With air bridges opening and travel to other countries being sanctioned by the government, two writers ponder the ethics of travelling during a global pandemic.
Pro travel: “The world hasn’t stopped for Covid-19 and we can’t either.”
During these past months, regular life has come to a standstill, holding its breath in the hopes that the virus so much at the forefront of everyone’s mind would be defeated. I think we all had some irrational hope that by June or July it would all seem like a distant nightmare; a flash flood of panic and grief that was quickly handled and pushed through. And yet, come summer, instead of donning sunglasses and heading for the beach, most of us were restricted to our homes, still under the stress of the pandemic and lacking both the funds and the confidence to go on holiday.
When thinking about the toll this pandemic has had on the public’s health, and of all the families currently grieving loved ones, it seems easy to scorn those who did manage to get away and enjoy a vacation. Especially those who, despite the very real risk, decided to travel irresponsibly and behave carelessly. However, it’s also impossible to ignore the equally real pain that economic struggle has brought to families around the world. Countries like Italy and France, for whom tourism is their financial bread and butter, were battered by lockdown. The streets, the piazzas, and the beaches were deserted; the restaurants and small businesses dependent on travellers were left to fend off ruin. As an Italian, it was particularly hard to see the quiet that seemed to paralyse the usually chaotic streets, and I knew that the tranquillity was costing many people their jobs. It was clear this summer that tourism – specifically responsible, controlled tourism – was vital.
With cases still on the rise and no vaccine prepared for the near future, it would be the height of idiocy to open the floodgates and relinquish control over all travel activity. But with common sense and the right precautions, it seems reasonable to allow countries to try and boost their vulnerable economies. Especially since we have probably all come to the same conclusion by now: Covid-19 isn’t going anywhere in the near future.
We don’t know how long it will be until things go back to “normal”, and it’s unreasonable to expect the world to stop turning until they do. Irresponsibility should not be tolerated, nor should selfishness. People’s lives are still at stake, and public health should still take priority. But fear of this pandemic shouldn’t overshadow the suffering that economic instability could cause – and is causing – millions of people. It’s just as important to safeguard people’s livelihoods as it is our financial health; to adapt to the new obstacles in front of us and to try – whenever possible – to forge a “new normal”.
Against Travel: “There are many moral issues with travelling during a pandemic.”
A few days into lockdown, not leaving the house had made me restless, though it wasn’t until I started looking through old travel photos that I felt like bursting into tears. Happy memories soon turned into insufferable reminders of how much I actually minded not being allowed to leave, to hop on a train and escape the blinding screen of my laptop.
This sudden and unprecedented lack of freedom was as frustrating for avid travellers across the world as it was for dozens of airlines that had to cancel flights and reimburse their customers. Luckily for both, most airlines are back in business and foreign travel is now permitted (although not recommended unless essential). But legal is not always ethical, and what is ethical is often not backed by law. Would it be okay not to wear masks during a pandemic if the law didn’t force us to wear them? It seems commonsensical that we should still wear them to protect ourselves and the vulnerable among us. When it comes to ethical behaviour, our safest bet is to act based on reason, especially when our decisions affect other people and their health. Here are some of the reasons why travelling, especially abroad, during a pandemic is morally problematic:
Differences in healthcare systems
Each country’s healthcare system can, at best, provide treatment for its population. In the case of a pandemic, however, resources are not even adequate to secure treatment for the country’s own citizens, let alone visitors. During high season, particularly tourist areas may accommodate twice as many people as they can provide healthcare for. Intensive care units are also very limited, as you may recall from news reports about deaths that could have been prevented if only hospitals weren’t overflowing with patients. In other words, hospitals in tourist areas are more likely to run out of space due to the sudden increase in population, at the expense of the locals.
Differences in phase of spread
The virus didn’t start spreading everywhere at the same time, nor with the same speed. Some countries responded immediately, imposing strict measures to control the situation, while others prioritised the health of their economies. Right now, some countries are already experiencing a second wave of the pandemic with record highs in new cases and deaths, while others have managed to maintain low levels of transmission. International travel may hinder the progress of these efforts: asymptomatic carriers transmit the virus as much as people who do get sick, with the difference being that only the latter are aware that they need to isolate. The former can choose to get tested before they travel, but that is often not obligatory. That said, people who travel from countries where transmission rates are high at that time are more likely to be asymptomatic carriers and cause new chains of infection in unaffected areas.
Different strains of coronavirus and mutations
Following the argument above, scientists have spotted various different strains of the virus, each of which may differ slightly from the rest in aggressiveness, contagiousness, symptoms, and other factors. For example, one particular mutated strain may be much more contagious than the original strain, although not deadlier. International travel facilitates the spread of different viral strains across the globe, which means that even slightly affected areas run the risk of a sudden and unexpected rise in cases that will overwhelm their health systems. This also makes it harder for scientists to predict the rate of transmission within a country and prepare health systems accordingly.
This is one of few moments in history that individual responsibility, or lack thereof, can save or cost lives. It is each person’s obligation to be conscious of the reasons behind their behaviours and to resist the temptation of acting solely for the sake of convenience when so much is at stake.
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