COVID-19: lockdown in a Berber village

Three weeks since they last stepped on dry land, hundreds of passengers aboard the Zaandam may soon be allowed to leave the stricken cruise ship.

President Trump has intervened to overturn the decision by Florida’s governor that the vessel could not dock at its home port, Fort Lauderdale.

The Holland America Line vessel has been barred from disembarking passengers at every port since she departed Punta Arenas in Chile on 12 March.

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Four passengers have died aboard the Zaandam, including a 75-year-old British man, John Carter. His widow remains on board in isolation.

Nine people on board have tested positive for Covid-19 and 219 have reported flu-like symptoms.

Around 250 other passengers remain aboard the Zaandam, along with 602 crew.

A further 808 passengers who were free of symptoms were transferred from the stricken ship to a sister vessel, Rotterdam, off the coast of Panama.

The two ships then passed through the canal and sailed across the Caribbean to Florida. During the voyage, 14 of the passengers transferred to the Rotterdam have developed flu-like symptoms.

The vessels are currently 20 miles east of Fort Lauderdale.

Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, had told Fox News: “We cannot afford to have people who are not even Floridians dumped into South Florida using up those valuable resources.”

But Mr Trump used part of his coronavirus briefing on Wednesday to insist that British and Canadian passengers would be allowed off the Zaandam and Rotterdam.

He said: “You have people that are sick on those ships and states don’t want to take – they have enough problems right now.

“They don’t want to take them but we have to from a humane standpoint. We don’t have a choice. I don’t want to do that but we have to. People are dying, we’re going to do something.

“We’re taking the Canadians off and giving them to Canadian authorities. They’re going to bring them back home. The same thing with the UK.

“We have to help the people. We have to do something. And the governor knows that, too.”

Holland America Line said: “We appreciate the support of President Trump in resolving the humanitarian plight of our guests – 311 of whom are American citizens and 52 of whom are residents of Florida.

“There are also four children under the age of 12 on board.”

In a statement it said: “Holland America Line calls for compassion and reason in the review and approval of our disembarkation plan by Florida officials and we are grateful for those that have supported our efforts.

“For the estimated less than 10 people who need immediate critical care shoreside, we have secured approval from a local health system partner that they will accept them for treatment.”

The cruise line said passengers who were in good health and needed to fly home would be taken straight to the airport on buses “with limited person-to-person contact and while wearing masks”.

But 45 other passengers who have mild illness will be held in isolation on board.

“Disembarkation would be at a later date to be determined and only after they have recovered,” Holland America Line said.

I’ve done it the wrong way around. I’m that salmon swimming against the river, upstream. As the coronavirus hit, I left the UK for Morocco, my home for the past six years.

I live in Imlil, a small Amazigh (Berber) village high up in the Atlas mountains. My little house is perched on a mule track halfway up a mountain, carved into the rock, so I look out over a sea of walnut trees to the village beyond. I am in a family compound, home to around 25 people of all generations, and I have been welcomed in as one of that family, a kind of eccentric aunt.

I’m an adventurer by trade and I have just finished a three-month expedition on foot across the Sahara exploring the vast wilderness and looking for the effects of climate change. I finished in mid-February and so came back to the UK in March to see family and do some interviews and speeches. At that time, the coronavirus was something that was happening somewhere else, mainly in Iran and China, and was only on the fringes of my consciousness.

BBC Radio 4 had offered me the chance to go on Saturday Live to talk about the Sahara, but it meant I had to delay my return for a week until March 14. No problem, I thought, I’ll stay with my friends Martin and Gary in London and catch up with people.

That week was a slow dawning of reality, and I started cancelling on people and scanning the travel news constantly, praying my flight back to Morocco wouldn’t be stopped. It wasn’t even a conscious decision, it was an instinctive urge to go back home, my home.

Saturday finally came and I did my interview and went straight to Gatwick. I had a mask, but felt a bit silly wearing it. No one else was. Each stage forward was a triumph and my stomach was knotted with fear that they would cancel at the last moment or even turn back. At that stage I hadn’t even thought about staying in the UK. I was amazed to see that the plane was entirely full. The young couple next to me had left their two teenagers with the grandparents to get away for a five-day break.

“Aren’t you worried you might not get back?” I asked, before I could stop myself. They said no, as they were seasoned travellers, so I gave them my best insider tips for fun things to do.

“You’re a risk”

Landing at Marrakech was such a relief, and then I got in my little car and headed up the dark mountain roads towards my village. I was about an hour away when the email pinged up from the British Embassy. “All flights are stopping as of midnight tomorrow, so please get as many people out as you can.”

I am a warden, which means I help out in emergencies. My first thought was how lucky I had been to get back in the first place. Then I phoned my friend Karima, who lives about six miles away from me. “When you get back, you have to self-isolate,” she said. “You’re a risk because you’re coming from London.” This was the best advice I could have had.

I arrived back at my compound in the dark to the usual warm and loving welcome from my neighbours and an ecstatic reception from Squeaky the cat. “Stay back,” I said. “Don’t kiss me. I have just come from London and I am not sick. They tested our temperatures at the airport, but I want you to be safe, so I will stay back for 14 days. I am doing this because I love you.”

At first they laughed, but when they saw I was serious, they said: “We love you too.”

The next day was a conundrum. I had to get shopping but I didn’t want to go to the village, for two reasons: you can’t keep a good distance at the small shops and you pick all the veg by hand; and if by any chance corona came to the village, I did not want to be the one responsible or able to be blamed for it.

So, I got in the car and headed for the large supermarkets in Marrakech. On the way down, I spotted two European girls about to set off hiking with a mule and guide. I screeched to a halt. They were British and Irish: Annie and Catherine.

“Do you know that the airport is closing tonight? If you want to get out, please come with me now and I can take you,” I said. At first they were reluctant and I worried that maybe I was making a huge fuss for nothing and potentially ruining their holiday. However, I pushed down that very British feeling and just about forced them into the car.

I dropped the girls off, gave them all my details, shopped for enough food for two weeks and enough staples for two months – mainly cat food for Squeaky – nearly fainted at the size of the bill and headed home. The cashier was disinfecting her hands and wiping down the belt; but there was no panic buying.

What if, what if…

Later at home, I met the women and girls in the courtyard and asked them if they knew the symptoms and what they should do. I also explained why I was keeping my distance from them. Part of me wondered whether it was good to draw attention to it. All of me wanted to get out on the hills, but caution prevailed and I stayed in.

I kept in touch with Annie and Catherine with the latest news on flights. I read everything on the internet and Skyped my friends in Italy. I listened to all my friends here who work in tourism, trying to help their clients while facing ruin. I looked at the mountains and longed to go hiking but talked myself out of it. I ate all the chocolate I had bought in one day. Then, after Annie and Catherine finally made it out, I crashed.

I was suddenly filled with physical fear; I felt breathless and completely trapped. Why had I decided to come back to Morocco? What was I thinking? I have two elderly parents in Edinburgh and both my brother and I are abroad. What if the worst happened? What if I were targeted here for being European? How was I going to manage with money? What if I got sick? The nearest hospital is an hour and a half away. What if, what if…

Then, my racing buddy, Charlie, from Epic Travel, phoned with some advice: “Alice, this is like an ultra-marathon, that is the way to approach it.” This made perfect sense to me as an ultra runner (not a good one but I finish!) and brought me out of myself. The main three rules of any long endurance event are: break it into small chunks and don’t look too far ahead; practise self-care and deal with any mental or physical problems immediately; accept that you will suffer but take time to look up and appreciate where you are right at this moment. These are rules to live your life by, but especially useful right now.

Dealing with now and not looking ahead and catastrophising is the key for me. All those what-ifs are useless. If any of them happen, I will deal with them. The reality of my daily life in Imlil actually bears no resemblance to my frightened imaginings.

The families I live with are all around me and I can talk to them from my window or doorstep. I am not alone even though I am isolated. We all moan about the cold together from our rooftops – it has just snowed again – and I ask Fatma what it feels like to have the men around the house all day with nothing to do. She starts laughing and her eyes roll heavenwards.

There are practical things, too. I couldn’t change the gas bottle on my cooker, so I took it out on to the front doorstep and asked for help. Hamza popped straight over, wrapped up in his stripy djellaba, hood up against the freeze, changed it for me and left it there. On the morning that we had some sun, everyone was having sweet mint tea in the courtyard beneath me and calling up to ask if I would like some.

We went into formal lockdown on Friday 20 March at 6pm and not a soul is to be found on the main street of the village. The main thing I notice is the absence of noise. Usually I can hear the baggage mules braying in the river valley as they wait for customers, and the taxi-men shouting: “Marrakech, Marrakech anyone for Marrakech.” Now, all I can hear is the birds.

Lockdown began when there were only 57 deaths reported. The Moroccan government has tried immediately to contain the spread. If you need to leave the house to shop or work, you have to have a signed permit from the local authorities. My landlord brought me mine, although I won’t use it for another week until my self-imposed isolation ends. Weekly markets have been cancelled and all the mosques are shut, but I think the muezzins have special exemptions as the call to prayer sounds from the minaret five times a day as usual.

Faith and community underpin life here, and their value is brought into sharp relief in times like this. No person will be left behind or left alone. My compound resounds to the voices of children playing and is fuller than usual as the extended family have returned to be together during lockdown. It’s comforting to be in the centre of it. I am happy with my choice to be here now, today, and that is all I can ask for.

In the end, all of our lives are in the hands of God, or fate or whatever you like to call it. Here, people don’t fear that but accept it and say: “Ala Allah.” It’s up to God.

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