An empty train station in Tel Aviv (by Dana Regev)

Israeli-born journalist Dana Regev shares her harrowing travel experience during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Back in the good old days of early March, when Israel only had 15 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, Israelis were much more cautious about the outbreak than anyone else. Ben- Gurion Airport was already empty, the train to Haifa even emptier, and even the brave who headed outside made sure to cover their faces.

I, however, was adventurous enough to visit an old friend living in Kibbutz Erez, located near the Gaza border and 100 miles away from my hometown. Too adventurous, as I have come to learn the hard way, when my one-week trip to my home country was cut short by the global outbreak.

That was before the World Health Organization had officially declared the coronavirus a pandemic, before all foreigners were banned from entering Israel unless they self-quarantined and way before the 100th Israeli COVID-19 patient was diagnosed.

Today, the world is a completely different place.

‘You Must Leave’

I was spending some quality time in Israel’s warm south when the push notifications poured in. All travelers who had landed in Israel in the past two weeks from Austria, France, Spain, Switzerland and my current country of residence, Germany, were to go into quarantine.

My phone buzzed more. “You must leave right away,” a German colleague texted, “otherwise you won’t get out.”

Friends sent WhatsApp messages, canceling appointments. “I guess we can’t really meet now,” they said.

I now belonged to the group of people no longer allowed to be in physical contact with the outside world. My flight back to Germany was only four days away. But then the plot thickened.

“Dear customer, your flight from Tel Aviv to Frankfurt/Main on Sunday is canceled,” the email from Lufthansa read laconically. “Please accept our apologies. We are looking for alternatives and will be in touch shortly with a solution.”

Needless to say, they weren’t.

So, there I was, stuck near Gaza, with no car, no spare clothes, no place to stay, no flight home and under strict orders to not spend time in public.

The new instructions affected 70,000 Israelis, so the hotlines were, naturally, collapsing. When I finally got ahold of someone, I became even more confused.

“You are allowed to leave the country, but not the current place you’re staying at,” said the representative. Unless, they offered, “someone can take you through the entire route until the check-in counter.”

Great. Even the Mossad couldn’t save me now. My phone buzzed again. A guy named Lukas was on the other end. In a thick German accent, he said he was part of the coronavirus emergency team for my company, the English-language German news organization Deutsche Welle.

“We’re getting you on the next flight,” Lukas said. “The embassy is briefed. Can you leave tonight?”

I couldn’t. “Tomorrow morning?” he insisted. It was already 8 p.m. “Let me run to our travel agents,” he added. A race against time began.

My friend drove me to the nearest train station, where I wasn’t allowed to board a train. A man then offered me a ride to Tel Aviv after seeing me in distress, and a taxi driver volunteered to take me from Tel Aviv all the way to Haifa.

This entire time, my editors in Germany were calling, as well as people working for the Israeli embassy in Berlin. A friend agreed to take me from the taxi station to my mother’s home in Haifa and drive me to the train station afterward. When the last train had run, another taxi driver let me hitch a ride with his son to Tel Aviv.

Complete strangers connected me with doctors who guided me over the phone on how to behave and what to avoid. Finally, I made it to the airport check-in counter, just as I was told.

No End in Sight

The outbreak itself is far from curbed. With more than 180,000 cases confirmed worldwide, and more than 255 in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered schools and universities shuttered. President Donald Trump has banned all flights from Europe to the U.S., and the global death toll stands at more than 6,700. All numbers are from March 16.
Scientists at Israel’s Institute for Biological Research are furiously developing a vaccine. In the meantime, please listen to all public health guidelines. And wash your hands.

Dana Regev is an Israeli-born journalist who reports on global affairs for Deutsche Welle in Germany.

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