Ethical and Safe Travel During the Age of COVID

At the same moment that millions of people found themselves with the option of traveling without upending work life, they were told they should go nowhere. Travel is a luxury, not a necessity. In the age of COVID, we must all be minimalists. Going to the grocery store? Fine. Going to see your friends? Questionable. Going to a party? Bad choice. Going to Cancún? Cancelled.

This line of thought represents what the New York Times coined as “COVID Absolutism.” The premise is that we should do as little as possible until the pandemic ends, regardless of the risk level. But the problem with this mentality is that it is not realistic, lacks nuance, and alienates people who might otherwise be willing to accept compromise. If we are honest with people about what they can do without spreading the virus, they will be more willing to refrain from what they shouldn’t do.

A lot is still unknown about the virus. For example, whether it can spread from humans to capybaras.

Most informed readers would agree that travel a high-risk activity these days, and yet it is not an activity at all. It is a vague concept that can encompass a wide range of activities with varying risk levels.

The fact is that many Americans – even those from such liberal COVID-fearing bastions as New York and California – did travel while the nation was grappling with a raging pandemic.The choices they made on their trip matter much more than the fact they changed locations.

How risky is air travel during COVID?

At the start of the pandemic, we thought flying in an airplane might be among the worst personal COVID risks possible. With hundreds of strangers crammed into a tight metal tube for hours, how could an aircraft not be a flying COVID petri dish?

But the science suggests this never panned out. The HEPA filters installed in all commercial aircrafts filter 99.99% of virus particles and the air is refreshed every 2 – 4 minutes. A recent MIT study suggests it is highly unlikely that you would breath same air as anyone more than two seats aways from you, even without masks. If everyone is wearing masks properly as the guidelines require, that minuscule risk is reduced still further.

During a pandemic, riding an airplane can be safer than going grocery shopping.

The record shows that, in the vast vast majority of cases where passengers on transcontinental flights tested positive for COVID shortly after their flight, nobody else around them – not even passengers sitting directly next to them – developed COVID as a result of in-flight transmission.

Making Safe Safer

Of course, the transmission risk is not zero, and I have some personal recommendations to share for de-risking the air travel experience even further.

  1. Board the plane last. This way you can avoid both the crowd waiting to board the plane and already inside the plane cabin waiting to be seated.
  2. Choose an empty section of the cabin. Most airlines are not flying at full capacity these days. If you wait to board the plane last as I suggest, you will immediately see when you enter the plane if any sections or rows were left unfilled. The flight crew almost never verify that I am in my assigned seat, so I sit where there is the fewest density of people. Often this leaves me with several rows all to myself.
  3. Fly late at night. Red-eye flights tend to be the least crowded. Not only is it more common to find the plane empty on late flights, but the airport also tends to be empty, too. After 10:00 PM most airport have already completed their nightly deep-cleaning, which is comforting even if scientifically meaningless (yes, cleaning protocol tends to be more theater than impact).

Immunity is Real

“But you know you can get infected again right?”

Yes, of course, and you can get infected once you get vaccinated as well. Would you also cast doubt on the vaccine for only being 95% effective? Then why trivialize natural immunity which can be even more effective?

There must be a threshold after which the risks are low enough for us to return to normal behaviour. Recent research suggests that antibodies, B cells, and T cells last at least eight months and possibly several years. During that period, the risk of reinfection is significantly lower than for those who never got infected.

People with immunity should not be expected to hold back from traveling or socializing at least during the first six months after they recover from a COVID initial infection.

Inside and Out

One factor in this debate that has been easily overlooked is that most travel-related activities, such as hiking, sightseeing, beach-going, or generally wandering around, tend to be outdoors.

The chances of getting infected with COVID outside are next to zero. Fresh air disperses and dilutes the virus while at the same time evaporating the liquid droplets it carries. On top of that, ultraviolet light from the sun kills whatever virus cells linger out in the open. One study published in spring identified a single case of transmission outdoors, between two Chinese villagers, out of more than 7,000 studies.

COVID risk on a windy beach = 0

In some warm-weather destinations, like Cancún and the Maya Riviera, most restaurants and shopping malls are already partially or fully outdoors, which means you can run almost the full gambit of daily life without having to step foot in a high-risk indoor environment.

That being said, the pandemic saw many restrictions that has no basis in science. During my time in México I found myself shut out of pyramids and archaeological sites while other visitors were free to cram into bars and clubs were open. Likewise, many states in the US and Brazil closed their national parks without restricting nightlife or indoor dining. Tourists who would have otherwise gone hiking instead entertained themselves with risky indoor activities that accelerated the pandemic.

For the public to take COVID measures seriously, they have to make sense.

When Travel is Irresponsible

Of course, all this is not to say that travel isn’t exacerbating the pandemic. Many tourists travel specifically to escape COVID restrictions at home and have no intention of socially distancing abroad. They fill crowded indoor restaurants, bars, and clubs surrounded by mask-less strangers. This behaviour may justly be considered irresponsible and selfish, especially for those without some form of immunity.

Your COVID lifestyle may reflect your character or perhaps just a different assessment of risk.

In the absence of unifying rules or norms during the COVID pandemic, some travelers may find it difficult to distinguish between right and wrong when moving between vastly different COVID regimes. Generally, it’s best to follow local norms at the very minimum. During your first two weeks away, though, you should go beyond that, even if indoor public spaces, such as museums, restaurants, and bars are open.

Getting infected in one city and transmitting the disease in another city is worse than getting both infected and transmitting in the same place. The first phenomena is what epidemiologists are most worried about when they warn against travel.

COVID restrictions are expensive, so poorer societies tend to have less of them. Poorer societies also have less capacity in their healthcare systems to cope with spikes in cases. This means that travelers visiting poorer societies from richer societies need to be extra mindful about the consequences of their actions while traveling. An incidence of infection in México has graver consequences than it does in the United States, for example, because the death rate in México is much higher.

The Bottom Line

The pandemic has presented us with exciting new opportunities at the same time that it has created hardship for many. Leveraging these circumstances to your favor doesn’t make you a bad person as long as you act responsibly and in accordance with the best available science.

Based on what we know about the virus, there remain many ways to travel and explore this world without increasing the risk of transmission. If you are lucky enough to have a remote job or spare time and resources to play with, don’t let other people’s superficial judgement limit you from making the most of this bizarre moment.

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