As a travel blogger, I find it necessary to address the elephant in the room of the moment: the coronavirus outbreak. For a frequent traveler, the coronavirus is a bit of a concern. If it isn’t, it probably should be. Countries all over the world are mobilizing to stop the rapid spread of the novel virus, which means a whole lot of travel is being affected. So what can you do and how does this affect your travel plans? Here is what you need to know.
Just how serious is coronavirus?
First, some context. To give you some perspective, at the moment of this writing there are a total 24,631 confirmed cases and 494 deaths, which gives the coronavirus around a 2% fatality rate. Compared to the US seasonal flu, which has infected 19 million people and killed 10,000 (that’s a fatality rate of less than 1%), the coronavirus actually doesn’t seem so bad. So why is it scaring so many airlines and governments into action?
For one, the speed of contagion. Though SARS in 2002/2003 was deadlier, it only infected a total of 8,000 people over a period of nine months. The number of people infected by the coronavirus has grown exponentially to more than three times that number in just two months with no signs of slowing down. It’s still unclear whether people can infect others when they’re asymptomatic, which means there might be sleeper agents passing it on to others without appearing sick at all. Unlike the flu, there’s no vaccine or treatment for it.
I talked to a public health professional to try to cut through the media hysteria and get some real information. According to my source, recent government actions to limit the spread of the coronavirus are not unwarranted. “Restricting movement is one of the most fundamental tools to mitigating disease spread. It’s a non-pharmaceutical intervention like hand-washing, isolation and quarantine, cancelling social events where large crowds congregate, etc.” In my current home in the Czech Republic, all direct flights from China have been banned. In the United States, they’re being funneled through 11 airports that have the capacity for coronavirus screening and quarantine. (As you can imagine, these screenings are causing lines up to six hours at customs at such airports.) This doesn’t account for the thousands of flights that are being cancelled to and from China and nearby countries by airlines as a precaution.
Despite these measures, there’s still the possibility of person-to-person contact spreading coronavirus outside of China by people who contracted the virus and are not yet showing symptoms. Coronavirus has a 2-14 day incubation period, which is why some countries are implementing mandatory quarantine periods for people who have traveled to areas where the virus is not contained. Some travelers who are cleared are still being separated from their luggage because it’s still unclear how long the virus can survive on surfaces without a human host.
Should the coronavirus outbreak affect your travel plans?
When I asked my public health source about traveling in Asia, I received this response, “Oy… if travel isn’t necessary, don’t do it.” Though coronavirus doesn’t seem to be deadly, that doesn’t mean it can’t fuck up your travel plans. I can’t think of a worse way to spend a holiday than to be stuck on a cruise ship with 3,000 people because someone on board is suspected of having the virus. Depending on where in the world you are, an unexpected quarantine could land you precisely in the kind of place where you might contract coronavirus even if you didn’t have it to begin with.
Assuming a trip to an affected area goes off without a hitch, you may still experience problems on your way home. For instance, the US is banning entry to foreign nationals who have been in China in the last two weeks. So if you live in the US on a temporary visa, you might be forbidden from entering the country. If the Czech Republic decided to do the same thing, I wouldn’t be allowed to come home despite being a legal resident here. Even if you’re a citizen of the country you’re returning to, your trip might be bookended by a 14-day quarantine to ensure you’re not infected.
The most concerning thing about how fast this thing is spreading and how quickly governments are responding is that a new restriction that wasn’t in place when you left could be in place when you return. In the event other coronavirus epicenters form elsewhere in the world, flights may be cancelled and passengers may be quarantined when returning home from countries other than China. The threat of this depends on what other countries are doing to contain the virus. This becomes a double edged sword, because the more cautious a country is, the safer from coronavirus you probably are visiting. But it also makes traveling there a pain in the ass. It means submitting to temperature controls or having people in hazmat suits board your plane to health check everyone before you’re allowed to deplane.
Chilling moment medics in hazmat suits SCAN passengers on a plane in #China before letting them disembark amid fears that mysterious 'SARS-like' #virus could spread globally pic.twitter.com/L6KDQA3VCC
— Hans Solo (@thandojo) January 21, 2020
What can you do to stay safe and unaffected when you travel?
This isn’t my typical advice, but if you’re uncomfortable with the possibility of a coronavirus outbreak affecting your travels, then don’t travel. That’s the only way to ensure with certainty that your vacation won’t be affected. If you’re worried about an unexpected cancellation costing you money, make sure you only make refundable bookings when it comes to accommodations and other reservations. Otherwise, the virus itself isn’t much of a threat if you have a healthy immune system. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), coronavirus requires nothing more than normal respiratory hygiene practices.
Wash your hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds with soap and water before eating or touching your face.
Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer when you don’t have a way to wash your hands.
Will a facemask help you? It can’t hurt you, but probably not. Unless you’re keeping your immune system healthy and your hands clean, a facemask won’t make a difference. But it will make you look ridiculous. Unless you’re dealing with a lot of infected patients, like at a medical facility, whatever facemask you can buy at your local drugstore probably won’t protect you from anything.
If you feel sick and you have some reason to believe you have coronavirus, you should stay home and call your doctor to inform them of your symptoms before visiting their office or an ER.
If you just feel sick, it’s more likely to be a cold or the flu than coronavirus. Act accordingly. Have a lot of fluids, rest, and stay the hell away from other people.