As of March 4, the Centers for Disease Control has placed four destinations on its equivalent of a “do not travel” list: China, where the novel coronavirus—now formally known as COVID-19—originated; Iran; Italy; and South Korea. Formally, it recommends that we, the global “we,” avoid all nonessential travel to these very large, diverse, complex countries, where many of us have family members, friends, and colleagues. The countries themselves aren’t on lockdown; in fact, we’re hearing it’s business as usual in southern Italy from Rome-based food writer and tour operator Elizabeth Minchilli. So why are many of us ransacking grocery stores to stock up on antibacterial wipes and pasta (the good kind—leave the penne lisce) like it’s the end of days?
In short: People are worried. And it’s reasonable to feel on edge—the illness doesn’t have a vaccine and might not for a year. Every day the news changes about how viral it is and how deadly it is. The fact is scientists don’t yet know much about it. It seems to disproportionately affect people with weakened immune systems and the elderly. If you work in a hospital, or have bad lungs, or take care of your grandmother, you might be going through a different thought process than a lot of us. Fear is powerful, and for some, worry and concern are warranted.
At AFAR, we’re trying to contextualize the hysteria that has mounted in the United States over the past week. Headlines ding throughout the night on our phones, and several high-profile, large corporations have restricted business-related international travel.
Singapore and Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus was first identified, seem to be managing to contain the disease by instituting rather draconian quarantine measures. But can we honestly say that closing borders is good for the world in the long run? For the global economy, and all of the people whose livelihoods depend on travel? No, that doesn’t feel right.
At AFAR, we feel an acute responsibility to bring you measured, informed perspectives, based on our reporting in science and facts; to talk to people on the ground; and to answer our readers’ questions in a productive, non-panic-inducing way. As the leading travel media company for the world’s best travelers, we promise to tell you what we know.
A great example of that approach from travel news editor Michelle Baran is here: Need to Change Your Travel Plans Due to Coronavirus? These Are Your Options. She tackles whether insurance helps; how to time your decision to book or cancel; the myriad concerns in myriad destinations—which change daily, by the way—and does so without ever being prescriptive. Travel at any time is a personal decision, she reminds us, but she’s here to help us stay calm. It’s human nature to be uncomfortable with uncertainty. Fear is powerful—but so is hope.
In a recent survey of AFAR’s staff, 27 people (of 27 polled) said they would continue with their spring and summer travel—solo, with partners, with their families and friends—around the world. As a business we aren’t canceling work-related travel for our employees. We’re asking all our employees to be responsible and to use their good judgment. If they have been exposed to the virus or are feeling ill, we are asking them to self-quarantine. Any employee not comfortable traveling at this time is excused from any work-related trips. And likewise, any employee can work from home if he or she wishes.
In the office, we ping-pong daily between feeling obliged to cover the latest travel restrictions and trying to drown ourselves in playful, distracting memes. (Check out U.S. Presidents Ranked by Hotness if you need a laugh.) We’re only human. We need equal parts logic and inspiration. Facts and fun. That’s why we travel, right? To learn, to celebrate cultures, to relax.
Here’s what we will prescribe: Identify the boundaries of your comfort zone. If you’re more stressed about being quarantined than getting the actual coronavirus, make a decision with that in mind. Give yourself a 30-day window to re-evaluate your travel plans. Travel responsibly—if you’re feeling sick, change your flight and take a sick day. Wash your hands (properly). Don’t wear a gas mask on the subway—it scares people. We’ll be here with you, every step of the way, with the goal of informing and educating travelers with up-to-date intel from people on the ground around the world—facts, stories, and, yes, hope.