Ever since the CDC started to warn Americans about coronavirus, one of its most consistent instructions has been simple: try to avoid traveling. If you are at home, stay at home. If abroad, go back. It’s not just about cleaning up the Spring Break party beaches. Of course, hedonism closely is not a way to prevent the spread of a virus, but the truth is much more widespread than that.
As long as humanity has faced the disease, we have known that traveling is a good way to spread the infection. Even in the age of horses and wooden ships, a virus could make its way throughout the world month by agonizing the month. Today, when someone can finish the same journey in a matter of hours, the threat is magnified several times.
When doctors warn us not to travel in times of a pandemic like coronavirus, it’s not because they want to ruin your vacation. There are some specific reasons why this activity, more than most, can put your health and others at risk.
Transportation usually means closed quarters
The modern transit was designed for convenience, speed, efficiency and cost, but certainly not for comfort. When we travel, it inevitably means occupying nearby neighborhoods for long distances with completely random strangers. This applies to systems such as trains and buses, but is especially true when it comes to air travel.
Away from six feet of social distance, sitting on a plane typically means less than six inches.
It is impossible to avoid sharing space with people when traveling. A trip by plane, or even a train or bus, means long exposure to a population that you cannot control. There is no way of knowing if your fellow worker will come on board with a virus and will not know if you did.
The same is true, to a lesser extent, in terminals and stations. A crowded airport is a crowded place, with passengers waiting in thick security lines and thick gate shacks. Going through a train station at peak times means making your way through the crowds, and bus stations bring people together in tight entrances and exits for each coach. The less it is said about cruise ships, even when there is no public health crisis, the better.
Constant physical contact with a large number of strangers is inevitable during transportation. In normal times this makes hubs a major source of germs. (A 2018 study found that airport security trays carry more bacteria than the average toilet seat.) In extraordinary times, the threat is much greater.
You could move the virus
The biggest goal during a pandemic is simple: to stop the virus from happening.
An infection is like a fire. It will run out if you run out of fuel. If doctors can maintain a disease like coronavirus contained in a single population, eventually everyone will develop antibodies and the virus will have nowhere to go.
When people travel, they risk breaking that seal.
A traveler visiting a new destination is likely to bring the virus with him, bringing it to a population that has not yet been infected. Someone who returns home from an infected destination is likely to bring it back with them. Movement can bring the infection to completely new parts of the world, which is why doctors recommend that it stop as long as possible.
This is especially true of respiratory diseases such as flu, colds and COVID-19, which tend to be more contagious before they become symptomatic. The average patient carries one of these viruses for several days before they even know they are sick, making it difficult to understand when it is safe to travel. You may have the best of intentions. You may have plans to self-quarantine the moment you start feeling sick. You could check yourself every morning for fever and sore throat.
None of this matters. When you feel those symptoms appear, you’ve been sick for several days.
More importantly, you’ve been contagious.
Overload of local health resources
Healthcare networks are built to meet the needs of their population. Most major tourist destinations will have some doctors accustomed to seeing travelers and most hospitals will have excess capacity, but these are not substantial resources. Overall, a city will have the clinics, hospital beds and medical professionals it needs to take care of its residents.
This is not a problem during ordinary times, when hospitals and clinics operate below capacity and can see other people. During a public health crisis, however, travelers create load balancing problems that can paralyze parts of the healthcare network.
Local hospitals in popular destinations are not built to accommodate swarms of tourists when they get sick. They have enough beds and doctors for the local community. Not the local community, besides the 10,000 travelers staying in local hotels.
And there is no counterbalance factor here. Tourism attracts people from all over the world to a relative handful of popular destinations. Chicago may see a small drop during a public health crisis due to people who have gone on vacation, but Miami will see a surge beyond anything it can handle.
Minimum local health resources
In addition, it is important to remember that many of the world’s most popular destinations tend to be in developing or resource-hungry regions of the world.
This is not a universal truth, not for any trait of the imagination. However, many of the world’s most popular destinations are located in regions with minimal healthcare infrastructure. This is because they are often relatively poor and this makes them cheap for someone from a rich nation to visit. Whether you are visiting the Greek Cyclades, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Machu Picchu in Peru or even the beaches of the U.S. Virgin Islands, these are often smaller places with limited access to care.
These destinations need their resources for their people. It’s not just about overloading hospital beds. If you are traveling, the good chance is that you will find yourself in a place where it is simply selfish and cruel for a continental American to hire health resources if, in the end, you get sick. You can go home for the relative safety of an immensely wealthy nation. You have the luxury of seeing it as an adventure, knowing that even in the worst case, someone at home could bring you to safety. (Although perhaps during a quarantine.)
A community in Guatemala, Laos or Peru doesn’t have that safety net. Those doctors need to make the most of their drugs, masks and time, and that doesn’t include taking care of wealthy tourists.
Don’t get sick abroad
Setting aside the problems of local health resources, getting sick abroad is simply an unhappy experience. He’s also one who can make a bad situation worse … quickly.
While traveling, you don’t have the comfort and luxury of home. You must sleep in a hotel room for the duration of your illness. (A choice that, over the course of a week of recovery, can quickly become expensive.) You cannot access pharmacies or family drug labels and you may not be able to communicate your needs to the pharmacist. You don’t know the local health care network if your condition worsens and you may not have friends you can turn to if you can’t take care of yourself.
Again, all of this is manageable on an ordinary basis. Being sick abroad is an unhappy experience, but when you are the only sick person in the hotel, you can find help and be satisfied. This will be much more difficult when hotel staff have their sick friends and relatives to look after.
Borders could close you
To prevent a virus from moving, during particularly severe health crises, governments can temporarily close their borders. If this happens, you will be stuck on the other side.
Remember, this is not a political conflict. There is no version of “but I am a citizen and I belong over there” that will convince the guards. The border was sealed because, during a pandemic, every single respiratory body could carry the virus.
The CDC has begun to warn Americans at home for many reasons. One was because once governments started sealing their borders, whoever stayed on the other side would get stuck there indefinitely. It could be fun in the right circumstances. If you are in a country, you can afford to stay for weeks or even months. If you are in a country where you want to stay for weeks or even months. If you don’t get sick and find yourself dependent on an unknown health system during the peak of your demand. If all of this is true, then you will be fine.
If not, you’ll wish you had crossed that border while you had the chance.