A Begrudging Reality: How Coronavirus Has Changed Travel

Coronavirus travel

To be honest, I never thought it would come to this. I’ve recently begun what was previously unthinkable a reality; I’m now back to work in my career, having accepted a six-month contract as a Biomedical Engineering. For those unfamiliar with my story, allow me to give you a brief recap of how I got here.

In August of 2019, I left my career to pursue some long-term travel goals. I gave a bit of a backstory in my first article, and the journeys that ensued were an invaluable time of growth and experience for me. I watched the balloons rise in Cappadocia, went on Safari in the Serengeti, hung off Victoria Falls, practiced yoga and meditation in Ashrams in India, and took in the sights and sounds of incredible cities like Rome, Istanbul, Mumbai, Tokyo, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur among others. In total, my trip lasted 212 days and extended over twenty-four countries in four continents before my return to the USA. Though I intended to remain abroad for much longer, the COVID-19 pandemic had other thoughts in mind

Which now brings me back here. Back to work, back to my career, back to Buffalo, NY: all things I had never anticipated. The good news is that we may have made it through the worst, for now. Things are looking brighter than the most pessimistic of scenarios, and life may be returning to some level of normality. Businesses are planning their future openings, elective procedures may soon return, professional sports are preparing their returns, and NFL Players are committing crimes again; familiarity may be upon us. But international travel is notably absent among those, and I fear it will be for the foreseeable future.

Which all begs some questions I feel particularly keen to try my best to answer: when will we see travel again? What will it look like in the next year? What about the distant future? And more personally, what will I be doing now that my journey was cut short?

As a disclaimer, I am not an epidemiologist nor an expert on international policy. What I am prognosticating is merely a science and data-driven guess, mixed with some personal anecdotal evidence, in a feeble attempt to understand what travel may look like for all of us. New revelations, good or bad, could change this all at any point – so take my words with a grain of salt, and please be flexible!

The Future of Travel

I like to think globally, but this article will take on a particularly America-centric tone. Just as I expected at the time of writing my last article, the United States has become the world leader in both confirmed cases and deaths. And it’s not particularly close. With the Olympics postponed, I was hoping for some form of international competition that could gather our collective attention, but the Coronavirus Tracker was not what I meant.

Politics aside, by any measure available, the United States has been completely caught off-guard. Leadership failed us, and our continuously increasing case count serves as hard evidence. While other countries see new case counts in the hundreds or fewer, we still see a daily increase of twenty thousand plus, which could cause irrevocable damage to the US on an international level.

There is some good news. If the current trajectory holds, we will soon see a decrease in active cases consistently for the first time in America. Granted, this is coming after a much higher case and death total than in other majorly impacted countries, but social distancing is working, and we have already passed our first inflection point

That all said, the power-to-the-states model may cause a further issue for American travelers. Now that we are starting to open, the question of if it is being done responsibly depends on the state. And while other countries use data-driven requirements to open businesses, much of the US is not. What that means is we will likely see a resurgence, one that epidemiologists projected and warned us of months ago, with 538 collating a projected 73% chance of a second wave occurring. 

It seems that even if the worst is behind us, it will be a while until everything is back to normal. That’s a major reason why I started to look for work again; we may be here for a while. So, when considering what that means for my travel plans, I have to consider all variables. And to do that best, I’ll look at two timelines, pre-vaccination (short term) and post-vaccination (long term).

Travel in the Short Term

It is tough to be optimistic about anyone with big vacation plans in the year 2020. Until we successfully develop a preventive treatment, vaccine, or gain herd immunity, international destinations may be inaccessible. The one possibility for redemption lies in quick-response testing

Many have suggested that rapidly gaining herd immunity may be our quickest way to getting behind this. I would posit otherwise. Antibody testing is now taking place across the United States, and results are mixed. Anecdotally, many of my friends and family look forward to antibody testing, thinking it is the key to their personal freedom. I can’t say I blame anyone for that misconstrued belief: it is an optimistic view to think a majority of people have been infected, just without symptom. For the individual, the belief is that a positive test is their ticket to freedom. 

Even with antibodies, we don’t know what that means. Testing isn’t 100% accurate. A positive test for antibodies does not guarantee immunity, and in antibody-types for which it does, we are yet to know how long that immunity lasts. Entertaining that ideal is risky, but even in that overly optimistic universe, things aren’t ideal.

There, the math doesn’t paint a pretty picture of what infection-based herd immunity would look like. To gain herd immunity, epidemiologists estimate roughly 70% of the population must be immune. Without a vaccine, infection would be the only source of immunity, so we can look at current antibody testing results as a measuring stick for where we are.

The confirmed case count in the USA is at right about two million (as of June 7th). With a population of over 330 million, that’s less than one percent of people having confirmed cases. Studies show that somewhere between 25-80% of cases are asymptomatic, so in the most ideal scenario, we’d have at most ten million people carrying antibodies in the United States. 

If our goal is herd immunity within the next six months, we would need 1.2 million new cases per day to reach that 70% target in the most optimistic situation (231 million cases – subtracting 10 million estimated cases would leave 221 million new cases over the next 183 days). If we assume the same 80% asymptomatic, that’s still 241,000 new symptomatic cases in the US per day.

New York City became the world epicenter in the first pandemic wave. As a result, hospitals became overwhelmed, and the very healthcare infrastructure many depend on was rocked to its core. On its worst day, there were about 7,500 new cases – roughly 1 in every 1,120 citizens. Having a peak like that puts hospitals on the brink of critical mass. In the case to reach herd immunity outlined above, that would be 1 in every 1,370 citizens being confirmed with coronavirus, EVERY day, in EVERY city, throughout the entire country for six straight months. In layman’s terms, that is so beyond what this country can handle; it shouldn’t even be considered.

Photo courtesy of Official Aviation Guide

Getting out of the weeds, this all points to one conclusion: the price (in lives, the burden on our healthcare professionals, and ensuing fallout) is simply not worth it. We must be patient because we have no other choice. So while we wait for the development of treatments and vaccines, we can take solace in the fact that rapid-response testing may allow us some limited travel in the near future. As for the long-term, that all depends on the timeline for vaccine development.

Travel in the Long Term

The most aggressive vaccine development projections estimate the Summer of 2021 as the earliest availability for a mass-produced and publicly available vaccine. Production/development of FDA regulated and approved medical items is something I am quite familiar with, and these estimates are certainly best-case. Still, with the amount of money currently being invested in potential cures, it is not out of the realm of possibility to meet these aggressive timelines. I would even postulate production being accelerated beyond best-case if/when a cure is approved.

Despite that, if a vaccine is approved and developed, borders won’t suddenly just open. The good news is that we can look to sub-Saharan Africa for a microcosm of how vaccine-dependent travel may manifest itself. To understand that, we must understand the Yellow Fever response there. In many of these countries, it is a prerequisite that you provide your vaccine history to provide evidence of your immunity.

If you don’t have that documented certificate, you face two options: either get vaccinated on-site or be turned away from the country. Anti-vaxxers be forewarned: if you want to head to a number of African countries, you’re out of luck. But for those of us that believe in modern medicine and science, that may be the way of the future.

This all seems possible and undoubtedly palpable, but it is all making one massive assumption: that a vaccine will exist, which is not necessarily a guarantee. Coronaviruses have not been the easiest type of disease to create vaccines for. While they stimulate a strong immune response in their victims, indications are that antibody immunity may be short-lived. This all leads to questions of efficacy – will a vaccine be effective, and for how long?

Photo courtesy of The Orange County Register

Other forms of treatment or prevention may provide some hope. As a small example, a lab in San Diego have some positive preliminary results with an antibody treatment. But antibody treatment ushers in the same potential issues as vaccines when it comes to immunity. So while that may help treat patients, we still can’t guarantee long-term immunity just yet, even for those who have been infected and recovered.

One last dose of reality is what it means to be an American traveler in these times. If projections are correct, and the US sees another surge in the late summer/fall, it could cause irrevocable damage to our standing internationally. Economic impacts could cause the US to be left behind as the rest of the world rebounds. If the US Dollar value degrades enough, our current standing as the international currency (primarily due to the stability of the US Dollar) could be undermined.

Another reality we may have to face surrounds the strength of the US Passport. Currently, the eighteenth-most-mobile passport in the world, the overall wealth and health (both economically and physically) in the United States, drives that strength. It is not out of the realm of possibility that visa-free travel for a US Passport starts to be restricted to some countries if the COVID-19 response continues to be bungled here. What that could mean is costlier and more difficult travel as Americans must apply for visas to enter more countries. 

As for Me? One Big TBD

So much of this article is speculative, so the one thing I can control is what I’m doing during all of this. And as for me, when friends ask me about my plans for returning to the world, I keep giving a bottled two-word response: Who Knows? So much depends on the moving variables I discussed in the previous sections that it’s impossible to have a plan or destination in mind. In March, while in Laos, I was still hoping to continue through to Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, eventually to take a yoga teacher training course in Indonesia and find my new temporary home in Australia.

Now three months later, I’m headed back to my hometown to return to work. Other than those impacted directly by the disease and their family/friends, it’s tough to imagine a greater change being forced upon someone. Still, I remain optimistic and hopeful: things could be much worse than having a steady job for a while and living near friends and family.

The things I know are this: I’ll be in the United States for the next six months, I’ll spend at least the first couple of those months in Buffalo, and I’m open to any other domestic locations after that. Getting to fill my craving for the world’s best chicken wings is certainly a nice consolation as well.

After that, I must remain open to possibilities. My time in ashrams and monasteries has helped me greatly in finding the calm in any situation. Now it seems to be particularly useful. If we find ourselves in unprecedented scenarios, we can still do our best to make the most of it. My ultimate goal still is to get to Australia before my entry visa expires in February, but I will weigh many factors, including the disease spread, travel restrictions, my job, and possible extension, and also the 2020 presidential election.

And for anyone reading this at home wondering what they should do, I give the same advice. Please be smart, avoid unnecessary travel, and stay home when possible. I personally don’t fear for my health, but to be selfless and prevent transmission is our greatest duty. And if you have the wanderlust that I still possess, be patient. The possibilities for travel will return, but it’s essential not to be rigid with future plans, and we must understand the chance that those plans could be canceled. 

In the mean-time, we can all take the extra time we’ve been given to better ourselves, reach out to loved ones, and selflessly do what’s necessary to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The world is healing now, and it will be there when this is over.

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If you enjoyed this, be sure to check out some of my other pieces here on Dudefluencer:

Traveling During A Pandemic
The Manly Man’s Guide to Surviving the Coronavirus Quarantine
A Chance Encounter with Mount Agung

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