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A Coronavirus Exodus on a Diplomatic Passport

by Joey Leavitt

AT THE OUTSET of the COVID-19 pandemic, the US State Department authorized elective evacuation of Foreign Service officers and their dependents posted abroad. A consular-cone Foreign Service officer, Joey Leavitt, and his family braved ambiguous and ever-changing international immigration rules to travel from Dubai to Las Vegas in early April via London and Los Angeles. Leavitt rated and detailed their experience for us.

International Phone Calls: 7/10
I spent hours working the phones trying to figure out which route was least likely to get my family and me stuck in quarantine in a foreign country or an empty airport terminal with only a vending machine full of Cheetos for sustenance (actually this sounds okay). I like that now you can call anywhere in the world just by dialing a few numbers, and the reception is usually pretty good. I remember when we lived in Syria about fifteen years ago and we would call home with a calling card. When I would finally get a connection with my parents, there would be a twelve-second delay while my voice got routed around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was held up by protests in France, traveled across the Atlantic seabed, and then stopped for grits in southern Georgia. Things are way better now.

Airport Security: 9/10
Airport security in Dubai, our departure point, was just a guy who pointed a thermometer gun at our foreheads, waved us past, and did the same thing to the other twelve people in the airport. Then he sat down and watched YouTube videos on his phone. We still had to send our carry-ons through the scanner, but the conveyor belt made a weird, loud, echoey sound in the nearly empty chamber, and I felt like I was in a dream. It would have been a 10/10, but we still had to take off our shoes.

Airport McDonald’s: 2/10
It was 7:45 a.m., yet they weren’t serving breakfast, which is irresponsible because you know what kills COVID-19? Hotcakes—with Lysol syrup. But just plain hotcakes give it a pretty good spanking. So I had to eat a Quarter Pounder for breakfast, which is interestingly against the law in Vermont.

Shannon and Savannah, so forlorn—so close to London yet unable to actually reach it. (Heathrow Airport, London, UK, April 2020)

Aerotel Hotel Inside Heathrow: 5/10
Pretty expensive. And I can see why: it would have cost a lot to conduct the extensive R&D necessary to engineer bathroom sinks that small. When I spit my used toothpaste, it almost overflowed the basin. But that’s just because I needed a lot of toothpaste to kill the taste of stale Quarter Pounder. Bumped up a couple of points for the soft, green lights that you can’t turn off and make you feel like you’re sleeping inside a translucent frog.

Heathrow Terminal 5: 7/10
A yawning, hollow, disinfected place, Terminal 5 was the least likely place on earth to catch COVID-19, apart from the inside of a bottle of Lysol. A security guy asked us a lot of questions about how we were feeling. I said I had been sleeping better ever since coronavirus killed two of the five voices in my head, but I think he was asking more about physical health than mental health, which he could’ve been clearer about up front, in my defense.

Shannon’s Cleaning Joke: 13/10
There wasn’t really anyone in the terminal except me, Shannon, and the kids. Well, and the cleaning lady, who for unfathomable reasons didn’t think it was funny when Shannon said, motioning at the desolate terminal, “Welp, must be easier to clean when it’s like this!” How is that not funny?!

The Flights Themselves: 9/10
The flights themselves were pleasant. Everyone pretty much had their own row and each bag had its own overhead compartment. The lavatories were basically always free. You could go in and just flush the toilet over and over to cool off. I don’t know why, but flushing the toilet in an airplane reduces the lavatory temperature by at least 0.5 degrees.

The flight attendants were extra nice, probably because they thought we would all be stressed, but how can you be stressed when there are eighteen people on a plane big enough for three hundred? The captain told us the cabin recycles its air every twenty-eight seconds, so I only inhaled twice per minute so that I was always breathing clean air. “Safety first”—that’s what I always say. Well, that and “Give it; that’s mine.”

Joey Leavitt is a Kennedy Center Middle East Studies/Arabic and BYU Law School graduate who has served in Saudi Arabia, El Salvador, India, and Washington, DC, and is currently posted to the UAE.

LAX: 7/10
During our six-hour layover in a completely deserted Los Angeles airport, we played Uno sitting cross-legged in a spot of sun in front of our gate, but then we all just sort of fell asleep. That’s probably the only time my family will sleep on the floor in front of a check-in desk at LAX. This would be an 8 or a 9, but they had the air conditioning jacked up pretty high. Can’t you see I’m curled up in a ball in the middle of the floor at 49B, clearly freezing?

Overall: -42/10
You shouldn’t travel during global pandemics unless you absolutely have to. Repeatedly and happily flushing the lavatory toilet on a nearly empty plane just isn’t worth the risk of contracting or spreading disease, let alone the risk of getting stranded somewhere you don’t want to be due to borders closing or immigration rules changing without notice. So be smart and do puzzles at home. And also this is a good time to practice pull-ups, or eat push-ups.