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Travel in the Age of Coronavirus (it's NOT business as usual)

Women on the Road
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PLEASE NOTE: This initial page was written on 8 March, fueled by my anger at the many irresponsible comments and suggestions I read and heard encouraging travelers to "do what they felt was right for them" in terms of travel during the Coronavirus. This article has been superseded by events, including the travel industry's own turnaround (most are no longer encouraging travel right now) and the many travel restrictions which make it nearly impossible to travel for some. 

8 March 2020 – I've been receiving your messages and emails asking whether you should travel or stay home because of the Coronavirus affecting us right now.

Plenty of people have already answered this question: health authorities, governments, travel bloggers, travel magazines... each with their own opinions, many of them valid.

As travelers, we are reacting in a number of ways - by continuing to travel, staying home, delaying our plans or ignoring the risks.

There are so many different ways to deal with the Coronavirus...

Whatever your choice, I'd like to share some things we NEED to understand before we can make an informed decision about whether to travel or not.

  • Most Coronavirus infections will be mild.
  • According to Harvard's Marc Lipsitch, COVID-19 is expected to infect 20-60% of the world's adult population (revised downward from an initial 40-70% projection).
  • It does have a higher mortality rate than influenza.
  • If you are elderly, ill or immunocompromised, your chances of serious infection are much higher.
  • No one can predict where the virus will appear or move to next.
  • People who appear healthy and have no symptoms may still carry the virus.
  • There is plenty you can do to try to avoid infection.

COVID-19: not business as usual

I thought long and hard before writing this piece. I'm not a doctor, an epidemiologist or a public health expert, so I rely heavily on the collective knowledge of institutions like the World Health Organization in Geneva and the CDC in the US.

For more than a decade I worked very closely with epidemiological experts in the field of HIV. While that doesn't give me any inside knowledge, it does give me a robust faith in how health experts cope with epidemics and how hard they try to provide the best information they can.

I've never been a nay-sayer, someone who panics at the first sight of a problem, and I don't plan on starting now. But I do believe in the precautionary principle and this virus is testing our best scientific minds. With so much uncertainty surrounding it, I believe caution is an appropriate response.

I feel a strong responsibility to help you travel safely, and ignoring this topic would not contribute to that.

I'd also like to mention the issues of selfishness and entitlement. Those of us who live in First World countries can afford to travel, and probably to get some kind of medical care if we need it, either on the spot if we're away, or back home. But what of people in developing countries? What if we unknowingly carry the virus to societies ill-equipped to deal with it? Many countries have underfunded or inefficient medical systems and by introducing or helping spread a virus, we could help disseminate it to places unequipped to handle it. As I write, even well-off countries are struggling to contain the virus and care for those infected.

let's recap the risks of traveling during coronavirus

  • You could actually catch the virus, with everything that entails - and the older you are, or the more fragile, the more serious it might be. Deaths from COVID-19 have been disproportionately concentrated in older people and those with weak immune systems. Younger people are affected too, but far less.
  • You could travel to a place that seems perfectly safe right now, but might develop cases of infection once you're there. 
  • You could lose your money if hotels and airlines don't agree to refund you if you cancel. The travel industry has demonstrated remarkable flexibility so far, and is reducing or sometimes eliminating its penalties for your date changes or cancellations. But you could still lose your money.
  • Your travel insurance might not cover you. Policies are facing whirlwind changes in trying to cope with the epidemic and the outcome is generally not in your favor. 
  • You could end up in quarantine just for coming in contact with someone who has the virus. Yes, this could also happen at home (think Seattle) but at least, you'd be home, not in a foreign country.
  • You might get sick overseas in a country that prioritizes its own citizens, or where the kind of care you need is not available.
  • You could help spread the virus to others, perhaps people who are less healthy or less fortunate than you. Or to older or weaker friends or relatives.
  • You could overburden health systems that are inadequate.
  • You could see your plans upended without warning as things change quickly - it only took a few hours for the Italy lockdown to be decreed.
  • And... you might do this without being aware, because you or anyone else can carry this virus around without knowing it for between 5-14 days, depending on the experts.

At present, all these risks are increasing daily although, once the infections reach their peak, that risk may begin to diminish. 

How to minimize your risks if you do decide to travel

While many people are cancelling trips right now, flights are still full and many vacations are going ahead - unless those trips were headed for China, South Korea, Iran or Italy.

The mail I've received comes from readers are either asking HOW they can travel in the age of Coronavirus, or WHETHER they should.

I'd like to reframe that into WHEN.

I don't feel right now is a great time to be traveling. Too little is known about this virus and about where it will spread next. Its speed of spread is causing massive disruption and concern. Could you ever have imagined that Milan and Venice would be... CLOSED?

Here's what I'm doing: I'm avoiding unnecessary travel right now, because I don't want to put myself or others at risk. I do have plans to travel to the Caucasus at the end of April, and to the USA in May, both for work, with some personal discovery time thrown in. 

I'm hoping that by then, either the virus will have stopped spreading, some kind of medication will be available, or we'll have a better sense of where we can travel to without worry or impact. If not, I won't be traveling.

I also realize I may not be in the majority and that you, and many others, may be going ahead with your travel plans. If that is the case, then please, at least heed the following. 

1. don't panic 

The risk of infection remains relatively contained right now if you are young and healthy, but that's not the case if you are older or have a pre-existing condition that could affect your vulnerability. That's me: I had pneumonia last year and I have high blood pressure. I'm also nearly 67. This puts me in a higher-than-average risk group. Here's a breakdown of age and health factors if you think you're in that group.

Many people are panicking because of this, but panic usually comes when we don't have enough information, or because we don't trust those giving us the information. Where information flows freely and scientists are encouraged to tell the truth, we'll be better able to mobilize this and fight it.

(And beware the myths... Here's an interesting section on mythbusters from WHO.)

So let's ward off panic by being as informed as we can. Which leads me to point 2...

2. stay informed and be selective about your sources

This may seem like a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised at the number of people who get their information from illegitimate sources.

Your first line of information should be recognized health authorities like WHO or the CDC. They base their advice on verified data, not on hearsay or rumor or political affiliation. In other words, science. WHO has now declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.

Your next line of information is the news. Contrary to accusations of 'fake news' that populist politicians throw about in order to get elected, there are some highly reputable news outlets around the world whose job it is to provide accurate information. As a journalist, I know how much fact-checking and research goes into a piece, and professional journalists strive to get you the truth.

That said, not everyone who calls themselves a journalist is actually a trained one. That's why I suggest reading several media, from different countries if possible, because they don't all face the same constraints. By varying your news sources, you'll get a far more accurate picture.

My daily go-to news sources include the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC and NPR in the USA, along with Al Jazeera, the BBC and the Guardian overseas. On any given day I'll also read reputable news from other countries. Here's a list of reputable news outlets worldwide.

Please pay attention to government travel advisories, not because you trust the government, but because they have access to much more information than you do. They have embassies and consulates on the ground, they exchange information with regional groupings like the EU, and they have money to gather even more information.

Some governments are more forthcoming than others when it comes to sharing that information with their citizens but here's the thing: as is the case with news, READ THEM ALL. You'll see patterns emerging and the truth will, I hope, be reinforced. Here are a few of the major government advisories on Coronavirus situation: Australia, Canada, Ireland, UK, USA.

If you're keen to track the daily evolution of COVID-19, you could bookmark some of these excellent dashboards... Johns Hopkins has a global approach (and a dark dramatic look); the BBC and New York Times are clear and easy to understand; and NextStrain is for the data nerds and number crunchers among you. Finally, WHO also issues daily situational reports.

3. stay healthy

If you're considering travel, make sure your immune system is in a position to fight off common infections - Coronavirus, of course, but others as well. Being debilitated by other diseases can weaken you and make you more susceptible to catching the virus.

You know the drill: take vitamins or anything that will fortify you, get plenty of sleep and exercise. These are the kinds of things we should be doing on a regular basis to stay healthy; they just happen to be more important right now.

4. stay CLEAN

This is one of the key pieces of advice out there. While no one knows how to stop the virus, there is scientific agreement that it is passed on through droplets of mucus or fluid - through your eyes or nose or mouth, by sneezing or coughing. So if you touch something that has been infected by the virus and then touch your face, you could be infecting yourself and helping spread the infection.

Everyone makes this sound easy, but try NOT touching your face for an hour... I know I failed.

Barring your superhuman ability to keep your hands away from your nose and mouth, at least make sure they're clean first. Wash your hands often (every time you walk by a sink, if you're traveling or in crowded places, or every 20 minutes), and for long enough (longer than you'd like, or at least 20 seconds). Then shut the tap with a paper towel so you don't pick anything up that you've just washed away.

There's plenty more solid prevention information out there:

  • Stay a meter (about a yard - some say TWO) away from anyone who might be sick.
  • Cough or sneeze into your elbow or a tissue (and throw the tissue away asap), wash your hands with soap and water - or sanitizer if you can still find some - after handling 'public' items (money, elevator buttons, railings etc) or as often as possible (this video changed the way I washed my hands!) Although COVID-19 is believed to spread through coughs or sneezes, you don't know who sneezed over your stash of Euros or coughed on the escalator.
  • Avoid crowds or public places when you can, especially large crowds in closed spaces.

5. consider your vulnerabilities

Before you decide to travel, think it through.

How fit are you? How solid are your lungs? What's your body age? Do you have a disease or condition that suppresses your immune system – HIV, diabetes, rhumatoid arthritis, lupus, or if you've had an organ transplant...

What about financial vulnerability? Do you come from a country that will help you financially if you're infected? Will someone fly you home? Do you have plenty of money in the bank? Can you reasonably expect to afford hospital care if you need it?

What about others? I mentioned it above - will you be jeopardizing the health of people in other countries by helping spread a disease to places that are unable to cope? What about your relatives at home? Are they in high-risk groups?

6. choose your destination wisely

At the very least, some places should simply be avoided: places that are crowded, where you might end up elbow-to-elbow with plenty of people from all over the world... places like cable cars, cruises, crowded cities (Venice would have qualified until they shut it down), places with long waiting lines, major museums, concert and exhibition venues (many of these are cancelling their events as well), political or other rallies, just to name a few.

You could choose to travel closer to home, with the security blanket of knowing you could get back quickly if you needed to.

My preferred option is to go ahead with your plans but delay them until the situation becomes clearer. Don't book anything - but do go ahead with your destination planning. It's a great time for research and planning. You probably won't be able to get travel health insurance that covers the virus (and travel without insurance is risky at the best of times).

7. sanitize your seat

If you HAVE to fly, you'll know many travelers seem concerned about being crammed into a small airtight space.

There seem to be two schools of thought here.

Here's the more mainstream view. This one proposes flying during coronavirus is safe, because air filters in planes keep the air relatively clean. 

A contrary view is expressed by Captain Tom Bunn, a former PanAm pilot: "Back in the days of the 707 when fuel cost twenty cents a gallon, all the air coming into the passenger cabin was fresh. Then, as fuel got expensive, manufacturers reduced fuel consumption by recycling the cabin air." This, he says, creates additional risk, and he says he wouldn't fly right now.

If you do decide to fly, be selective of where you sit. Some people recommend choosing a window seat, because it's further away from the 'public' aisle where people wander up and down.

Also, the greatest danger of infection comes from touching things - and that's something you can have some control over.

You can and should disinfect your space any time you fly, but now, even more so. Wash your hands first - any cleaning you do will be nullified if you're spreading the virus with your own hands. So with clean hands, disinfect any hard surface with a disinfectant wipe (belt buckle, food tray, remote control, window shade, touch screen). And make sure you use wipes to touch such things as bathroom faucets and door handles.

8. prepare your mindset

If you do choose to travel during this period, there's every chance your patience will be tested – and that flexibility will be your best asset.

Flights may get cancelled, countries or regions may suddenly become temporarily off-limits or you may be prevented from traveling to your chosen destination.

I know I've planned my late April and May travels and my tickets are sitting on my desk. But I also know I might have to cancel those plans at any moment. And I'm prepared for that. Remember, with COVID-19, things can change in a minute.

BOTTOM LINE

COVID-19 is unpleasant for some, and downright dangerous for others.

  • If we're older or vulnerable through illness, we should postpone non-essential travel. I wouldn't travel for pleasure right now.
  • If we MUST travel, we should take serious precautions and in any case avoid crowds or situations that encourage virus transmission.

This will pass, whatever the outcome. That's what epidemics do, with harsher or milder results. We've seen it recently with avian flu and SARS and MERS. Already in China the number of new infections may be dropping, a cautiously optimistic note. 

Here are nine reasons to be reassured.

Here's how China dealt with its epidemic (some lessons learned).

For those of us staying home for a bit, there's still plenty to do to keep that wanderlust sharply honed − all those things we never seem to have time to do, such as reading novels about places, learning about their history and art, researching travel itineraries and accessories. All these things take time, and more time is exactly what we may have if we're not actually traveling right now.

Then, when that next trip comes around, and it can't be too far away, we'll be readier than ever!

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