Covid-19 pandemic: Hong Kong airline pilots live in ‘eternal quarantine’

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One of the world’s largest aviation hubs, Hong Kong maintains some of the world’s strictest security protocols for controlling the Covid-19 pandemic.

The restrictions have directly affected the lives of airline employees, who report routine stress and emotional exhaustion.

“You’re in a perpetual state of quarantine,” says Pierre*, a Cathay Pacific pilot, who says he has spent nearly 150 days in isolation this year alone.

While Hong Kong has registered virtually no local Covid-19 cases in recent months, the island has imposed a comprehensive and rigorous testing and quarantine regime, in line with mainland China’s “zero covid” policy.

Pilots are not immune to these rules — meaning they spend an exceptionally large portion of their time either working or quarantined.

Tough measures start at the airport

All international travelers arriving in the city must take Covid-19 tests on arrival at the airport and undergo quarantine, even if the diagnosis is negative. They have to wait for the test results – which are available the same day – before they can proceed with immigration procedures.

“[A tripulação] he has spent more than 25 hours on the plane, sometimes close to 30 hours in case of delays,” said Clark*, another pilot for Cathay Pacific, which is based in Hong Kong.

“They have to sit in a plastic chair and they can’t sleep, waiting for the tests. The whole process takes about four hours, from the moment you land to the moment you get home.”

If the test comes back negative, the riders can go home — but they’re still not free.

For the first three days after disembarking, the crew must remain at their homes. They can only go out for a maximum of two hours a day – and only to take the Covid test or perform essential activities.

Crew members then have to “avoid unnecessary social contact” for another 18 days, maintaining the daily testing routine.

“I don’t think this is in any way fair or that it makes sense,” Clark pointed out. “It’s totally unacceptable.”

‘Lonely’

When pilots test positive, or, as in Pierre’s case, are identified as a contact person for a positive case, they are sent to a hospital or quarantine center. Among them the controversial Penny’s Bay, which was criticized for its structure considered precarious.

Pierre said that being in Penny’s Bay is like being “in solitary confinement”, in a cramped room that catches “zero sun”.

“I couldn’t see a plant, a single blade of grass,” he says.

Families of employees who tested positive and some of their close contacts are also quarantined at the unit, including children and pregnant women.

Spartan sanitary regulations, which also apply to foreign crews, have led companies such as British Airways to stop their flights to Hong Kong. Recently, after reports that more and more of its employees were being quarantined in Penny’s Bay, the British company suspended the route and said it was “reviewing operational requirements” for it.

For Cathay riders, the restrictions don’t end when they’re abroad. The crew must also follow the company’s strict isolation rules even during stopovers in other countries.

“You go straight from your room to the plane. You fly, and then you go straight back to your room, where you stay locked until you leave again,” reported Pierre.

“The food is delivered to the room. You open the door, take the tray and eat alone,” he adds.

“There’s a security guard outside the door. So you literally can’t even go out into the hallway. We’re quarantined from the moment we got to work until we got back to Hong Kong.”

sick leave and layoff plans

Sought, Cathay Pacific said it was following security protocols recommended by Hong Kong authorities.

“The safety and well-being of our customers, employees and the community remains our top priority. We regularly remind our crew of the importance of complying with pandemic control measures in Hong Kong and abroad,” the note says.

Asked about the condition of the Penny’s Bay quarantine center, the company said it was doing its best to “help all those affected” and said the facilities were government-run.

“We’ve expanded our support, utilizing group resources to provide everything from electrical appliances and additional food supplies to those in the facility, to try to make their stay as comfortable as possible.”

The company also said that it recognized the “burden” imposed on the crew and admitted having observed in recent weeks the impact of protocols on the “feeling” of employees in relation to their respective functions.

“A pilot who feels good about flying can express this to managers without risk, and is legally protected in his right to declare himself unfit for the service.”

For some employees, however, this is not comforting. Pilots who spoke to the BBC report said they had requested or planned to request a sick leave given the psychological impact of routine restrictions and quarantines and the strain on their personal lives.

“I’m almost certainly going to quit in the spring. I’m leaving with no other job in sight, I just want to quit,” Clark said.

“I would say that probably 80% of the people I fly with are actively looking for work elsewhere.

*Names have been changed to preserve pilots’ identity.

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