Cross Country Checkup

Stephanie Nolen was reporting on variants in South Africa — then Europe's travel ban sidelined her return

On Friday, Stephanie Nolen, global health reporter for the New York Times, was flying to Amsterdam from South Africa as the European Union blocked flights from several African countries. She and her fellow passengers spent hours stuck at Schiphol Airport awaiting COVID-19 test results.

Experts have criticized decisions by governments to hastily close borders in a bid to curb newest variant

People stand at a counter at the XL Schiphol test location. Dutch health authorities announced Saturday that 61 people who arrived in Amsterdam on flights from South Africa tested positive for COVID-19. Thirteen of the cases involved the omicron variant. (Eva Plevier/Reuters)

After reporting on the scientists working to identify and track coronavirus variants in southern Africa, Canadian journalist Stephanie Nolen found herself caught up in the chaos while leaving South Africa as countries closed their airports to flights from several African countries over the latest variant, omicron.

At some point during her flight from Johannesburg to Amsterdam on Friday, the European Union announced that its countries would suspend entry of travellers from several African countries — including South Africa. When her flight arrived at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, passengers were not allowed to deplane.

"I thought, 'Oh, well, this is going to be a good part of my story,' " Nolen, the global health reporter for the New York Times, told Cross Country Checkup on Sunday.

The omicron variant was declared a variant of concern by WHO on Friday. The European Union and other countries, including Canada, quickly responded by imposing travel bans to certain countries in Africa.

The omicron variant has already been identified in several countries, including Canada. Two cases of the coronavirus variant were confirmed in Ottawa late Sunday. Many uncertainties remain about just how transmissible the variant is, and how severe an infection it might cause.

Experts have criticized decisions by governments to hastily close borders in a bid to curb the newest variant's spread.

"The key here to understand is the virus that … South African scientists have measured just in the last week probably was circulating for quite a while," said Dr. Prabhat Jha, professor of global health at the University of Toronto and an epidemiologist at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, on Checkup.

"I think the correct strategy is not to punish the countries, particularly South Africa, that have been so good in reporting their data so quickly, but rather we should adopt very vigorous testing and quarantine approaches for visitors from those countries."

No food, water on tarmac

Nolen was aware the latest variant was already making waves before her departure from Johannesburg. At that point, her flight was clear to take off. 

After landing in Amsterdam, she said flight attendants told passengers that they would "do something different" — another round of COVID-19 tests. Nolen said she had already tested negative the day before departure, and 72 hours before that.

WATCH | Stephanie Nolen shares what happened after landing in Amsterdam:

Health reporter details journey from South Africa following omicron variant travel ban

2 months ago
Duration 11:18
Stephanie Nolen, global health reporter for the New York Times, recently travelled to South Africa to detail research on variants in that country. She tells Cross Country Checkup host Ian Hanomansing about landing at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport on Friday after the European Union suspended entry of travellers from several African countries. 11:18

Nolen said she and her fellow travellers spent more than five hours marooned on the tarmac at Schiphol — without anything to eat or drink.

"It was when the captain came on and said, 'We'd like to get you some food and water, but we can't because they won't let catering approach the plane' that one started to be a little bit anxious," she recalled.

A statement from GGD Kennemerland, a regional Dutch health authority, said while they understand the frustration among passengers, they were confronted with an unprecedented situation.

People wait at a counter for quarantine and COVID-19 test appointments inside Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. Nolen says she and fellow passengers on a flight from South Africa waited hours for test results after their flight from South Africa was blocked by health authorities. (Eva Plevier/Reuters)

Cases of omicron variant detected on 2 flights

Five hours in, a bus arrived to transport the weary travellers to a cordoned-off airport terminal where all passengers were swabbed, Nolen said. She and others waited an additional nine hours for the test results, ending up packed into a tight line to have them delivered verbally.

By then, it had been nearly 24 hours since they departed Johannesburg. Many of her fellow travellers were not wearing masks, she said.

"I basically feel like I've been dipped and rolled in COVID," Nolen said.

Citing Dutch health authorities, Reuters reported that 61 passengers who arrived in Amsterdam from South Africa on two different flights — including Nolen's — on Friday tested positive for COVID-19. On Sunday, officials confirmed 13 of the cases were caused by the omicron variant.

Cleared for departure, Nolen continued her journey, landing in Nova Scotia on Saturday night.

While sitting on the tarmac of Schiphol airport, the reporter documented her ordeal for the Times.

"Someday, I may appreciate the irony in this situation," she wrote, adding she had plenty of time to review research shared with her by scientists in South Africa.


Written by Jason Vermes with files from Reuters and Ashley Fraser.

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