Life in the Time of Coronavirus is a new GEN series where we are interviewing people across the country who have had their lives upended or who are experiencing the stress of the unknown.
Michael Coyle, 33, is an architectural project manager for the General Services Administration in Washington, D.C. He has been stranded in India after his flight home was canceled on March 21 and the country implemented a travel lockdown on March 22.
I was on an architectural exploration in India. I saw the Taj Mahal, some temples in Jaipur, and went to the Holi festival in Pushkar. It was there I first started to understand how the virus was affecting the country. I was going to go into a building and when I got close, an armed guard was like, “No, you can’t come here. It’s closed due to the coronavirus.” Nothing else in the city was closed, it was just buildings that were trafficked by tourists. Other than that, it didn’t seem like there was anything going on.
The next day I went back to Delhi, ready to head south to start the next part of the trip. That’s when my travel agent was like, “Well, there’s a lot of cases here.” They talked me into changing my travel plans to go to the Himalayas. At this point, the Himalayas seemed like a great option because there are no cases of the coronavirus there. So that’s what we did; we went to the Himalayas on March 17 or 18.
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The morning after we arrive, my host family turns on the news and the prime minister, Narendra Modi, is making an announcement: “We’re not allowing any more foreigners into India.” Part of me thought, “Wow, this is crazy.” And the other part was like, “Well, it’s kind of a relief because I’m already in India. Maybe I’ll just stay here until my flight leaves on the 27th.”
The next morning, I start getting calls from the authorities, saying “We’re evacuating all foreigners, no one that’s not a citizen of India is allowed to be here.” I had to go straight to the airport and fly back to Delhi on March 19. The first available ticket I could get out of the country was for March 21. The next day, Modi announces the airports will shut down on the 22nd.
I get there on the 21st and I’m on the flight. After an hour we pull out of the gate, and after another hour of just sitting there, they say that there’s a malfunction, we would have to pull into the gate and do a repair. Two more hours, they say they have to replace a part. After five hours, we have to evacuate the plane. They couldn’t fix the problem, the flight was canceled, and there were no more flights out of the country.
After getting off the plane we all go to immigration. They didn’t have any answers. People were saying, “I don’t think that there was a problem with the plane. It’s something else.” I have a friend that works in aviation and he said it sounds like they probably didn’t get permission to land where they were going, and if you don’t get permission to land then you can’t take off. That’s what he was thinking, I don’t really know.
It took a couple of hours before I could even get to baggage claim and get my bag. I returned to the host family. They then decided they were worried about their parents in the Himalayas and wanted to be with them so they went there and I came to the hotel that I’m in now, where I’m paying $50 a day to stay.
Most of the hotels in Delhi were not accepting foreigners, so I don’t know what other people on the plane did. But my travel agent has a relationship with the owner of this one hotel and was able to convince him to let me stay here — I just had to show them that I’d been tested or screened for coronavirus. I had to go with the hotel management to the hospital to get tested. I knew I could be exposed to the virus there because there’s a lot of other people in the hospital getting tested as well. I see the doctor, they ask me questions, and basically just write something saying that I’m not suspected to have the virus. I got this paper and I was able to be in the hotel.
The hotel doesn’t have food but they have a menu; someone goes and gets the food for me so I can eat. I have my phone and I have the luggage that I brought with me. I’m passing the days on Netflix, I started a 500-push-up-per-day challenge, and I’m talking to people back home.
I’ve spoken with Congressman Lacy Clay’s office in Missouri — that’s where I’m from — and Congresswoman Eleanor Norton in D.C. My friends have been contacting other reps and congresspeople as well. The government has been trying to get us out of India; I’m pretty sure the State Department has been working day in, day out to get this happening. But you can’t just tell the Indian government what to do. I am not even blaming the Indian government at all because I understand the lockdown. You don’t want to spread the virus, you don’t want employers and airlines to get infected.
I also know that we should evacuate U.S. citizens before this thing gets worse because if we’re not gone soon, then we’re going to be here for a long time. It started with a seven-day lockdown and that turned into a 21-day lockdown. They are supposed to be opening the airports on April 15. I have a ticket for that day — my birthday, actually. But the assumption is that the death rates are going to go up dramatically. If they go up, it’s likely they won’t open the airports.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.