Chile: Fighting COVID-19 in planes

By Fernando Gandarillas.

Cristian is a volunteer of the Chilean Red Cross and a specialist in psychosocial support. Along with other medical and psychological volunteers, he has been providing psychosocial support since April to passengers on domestic flights. So far, nearly 1,000 people have been reached in 15 trips, thanks to a partnership with the private company in Chile. "The combination of a pandemic and air travel can be intimidating for a person. People get very nervous", Cristian said.

He is in the aisle, talking to passengers and giving them psychosocial support. As he finishes his talk, another volunteer waves at him from the other side of the aisle, so that he moves closer to an older woman who is in a state of panic. Minutes earlier, the Red Cross medical volunteers were giving practical demonstrations on the use of masks and proper hand washing, when one of them noticed the woman had injuries on her hands, and was very stressed. He waited for Cristian to finish talking and called for his attention.

Cristian starts talking to the woman to create trust. She says she is returning to Santiago de Chile after attending a family wake in Iquique. During the last few days, she had washed her hands with chlorine, mistakenly believing that this would stop COVID-19. She tells Cristian how petrified she is of catching COVID-19 on the plane and bringing the virus home.

It's 10 pm and the flight is about to arrive in Santiago. Cristian moves away from the woman and they both take their seat to prepare for landing. It has been a long day for the volunteers. At 6 am they were already at the Arturo Merino Benitez Airport in Santiago to provide support to the crew and passengers who were travelling on the outbound flight from the capital to Iquique. "People who leave the capital for different regions usually present significant levels of anxiety. However, those who travel from small cities or towns in the country to Santiago are the ones who face higher levels of fear, because they know that the capital is where the greatest concentration of cases are. Many of these people need to travel to the capital because they have to undergo health treatment," Cristian says.

Chile is one of the countries in the region most impacted by COVID-19. To respond to the pandemic, the Chilean Red Cross has been working to raise public awareness of disease prevention, providing psychosocial support, and delivering personal protection equipment to various cities throughout the country. To strengthen this work, actions have been coordinated with the private sector. The support that volunteers provide on commercial flights within Chile is part of these coordinated efforts to stop the spread of the virus.

The plane lands and Cristian, together with his colleagues, waits for all the passengers to leave. "I learned a lot about prevention measures on this flight, and above all I felt support. I loved the emotional release techniques they taught us," said one of the passengers. Before getting off the plane, the Red Cross volunteers hold a small meeting to listen to the flight captain and crew's observations. "As soon as we get into the plane, they welcome us and make us feel part of their team," Cristian says.

Satisfied of providing help in the fight against the pandemic, Cristian crosses the runway to go to airport control. "Personally, I think this is a way of fulfilling our humanitarian mission. And for me it's a way to thank life.”

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