Editor’s Note: We are publishing personal essays from CNN’s global staff as they live and cover the story of Covid-19. Sebastian Shukla is a producer based in London.
The motto that runs through the veins of CNN producers and reporters is “Go There.” Yet coronavirus has turned “going there” from normal to abnormal.
On pre-Covid assignments to Syria, Ukraine or the Central African Republic, we left our loved ones knowing they were safe at home. But now, possible travel has me thinking, “I could bring the virus back and infect my fiancée, who could infect others and who could end up in bed, hospitals or worse.”
So, when I was asked recently if I could travel to Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, which has not imposed lockdowns, I gave it due consideration. We would be abandoning the regulations of social distancing imposed by the UK government and most of Europe. But it would mean a return to a semblance of a regular working life. We would once again be on the road, the first time in five weeks.
So I said yes, and started preparations. Instead of the malaria tablets and flak jacket I’ve needed before, I had a box of surgical gloves, two types of face mask, antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizer delivered.
The cab ride to Heathrow took only 20 minutes, about half the normal time. But if the empty roads seemed strange, the departure hall was eerie. Usually teeming with businesspeople and tourists, there were just 20 people checking in with agents sheltered behind plastic screens.
Along with my colleagues, correspondent Phil Black and photojournalist Martin Bourke, I did my best to keep a distance, joking, “I would shake your hand but …” Phil and I even stood back, abandoning our usual team effort, to let Martin handle all the kit.
Once through security, the only shops open were a newsagents and a chemist. If I wanted an oat milk flat white, or a fresh shirt from Thomas Pink, this was not the place.
As we waited, it dawned that this this empty terminal would not be an exception in Europe. It could be an enduring image for some time to come – a new normal.
With no direct flight from London to Stockholm at the moment, our journey would take 6 hours with a change in the Finnish capital, Helsinki. Just as we soared into the clouds I spotted British Airways aircraft parked-up, like the rest of the world, at home.
As we settled into our three hour flight, the bite of my mask around my nose started to take hold. Even breathing has become irregular. There were no more than 20 people on the flight. We spread out, leaving gaps between us. Cabin crew in protective gear offered sandwiches, opening the tray of any takers so we didn’t have to touch anything.
Helsinki airport was as somber as Heathrow. More closed shops. More planes out to pasture and the now expected dearth of people.
Flying to the old world
But with the connecting flight to Stockholm came a shift in gear. People were sitting next to each other in a two-by-two configuration. It was uncomfortable. Suddenly everyone was too close.
Even from the air it was easy to see things were going to be different in Sweden. I spotted a telltale sign of life: traffic. The first trace of what used to be normality.
At our hotel I was asked to sign the terms and conditions of my stay on an iPad with my finger. Really? Then I spied a busy lobby bar with friends meeting for a drink. I saw hugs and a peck on the cheek. Not a mask or glove in sight. That’s not normal. Hand me that hand sanitizer.
As we started work, we tried to keep our distance and sanitize as regularly as possible. But it soon became clear a few compromises were needed.
We had to travel in the same car. We could not expect Marty alone to load, carry and set up the gear for shoots.
After 6 weeks of lockdown in the UK, it was incredible to see so many people out on the streets, commuting to work, going to school and even socializing. We stood on Stockholm’s main shopping street bemused, as people wandered in and out of H&M or grabbed a coffee.
We returned to our individual hotel rooms to work on the story, savoring some isolation, before having to cram together to get set for the live shot.
The next day, as we looked for a broadcast location, we stumbled across a bar crammed with people frolicking and cavorting in the early spring sunshine.
If I sound jealous, it’s because I was. Yet, I was also conflicted. How nice it would have been to wander over, pull up a chair and enjoy a beer. But I also knew the death rate in Sweden is now significantly higher than many other countries in Europe, with 2,500 dead.
They used to say there was safety in numbers. But the counts of dead and infected across Europe suggest the complete opposite.
I thought the most abnormal thing about visiting Sweden would be the trip there. But actually, the view of “normal life” happening in Stockholm now, a glimpse into our own so-recent past, now seems like the least normal thing in the world.