What is it like to travel internationally during a pandemic? An Interview with Isa Phillips

Mr. Isa Phillips in Ghana

Can you introduce yourself? 

My name is Isa Phillips. I am from Jamaica, but I am based out of Houston. 

What takes you abroad? 

I travel for work, business, or fun.  

You were one of the few travelers propping up the airline industry during pandemic, can you tell us where you went internationally? 

During Covid-19, I went to Jamaica, Ghana, and throughout the U.S. For Jamaica, I was visiting my mom and building a house. I went to Ghana for work and to learn about the history of where my ancestors came from. And, I travelled throughout the U.S. for work and fun.

Tell us about all these places you visited, in terms of Covid-19 safety requirements and other entry requirements.

Jamaica – I returned to Jamaica when it first reopened, which I think was sometime in July of 2020. Jamaica had all the basic requirements – masking, travel authorization, testing to board the plane.  At that time, if you were a citizen of Jamaica, you need a Covid-19 test to return. Or maybe it was if you were arriving from certain states, you needed a test. So, the first time I went to Jamaica, I traveled as a visitor with my U.S. passport so I didn’t have to quarantine or take a test.  The second time I returned to Jamaica, visitors were required to take a Covid-19 PCR test, so I went as a Jamaican citizen.  But then I was required to quarantine as a Jamaican citizen. There was a quarantine app I had to download before I was cleared to leave the airport. The app has a location tracking feature, which gets turned on. While in quarantine, I have to check in and let them know where I am and if I have symptoms. I also have to input my temperature any given day during the period of quarantine. The requirements have not eased for travelers going to Jamaica as I understand it. 

Ghana – I was in Ghana for about five weeks from January of 2021. The requirements for travel to Ghana were more stringent than for travel to Jamaica. I had to take a Covid-19 PCR test in advance, get a visa, and other vaccinations.  For boarding, the airline had specific criteria in order to accept the test. For instance, the test has to say that it is a PCR Covid-19 test. It wasn’t enough that the testing company only provides PCR testing or that their name has the word PCR in it. I nearly missed my flight due to the stringent wording requirements.  I also had to fill out an online travel authorization form before my flight, and to pay for another on-arrival Covid-19 test in Ghana. Additionally, Ghana requires me to have visa for entry, and specifically vaccination for yellow fever. These were the regular requirement with or without Covid-19.  

On arrival in Ghana, I underwent temperature checks, and this gets noted in my passport that I went through the checkpoint. I had to show the results of my Covid-19 PCR test again, as well as my travel authorization.  After all these checks, I was directed to about twenty booths set aside for on-arrival testing. They administered a rapid Covid-19 test.  Then I went to customs to complete the visa and vaccination checks.  After these checks, I was given the results of my rapid test, and was finally cleared to leave the airport. I was not required to quarantine for Ghana. 

For the USA, I had to get a Covid-19 PCR test for entry after January, 2021. 

How were the airline fares compared to pre-pandemic? 

I would say the fares are a little bit more than pre-pandemic, but not that much more. Maybe $100 more. For instance, a round-trip flight to Ghana was about $1300. On the other hand, Uber prices were cheaper during the pandemic. 

What were the requirements on boarding, on plane, and on arrival? 

At the boarding gate, I normally underwent a temperature check, and reshow again all that I showed at check-in. Also, throughout the plane ride, I had to wear a mask.  Even if I am eating, I was required to wear it while chewing, at least that was what I was told on one airline. On arrival, there normally would be a series of checkpoints: one for temperature, another for Covid-19 requirements, and another for traditional customs check. 

Tell us about your trip to Ghana. When and why did you go?

I had the opportunity to travel for work, to help a professional athlete train in Ghana.  But the trip was also an opportunity for me to learn about my ancestor’s origin. Ghana was the port where slaves were exported.  My ancestors belonged to the Fonti tribe in Ghana. I learned about the Ashanti tribe, originally slave dealers who became slaves themselves. Do you know that Jamaica was there they dropped off rowdy slaves who they couldn’t control?  I also heard that returning slave descent could get free land to settle in Ghana, but I didn’t meet anyone giving out free land while there. Stevie Wonder recently moved back to Ghana. 

What did you do while in Ghana? How did you feel about being there?

Other than training, I also did the touristy things like visiting slave castles, shopping for local crafts, and hanging out with locals. The biggest market in Accra is similar to Jamaica’s. I can find everything and anything there. There were store fronts, and in front of these stores, vendors of all types set up shop. They take up all the space on the sidewalk, into the street where cars pass through. The space for walking was so small that, as cars pass by, it would not be unusual for their mirrors to brush against me. 

I even helped a group of villagers living along the coast to fish from a beach. They had these floating (pelagic) nets, I mean like 5 kilometers, which they drag out as far as they can with a small boat, and then they round the other end back onto land. They would tie one end against a coconut tree, and with the other end, a group of men would pull in the net by hand. This process took hours. I tried helping them, and my hands were tired and blistering. But these men, they do it every day, so they got used to it. They were slim and toned; even at their age they were in excellent shape. 

The locals can tell I am not from there; I’m a 6’4’ track and field athlete.  When they find out I’m Jamaican, they love it.  They love Jamaica. They fly our flags everywhere.  

It sounds like you are not letting a pandemic stop your travel plans, what destination is next for you?

I’ll be in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico next weekend. 

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