Escape from Myanmar: Navigating the world in the age of the coronavirus

I had planned to spend just a few days in Myanmar, but just as I completed my work, international travel became increasingly difficult by the day.

Israelis awaiting their flight from Myanmar, March 25, 2020 (photo credit: FOREIGN MINISTRY)
Israelis awaiting their flight from Myanmar, March 25, 2020
(photo credit: FOREIGN MINISTRY)
In the mid-1980s, before the Internet, smartphones and streaming video, the craze of the PC world was an edutainment game called Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? I, like many of that era, was addicted to this program, which tested one’s knowledge of geography to track down Carmen’s villains around the world. One never knew where on the globe the perpetrator would show up next.
These past weeks, thanks to the coronavirus, I found myself engulfed in a global detective hunt quest not unlike that of Carmen Sandiego. But my quest was to find a way back to my family and home in Israel through the labyrinth of constantly changing rules, regulations and restrictions spawned by the panic over the pandemic. In the process, I learned a lot about myself and the world in the age of COVID-19.
MY SAGA began in a far-off, mysterious place called Myanmar (formerly Burma), where I was summoned in my capacity as an international lawyer to consult on an important contract.
I left Israel on March 15, arriving in the capital, Naypyitaw, on March 16. As it turned out, these dates proved to be critical because it was precisely around this time that the WHO (and, in its wake, much of the international community) changed its attitude toward the virus, accepting it as a true pandemic.
I had planned to spend just a few days in Myanmar, but just as I completed my work, international travel became increasingly difficult by the day.
The global situation was characterized by confusion and ignorance about the disease. At the same time, the media and many politicians the world over began hyping the dangers of the disease, creating stress and ultimately panic.
It was this panic that became the reality, as country after country shut down its borders, airlines canceled flights, voluntary quarantines were made mandatory, cross-border movement was all but impossible. The world had changed radically overnight; it had become an Orwellian nightmare.
In the meantime, my wife, Robin, had foreseen the coming cataclysm where I had not. The pleas from my family back in Israel were incessant and desperate. On top of all the concern about the coronavirus was Passover, a time when it is both a commandment and a tradition for families to be together.
Israel set the pace for draconian containment regulation. Soon the government adopted a policy of requiring all persons entering the country to be placed into military-enforced 14-day quarantine. Thus, even if I managed to get back to Israel for Passover, I would not be able to be with my family on the first night of the holiday, when every father is commanded by the Torah to tell his children personally about the exodus from Egypt. This year, unlike every year in the past, I was condemned to remain in “Egypt” by the anti-COVID-19 regime.
Myanmar was actually quite peaceful at the time. There were no mandatory quarantines. People were careful but not crazy. There were less than a handful of infections and even fewer deaths out of a population of 53 million, despite the country’s thousand-mile-long border with China and other countries in Southeast Asia, where the virus had long been evident.
Thanks to the Israeli ambassador to Myanmar and his wife, we had a memorable Seder dinner in the country’s largest city, Yangon (formerly Rangoon). The next night we joined the country’s 24-year-old Chabad rabbi and his family for the second Seder.
Finally, as the new week began during the intermediate days of Passover, a new opportunity arose to leave Myanmar, and maybe, just maybe, I could get back to Israel.
Despite entreaties from the ambassador and others to stay put because of the slim chance of actually making it back home and the risk of coming down with the disease, I decided the family came first and that I would try.
I was able to find a “rescue flight” from Yangon to Tokyo. From there I was able to make a connection after 12 hours with a flight to Los Angeles.
My youngest daughter was excited to learn about my plan and urged me on, even though I would be sent to mandatory quarantine in Israel. For her, knowing that I was in Israel with the rest of the family was enough.
The long path east back to Israel was fraught with danger and bureaucratic obstacles. It was not unlike threading a needle blind.
The Japanese were wonderful. They kept their lounges open despite the absence of air traffic. They were careful about social distancing and personal hygiene, but most of all they were cordial and empathetic.
When I got to Los Angeles, LAX was like a ghost town. It was a scene from The Twilight Zone, and there was no one to help. Where to find a taxi? What hotels were open?
I finally found an apartment hotel in Beverly Hills, where I could at least buy kosher food for the last day of Passover. I was on my own.
You could not enter a grocery store without a mask and latex gloves. People avoided you, honoring the 6-foot social-distancing rules. Quarantine was not mandatory here, but most everyone self-isolated themselves.
I found that, unlike in Myanmar, I had more than enough kosher food to consume, but no one was prepared to invite me for a meal, and all the synagogues were closed. This was a kind of loneliness I had never experienced in all of my 67 years anywhere in the world.
And then there were the nonstop commercials on American television praising healthcare workers and others who were out in the field, and offering services and products to the rest of the Americans waiting out the virus in their homes.
Psychologically, this was highly stressful, and it was right in the midst of the Passover holiday. Even when a friend and his wife came to take me out for a walk on the afternoon of the last day of the holiday, we walked in an equilateral triangle with six-foot sides down Pico Boulevard, and when we visited the couple’s oldest son and his family, the entire encounter took place through an iron fence.
That night, as American Jews celebrated their final day of Passover, I was able to catch a red-eye flight to the East Coast and, after another 12-hour layover, made one of the only remaining flights to Tel Aviv. Crossing the coast at Tel Aviv, I wept. I had actually made it home.
ON MY return, the Home Front Command met us on the plane, making a point to extract the over-65 age people first. Why they did this was unclear, because thereafter we were not segregated or treated any differently from the younger passengers.
We were whisked off through the intake and registration process run by the Health Ministry and the Home Front Command. We were advised that we would be bused to a hotel on the site of biblical Sodom on the Dead Sea. Within little more than an hour, we arrived, and after another hour waiting on the bus, we were allowed to alight and pick up our room assignments.
The room is quite comfortable, with a beautiful view of the southern Dead Sea, and Jordan across the water. But it was made very clear that this room would be my home for the next two weeks. It was prohibited to leave the room for any reason.
Food would be left off at the door three times a day. If you needed medicine, as I do, someone could bring it to the hotel, but they could not see you even to say hello. This was a serious mandatory quarantine in a three-star hotel room.
AFTER TRAVELING thousands of miles and arriving back in Israel against all odds, what does it all mean?
First, reuniting with my family in the Jewish state was worth all of the risk and the travail, even though it will be at least two weeks before I can see my wife and two of my children, and possibly much longer before I can visit the rest of my family. Being in the same country with them is comforting for us all.
Second, I had a unique opportunity to see how different countries and regions within the same country were responding to the COVID-19 threat. There is no question that in a pandemic, we need to alter our behavior to reduce the risk of contagion. But we must not allow our fear of the disease to morph into panic, because when we do, the panic reshapes reality, and that new reality then becomes the basis for public health policy.
There will be other pandemics in the near term, and they will not be as “benign” as this coronavirus. Will our response be the same? Will we shutter the world economy and destroy the fabric of society in order to contain the next virus?
I admire the citizens of Israel for their stoic acceptance of the government’s lockdown on the entire country. But the government overreacted, in my view, because of the panic and the uncertainty caused by the virus.
India attempted to impose similar restrictions on its 1.3 billion people two weeks ago, and millions are on the verge of starvation because the local economy has come to a halt.
In the United States, what was a burgeoning economic miracle has come to a screeching halt, with millions of people out of work and millions of children kept home from school and daycare.
What have we done here? Is this really worth it? Was it really necessary? I think not.
So much of the suffering and death around the globe could have been avoided, had China shared information about the disease when it first appeared in Wuhan in November 2019.
It took that country two months to reveal the existence and nature of the disease, long after millions of its citizens and foreigners had become infected, leaving the country with impunity and spreading the virus without warning in their home countries.
Armed with such information, international safeguards could have been put in place, and precautions taken.
At the same time, public health officials and political leaders around the world need to understand that preventative measures for containing the pandemic can be worse than the underlying disease itself.
There may be a silver lining to the COVID-19 emergency: a wake-up call for all humanity to understand that detection of an outbreak must be rapid and fully transparent, and the response must be balanced and proportionate. Life in the modern world need not be paralyzed to the point of economic and social collapse, in order to fight pandemic occurrences.
It should not take a father and husband six days of circumnavigating the globe to get back to his family and spouse, and then 14 days in mandatory quarantine without any trace of illness, just to allow government officials to keep the disease in check.
We must realize, as I did, that our humanity inheres in our social fabric. We can and must do better.
The author is an international attorney, who serves as Chairman of Republicans Overseas Israel and Chairman of the Executive Committee of Ariel University.  He is the father of 8 and grandfather of 17.