Funeral trip marred by Covid, Malaria and an expired passport – BBC.com


When Rita Eze flew out to Nigeria for her father's funeral she thought she would be there for a matter of days. But confronted with a catalogue of set backs including a spell in quarantine, a positive Covid test, passport problems and a bout of Malaria, she began to wonder when she would ever make it home.
"I set out to pay my final respects to my dad on 15 November and intended to return on the 29 – but the journey didn't quite go as planned," explains Rita a mother-of-three from Tyneside.
She had left Nigeria for a new life in the UK in 2010 and had not been back due to the expense of the travel.
However, when her father Julius Okwor died suddenly aged 86 she was determined to make the 3,200 mile (5,200 km) trip to be with her five sisters and two brothers.
Rita grew up in the village of Nkalagu Obukpa a close-knit, rural community in the Enugu state.
She has fond memories growing up in a community of "hardworking, religious and caring people".
A graduate in English and Literary studies from the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, she came to the UK to join her husband when he was awarded a PhD scholarship at Newcastle University.
Rita, a support worker for people with disabilities who lives in Gosforth, was double-vaccinated against Covid and had contracted the virus in October.
On the advice of NHS 119 she got a letter from her GP explaining her situation, as those who have had the virus are told not to have a PCR test within three months as it can give a false positive test.
She then realised her passport had expired but her friends and family assured her that once back in Nigeria she could renew it quickly.
"I had made enquiries and was told that it was possible to travel to Nigeria with an expired passport as long as you are able to get it renewed before your return," Rita said.
"This is to enable Nigerians in diaspora to come home and see their families and do other essential things as the backlog caused by the pandemic meant that so many people whose passports had expired were not able to travel home because the offices had been closed.
"For this reason, the Nigerian government set up immigration offices at some strategic airports in Nigeria to fast track the passport renewal process."
Rita also has a relative who works in the immigration office in Enugu state who promised to help.
She arrived at Nnamdi Azikiwe international Airport in Abuja on 16 November. When she was asked for a PCR test certificate, she showed immigration staff the GP letter, as she had been advised to do in the UK.
"It didn't seem to be enough evidence for the authorities at the airport or as one of them put it: 'it doesn't hold water'.
"I tried to explain that once you've had Covid the dead cells stay in your body for up to 90 days and within this period you're not supposed to do a PCR test," recalled Rita.
The airport staff told her it was out of their hands and she would have to go to a women's centre.
"When I heard I was going to a women's centre, I thought: 'what could possibly go wrong?'," she said.
She got into a taxi but on arrival she realised it was at an isolation centre.
A member of staff asked for her details and when Rita asked why the woman needed to know she replied "to be treated for the virus".
"I told her that I had Covid in October and had made a full recovery and was no longer infectious, but no-one was listening to me and I did not want to make a scene," Rita recalled.
Believing she had little choice, Rita resigned herself to an isolation room where she was given medicine and vitamin supplements.
By this time it was Wednesday 17 November, two days before her father's burial.
Rita knew she did not need the medicine, but she reasoned it would not do any harm to take it.
However, she was only permitted to take a Covid test on the Saturday, by which time she had missed the funeral.
The test was negative. She said: "I was released on Sunday morning on compassionate grounds having tested negative. I was so sad and frustrated."
Despite getting the chance to spend a few days with her family, Rita still had to sort out her expired passport.
She had meant to go straight to Enugu city from the airport on arrival to sort out the paperwork, but had not been able to due to her spell in isolation.
"I put all my trust in God and my lovely cousin, Ifeyinwa Omiya Agartha Noora who had promised that it would be renewed within two weeks."
She sent through photos of her expired passport through WhatsApp to the authorities on 23 November and the passport was ready three days later.
By this time Rita was just desperate to get home and arrived for her flight home to Heathrow on 29 November.
However, when she showed proof she had been vaccinated, she was told it was not enough and she needed another negative test.
Rita was forced to rearrange her flight for 1 December and went for a test which, to her shock, came back positive.
"I was shaking and very upset. I had no symptoms," she said. "I had to return to the isolation centre again and wait to do a negative result before flying back."
Rita stayed in constant touch with her husband and three children back in the UK, but there were yet more complications awaiting her.
The two-week trip that turned into six weeks of setbacks
As she isolated in Nigeria, the Omicron variant emerged and the country was put on the UK red list – forcing travellers to isolate in a hotel for 10 days on their return.
That would cost almost £2,300.
"At this point, I broke down in tears but I've always known that tears don't solve problems so I had to think of practical steps to raise the money," Rita said.
She contacted one of the mothers at her children's school, Helen Walton, who set about immediately raising money online and with the help of parishioners at St Charles' RC Church in Gosforth.
The money was raised within days. On 11 December, Rita finally left Nigeria and began her stay at a quarantine hotel near Heathrow the following day.
Three days in, on 15 December, Rita finally got a break from her run of bad luck when the UK scrapped the quarantine hotel rule and she was allowed to leave.
She reached the North East on 16 December, but in her rush to sort her travel to Nigeria, she had forgotten to get antimalarial tablets.
Within a few days Rita started to feel unwell and had a persistent headache. She went to her GP and a blood test confirmed she had Malaria.
Rita recalls: "I couldn't stand up as I had pounding headache, shivering cold, lack of appetite and joint aches."
She was admitted to Newcastle's Royal Victoria Infirmary for treatment.
With only a day to spare before Christmas, Rita was discharged from hospital on 24 December, feeling weak and washed out, but happy to finally be with her family.
She said: "Christmas felt like one of the happiest I've ever had simply because in the days preceding, I wasn't sure if I was going to spend it with my family or away from them.
"I would like to thank everyone who supported me spiritually, financially and emotionally."
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