Travelling in a pandemic

Issue 55 - 25 May 2021 (7-min read)

Two weeks ago, I got on an airplane for the first time in exactly 509 days. Travelling from Tahiti to Karachi is never an easy task — I have to book three different flights, make sure I have a valid visa for the United States and then brave at least 38 hours of travel time. Add to this mix a raging pandemic, and I found myself in quite an anxiety-riddled journey.

Covid travelling means, firstly, you cannot travel when you want to travel. My initial trip was planned for March but was postponed due to a sudden ban on international travel by the French government. As soon as they eased those restrictions for May, I figured here’s my chance. I got my tickets for two weeks later only to have the last leg of my flight cancelled 24 hours before my departure — now because Pakistan decided to restrict its international borders.

As someone holding one of the worst passports in the world, I’m quite used to the paperwork involved in procuring visas and travel permits. But even my hyper organisation didn’t prepare me for the complex maze of Covid test requirements. Which country requires a test upon arrival, what kinds of tests do they accept, how many hours prior should I take the test, will I make it all the way across the world within the 72-hours time frame? The answer to the last one is no. I ended up taking three different Covid tests to satisfy the requirements for each country.

Up until now, I hadn’t had the need to take a Covid test so, after three, thorough swirls around my nostrils, I can tell you: it’s not THAT bad. I mean I wouldn’t do it for fun but it certainly isn’t as uncomfortable as I’d imagined. And at no point did I feel that the nasal swab would tickle my brain. 

Back in May 2020, The Global Tiller looked at how the Covid-19 pandemic is impacting travelling. We thought back then that 'immunity passports' would come in to play, creating a new kind of inequality when it comes to freedom of movement. My own vaccination status did not come up at any point during my travel, besides easing the permission process to leave French Polynesia, but it seems 'immunity passports' are only a matter of weeks away. The EU is opening its borders to fully vaccinated travellers and overall restrictions are being eased for those people in other parts of the world as well. 

In another issue of The Global Tiller last year, we wrote about the future of vacations in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. We had imagined contactless transactions and isolated bubbles for travellers. One year down the road, that is not necessarily the case yet. Hotel desks are still manned by humans and you still get a gentle knock on the door from the housekeeping staff. What little has changed is perhaps a note on your bed from the hotel, thanking you for giving them business in these tough times, and on-site restaurants offering only takeaway dinners for you to eat in your room.

In some ways, travelling in a pandemic feels the same as before: frazzled parents running after naughty toddlers near departure gates, middle-aged men complaining about queues while offering the solution to every problem facing the world and tiny food trays carrying hot meals 30,000 feet up in the air. But there are also empty shelves without perfume testers in the duty free shops, only one restaurant serving food at the giant LAX airport, airline crews walking by in full hazmat gear and vending machines offering disposable masks and gloves, instead of candy and chips.

What the future of travelling will be, is a big question for me after this trip. As long as we have Covid-19 among our midst, I don't see many people willing to take on the additional stress of last-minute cancelled flights and multiple nasal swabs — unless of course if the turquoise blue waters of Bora Bora, or the historic streets of Europe are worth it?

Let us know how travelling in a pandemic has been for you. Where are you planning your next trip to?

Until next week, stay safe!

Hira - Editor - The Global Tiller

If you’d like to read our previous issues, you can access our archives here.

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…and now what?

It was not fun to let Hira go. Not only because I would miss her but because it was such a hurdle to get her on the plane.  

I’m a huge fan of airports. I always go at least three hours prior to boarding, not because I’m a conscious traveller but because it allows me to spend time in the airport: watching planes, people and dreaming about all those destinations. I just like to be there because it fuels my idea of moving, of traveling.

But this time it was not the same experience: the airport was empty, there were more police than usual. There was even a cop at the check-in desk, eyeing passengers itinerary’s quite invasively (I was ready to argue with him had he said anything). We had already been through cancelled flights and last-minute internet outages at pre-departure Covid testing centres, a cop flexing his muscles would have been the last straw.

It reminded me of taking the plane to the United States, two weeks after 9/11. I was transiting by myself through LA and had the pleasure of passing through far too many security checks. If normal transit takes an hour, this one took three. All in all, not a fun experience.

The overall mood of the travellers was not as usual — much like you see in Covid travelling: it’s no longer a happy experience, just a necessity you have to put up with.

Restricting movement like this was necessary, of course. We had to stop people’s movements to avoid the spread of the virus. We have to be careful before reopening and we have to take it slow to allow a small trial-and-error period before getting ahead full speed, if we ever go back full speed on all this. But, we did after 9/11. Differently, but we did. And we got used to it. We got used to the TSA’s persistent anger problem, the immigration police everywhere in the world having this doberman’s face to everyone coming in from another country, as if by default all  passengers are suspicious.

If you move, it’s not normal. This new mentality, which is too often used, came along with a reinforcement of security regulations. The likes of Patriot Act and other such legislations everywhere in the world, which came right after 9/11. And along with those, a reinforcement of nationalistic discourse and politicians raising all kinds of alarms over borders. 

Should we expect the same now? As traveling has become a health threat, some countries have decided to remain shut down until pigs fly. New Zealand and Australia being a case in point.

A year later, many are now questioning this attitude: you can’t remain closed forever. So you have to start thinking about dealing with uncertainty. You have to start finding new ways to deal with a new situation. And we have to remember that freedom of movement is not a concept, it’s a natural state of humanity. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t have been the most spread-out species in the world, occupying every continent.

For travel as for anything happening in our societies and organisations, we have to understand that we won’t be able to control everything. As the local health minister in Tahiti said today: there are holes in the net, we can’t expect it to be otherwise. What is expected of our leaders and decision makers is to find ways to manage those holes and those uncertainties.

We will never be able to control everything but we are able to be creative enough to find solutions to manage it. We are collaborative enough to create responsible citizens, teams and individuals. 

I believe the need to control, or pretending to have control, is just a facade yet everyone likes to believe we have control over everything, because that’s easier than going through the hurdles of uncertainty, change and adaptation. 

Yet, we will fly again. Because Hira has to come back home and because we have other trips planned in the future to continue to learn, grow and share all this with you.

So let’s find ways to face the situation as it is, define what and how we want to continue moving around, and make sure we look forward with sceptic enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, we’re happy to be back online and share with you again. Feel free to tell us how you’ve been recently and what you’d like us to talk about next.

Philippe - Founder - Pacific Ventury

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