australia is set to permanently cancel flights into Hong Kong, whilst Air India is cancelling flights into the former British colony.

More flight cancellations are expected.

 

Are the protests still going on amid the coronavirus outbreak?

Hong Kong Police, 19.01.20

Unlike the scenes we were used to seeing in the second half of 2019, the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests have significantly calmed since the end of November.

Demonstrations are taking place but are more gatherings and have far less the violence. However, if you stay up late enough and chase every sign of a skirmish, you’ll find riot police patrolling some areas in Kowloon more often than not.

 

What happened with the medical strikes?

Medical staff queue to sign petitions at the HA Building, 3/2/20

 

Medical staff in Hong Kong have been striking with their respective unions because they are adamant Hong Kong needs to close its border entirely with mainland China, to prevent the spread of the disease.

This affected emergency services during the beginning of February, but since the strikes have ended, normal service has supposedly resumed.  Time will tell if further strikes are planned.

Further demonstrations opposing the government’s actions over further preventing the virus, are ongoing.

 

Are people panicking?

Yes. As you may have seen posted across social media, the battle for facemasks and alcohol-filled hand sanitizer (is becoming fierce in Hong Kong. Shops are selling out, queues are for blocks and prices are surging. People living in Hong Kong are even getting friends from abroad to buy for them and ship them across.

Residents are staying indoors, public schools are closed and the tourist attractions have been closed. This might be happening in Hong Kong now, but if the virus spreads to its peak, other countries in Asia could see this happen too.

Long queues outside pharmacy stores have been common in Hong Kong during the COVID19 outbreak.

 

What advice would you give if I’ve already had a flight booked to Hong Kong?

It’s totally up to you at your own risk. I’d check with your airline to see if your flight is still going ahead. Remember, the virus as it stands, hasn’t reached its peak, so coming to Hong Kong may not be a wise move right now.

If you do come to Hong Kong from a non-infected area, perhaps look at changing your accommodation to the outlying islands. You can stay on Cheung Chau, Lamma or Lantau islands with regular ferries into the city. This way you’ll be out of the congestion of the city and that decreases the risk for infection.

Wherever you go, bring masks, hand sanitizer, and gloves.

 

Medical advice derived from WHO

Everyone can be infected by the coronavirus, it doesn’t matter how tough a traveller you are or how old you are.

That being said, WHO has stated anyone with pre-existing medical conditions are more vulnerable to becoming severely ill if they’ve contracted the disease.

Nevertheless, read some of these precautionary measures to keep on top of your hygiene health.

 

Wash your hands frequently

If you’ve held onto a handrail on a bus or opened a door in the mall, wash your hands afterwards. Use soap or hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Thousands of people will do the same every day. Wash your hands regularly and keep your sanitizer in your pocket.

 

Wear a real facemask

Wearing an N95 Respirator Mask, Hong Kong, 2020.

If you go onto the streets of Hong Kong, 99% of people are NOW wearing a facemask. From what I’ve seen, only the odd couple are not, and they tend to be foreigners or expats.

It’s important to wear a facemask to spread or acquire new germs. In addition to that, buy your mask from a registered pharmacy or shop. If they come out of a box or plastic packaging, you should be ok. There have been rumours of recycled masks being distributed as the desperate need goes on.

 

What masks?

Surgical masks are more common, cheaper and easier to find. However, if you can find an N95 respirator mask, buy and use them.

 

Wear gloves

To be extra careful, wear rubber gloves if you’re frequently outside. Touching many surfaces can be contaminated with the virus. We touch things every day with our hands and fingers, most of the time subconsciously.

 

Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth

If you touch your eyes, nose or mouth with your contaminated hands, you can transfer the virus from the surface to yourself. Cover your nose and mouth with your mask and try not to play around with it.

 

Maintain distance

If someone is coughing, sneezing or has fever keep 3 feet away. If you’re too close, you can breathe in the virus from small projected droplets.

 

Cough or sneezing

Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue and discard it immediately into the bin, otherwise, the risk may spread.

Symptoms

It really goes without saying, but given the current crisis of the epidemic, you really need to pay attention to your symptoms.

If you’re experiencing fever, cough or difficulty breathing, you should speak to a health provider anyway. But if you’ve travelled within China since the outbreak of the coronavirus, you must share this information.

 

Avoid uncooked meats

If you’re eating locally – especially animal products, try to handle with care. Avoid uncooked foods and if something looks undercooked to you, take it back.

 

Markets

Markets are common across Hong Kong, Kowloon, 2019.

Asia is full of colourful, overflowing markets and Hong Kong is no different. Wet and live animal markets can be found in all corners of Hong Kong. If you insist on visiting, visit with care. Practice hygiene and do not touch any animals, waste or fluids.

 

For full official advice from WHO on the Coronavirus, click on this link

 

 

General Travel Advice

Here’s some general travel advice, as well as mine from being here in Hong Kong that is potentially going to be the second-worst hit place after China. If you’re travelling around Asia this year, take note.

 

Flying during the epidemic

Planes are one of the worst places to be right now because with circulated air and being contained for several hours, does increase the risk of the virus being spread.

If you don’t have to fly, try not to.

 

Overnight boats, cruises

There are two cruise liners that are currently stagnant off the shores of Hong Kong and Japan respectively and both have confirmed of several infected passengers with the virus. Staying in a confined area with large groups of people isn’t recommended in high-risk areas.

 

Eating

Asia is home to the best food in the world. We’ve all enjoyed it, street food from vendors for $1, and more often than not, they are some of the best meals we’ve had in our lives.

But let’s be honest, in exchange for cheap meals, sometimes hygiene standards are missing. Watch your food being prepared if you don’t feel comfortable, go somewhere else.

And don’t eat anything hazardous or outrageous, like wild animals such as bats or foxes!

 

Staying in a hotel

Big hotels often hold have many rooms for many guests, but it only takes one of them, guests, to get sick and the whole place gets infected. If you’re staying in a hotel for an extended period, don’t ask the cleaning staff to service your room every day. They may catch it from a sick guest, and can then pass it to you.

 

Staying in hostels 

Hostels are a great way to meet people, especially if you are a solo traveller and on a budget. If you’re staying in a place that is highly infected, perhaps it’s time to upgrade to a clean, private room.

Urban Pack Hostel, Tsim Sha Tsui.

Wash yourself, clothes regularly

It may seem a little drastic, but washing your clothes after wearing them once might a given for some of you. Others will prefer to bask in their favourite t-shirt for days on end. If you’re in a congested area like Hong Kong or Bangkok, try to wear fresh clean clothes every day.

In humid cities as mentioned above, it’s easy to feel dirty and sweat ridden. Giving the outbreak of the virus droplets can add to that, take a shower, morning and night.