Fear of COVID-19 – traveling in the age of coronavirus
I was concerned. ITB, the world’s largest annual gathering of travel professionals, attracting 160,000 attendees from around the globe to Berlin, announced a day before we were to leave for Germany it would be cancelling its event. The reason? It could not guarantee that each attendee was “not from a designated risk area (for coronavirus / COVID-19) or had not been in contact with a person or persons from a risk area.”
My wife, Therese Iknoian, and I briefly discussed cancelling or postponing our trip to Europe. Given this bit of news from Berlin, and the rapidly growing numbers of reported coronavirus cases globally, we began wondering if it were still wise to travel. Would we risk quarantine and not be able to get home if we did go? My wife and I make our living as travel writers and photographers. For us, it’s either travel, or find another line of work. Besides, our flight was nonrefundable, and we did have other travel plans in the works while there. We quickly decided to stick to our original travel plan, stashed some extra hand sanitizer, and headed out with only a slight bit of nervousness nipping at the edges of our brains.
Traveling in the age of coronavirus
Upon boarding our flight, we immediately whipped out sanitizing wipes and got to work disinfecting every surface in proximity of our seats – armrests, seatbelt latch, food tray, TV screen and remote, seat controls,… anything and everything we might touch during the course of our flight. Before eating and after every trip to the bathroom we washed our hands with a thoroughness we haven’t in years. And then, for good measure, we rubbed in a dollop of hand sanitizer, too.
Several times during the journey, someone would cough, or sniffle, and all eyes would turn nervously – did they have it? Almost certainly not, I would think, but still… How does one really know? Was I traveling with a fear of COVID-19 as a companion, I began to wonder?
Shortly after we landed in Berlin, we received another disappointing gash to our plans: TBEX — which bills itself as the largest conference and networking event for travel bloggers, online travel journalists, new media content creators, travel brands and the industry – had made the tough decision to postpone its European event in Sicily due to the rapid spread of the coronavirus in Italy…. At least we still had a local blogger forum and area travel festival….
And then we received another email: “As you may have already learned from the media, there is a confirmed case of COVID-19 infection in Berlin…. Members of (the Berlin Travel Festival) team have been in contact with the infected. As a protective measure, the team was requested to go home immediately by the public health department. We had to stop our work effective immediately. Therefore, it is impossible for us to hold the Berlin Travel Festival next weekend.” Meaning the associated Travel Massive blogger forum was also now cancelled.
A month of carefully laid travel plans for both Germany and Italy were collapsing around us because of coronavirus fears and the rapid worldwide spread of the virus. Just like that, we found ourselves in Berlin, suitcases in hand, and nowhere to go. And now there was a documented case of COVID-19 in Berlin, a person who had been in direct contact with others in our industry. All around us, swirling winds of paranoia blew with increased fury, whipped up by the fear of catching a new, relatively unknown, sometimes deadly virus.
Unsure of our next steps, we headed to the market to buy a few needed supplies. It was bizarre to see bare shelves where there were supposed to be bottles of hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes, toilet paper and tissues. Panic buying had already set in. A woman’s child sneezed, began coughing, and three of us nearby quickly moved away. Her eyes looked at us with surprise, as if to tell us, “it’s only a cold.” But when symptoms of coronavirus mimic that of a cold, who’s to say?
Hungry, we headed out to eat and manically washed our hands after arriving at the restaurant. Upon sitting down, we gingerly handled our menus and then slathered on more hand sanitizer.
The coronavirus news worsens
On March 2, the president of the European Union raised the risk level for coronavirus from moderate to high. As of Thursday, March 5, more than 93,000 people had been reported as infected worldwide, with documented cases in 77 countries according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Berlin had nine confirmed cases, with Germany having the second-highest number of documented infections in Europe overall next to Italy. Over 3,100 people were dead, the majority of deaths having occurred in China’s Hubei province, where the COVID-19 outbreak began in December 2019. China, though, was no longer the greatest concern for WHO, which stated that its focus for containing the outbreak had shifted as the death toll surged in both Iran and Italy. California declared a state of emergency as reports of more people onboard yet another Princess Cruise ship may have been infected with coronavirus and were being held offshore near San Francisco.
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Reading daily reports from the CDC, WHO, EU, and also by reading the news, I found myself wrestling with shadows of doubt that were trying to worm a fear of traveling into my soul. Was I being irresponsible by traveling with the risk levels rising globally? But as a travel writer, isn’t it my job to be traveling and reporting from around the world, even now? What if I become a carrier for coronavirus and don’t know it immediately? Would I then be putting others at risk of getting ill – and never know it? What if I did get sick, and then someone caught the virus from me and died? Could I forgive myself? What if there is an outbreak in Berlin and then I can’t get home because of a quarantine? The “what ifs” threatened to drown out reasonable thought.
Making the best of things
With ITB and the Berlin Travel Festival cancelled, pop-up events were sprouting up all over Berlin under the hashtag “#strandedinberlin.” Therese and I talked about it and decided it was silly to stay barricaded in our room in Berlin. We’d go out, not shake hands, and be cautious and vigilant always. I pushed the shadows of fear away.
We first attended an event for Scandinavian countries at the Nordic Embassies organized by a friend of ours. It was a small gathering, of less than a hundred journalists, bloggers, tour agencies and hotel owners. Greetings became a bit of an awkward yet humorous dance, as handshakes were often reflexively offered, but always refused, replaced by elbow rubs, fist bumps, toe taps, or air waves. There was still the exchange of hugs among very close friends, but these became a “turn the head and try to keep your distance while still technically hugging” affair.
A hand sanitizing station, set up in the embassy lobby, saw more action in two hours than most slot machines in Las Vegas see in a day. I watched as people struggled to open doors with feet, hips, elbows, shoulders … essentially using anything or any technique imaginable other than actually touching a door handle with a hand.
In the men’s room, I can state without hesitation I have never witnessed such commitment to hand washing. One soap dispenser even ran out causing a mild panic.
That evening, as Therese and I headed to dinner, we watched a couple walking out of a building, spraying their hands with what we presumed to be hand sanitizer. In the underground nearly everyone standing was either leaning against a wall or using the crook of an elbow to hold on as the train rocketed along the tracks between stations. Knuckles were the choice du jour for pressing buttons to open train doors. At one point, a woman stepped on the train and began coughing as she headed for the same bank of seats we were. We made an immediate evacuation of the area and found another seat. All this has become the new normal when traveling in the age of coronavirus.
A dose of coronavirus reality
Knowing that heath authorities are still trying to determine how long the coronavirus can stay active and be contagious on any surface remains a concern. I’ve read anywhere from two hours (seems likely) up to three or four days (most experts appear to be debunking this length of time), but no one yet is being definitive. It also appears to depend on the surface. Which means as Therese and I continue to travel around Berlin, we’re being extra careful about what we touch and then ensuring our hands are clean or sanitized before touching food or our faces.
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The reality is, literally everything I might touch throughout a day could be fair game as a surface upon which coronavirus resided. Should I pick up an item in a store to look at it? How about touching a glass that was just handled by a waiter or waitress? What about touching money handed back as change by a store cashier? Should I take that business card? Touch the restaurant chair to pull it back? Put my hands on that table? Did I forget to wash my hands before touching my phone? Little wonder people were becoming paranoid. It is far too easy to let fear take hold of one’s mind, drowning out the voices of reason and logic.
But here’s the thing: Understanding that the coronavirus could essentially be everywhere means no matter where in the world I travel, I could catch it, even if I decided just to stay home. The alternative is to lock myself in a hermetically sealed room and not come out until the threat passes, and that is simply ridiculous. Although on March 17, we decided to head back to our base in California to self-quarantine for a while, Therese and I know the best approach, at least for us, is to live our lives and travel when travel bans are eased or lifted, albeit with a heightened sense of vigilance and awareness.
Hand sanitizer is stowed in one pocket, tissues (so I don’t have to touch door handles and other surfaces or if I sneeze or cough) in the other. A few lozenges are also tucked into a pocket to help prevent a simple cough from dryness that might cause others nearby to panic. Face masks are packed (but we’ll only use them if one of us gets ill). And please don’t be offended if I don’t shake your hand or offer a hug and then stand a few feet farther away from you when we’re talking – that’s just common sense and safer for both you and me.
Until the threat and spread of this virus subsides or researchers develop a viable vaccine, I’ll still have to do battle with the odd shadow of doubt caused by news of the mushrooming coronavirus pandemic. But, truly, I have no real fear of traveling nor will I be traveling with fear. I’ll just stay calm and travel on when I can. Oh, and wash my hands a lot!