Lessons learned when traveling home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I had the virus, and I was going to kill people with it. Maybe I would die, too.
It was as certain a fact as I could know. It was 3 AM GMT, I was in a Dublin apartment, and my entire head was burning. I felt a cough swell in my throat, and I tried to swallow it back down. I shifted constantly on the bed, always turned away from my wife—somehow, that barrier of inches between my face and hers had to be enough to keep her safe.
For 4 hours I had gotten up a half-dozen times to drink a glass of water, wash my hands, and just simply stand in the bathroom with my eyes closed, focusing on my breath. I had no solutions except for these practices—simple health practices posted and repeated by every agency, every expert in the world.
But at 3 AM GMT, when I received the next batch of countless social media notifications from people still awake back home—all about the disease that I certainly carried right then—I broke. I sat up in bed, hyperventilating, and finally asked my wife to help me. “I don’t feel well,” I said out loud.
She had already been up, wide awake in the dark room. “Neither do I,” she replied.
I was on vacation in a small Ireland beach town in the time that the US began to respond to the coronavirus (COVID-19) spread in early March. News reached me in irregular bursts at the beginning and end of each day. I woke up one morning to a dozen texts from loved ones and colleagues imploring me to come home—President Trump had announced plans to shut down travel from Europe, excepting UK, the night before. I was shocked, almost amused, by their panic. My contact with people, and really the world, was minimal. I was already socially distanced.
It took just 2 days for that panic to creep in. We finished our trip in Dublin on the same day Trump extended the travel ban to the UK, guaranteeing our trip to the airport and the flight home would be overwhelming. What’s worse, we were in the most populated city of the country, and not all were taking the call for isolation seriously.
Of all the available news, guidance, and social media sharing occurring at that moment, the only thing that could calm me that morning was sharing my fear with my wife. Conceding how little control I had in what was going to happen made whatever would happen, well, a little more acceptable. By the time we were headed to the airport, the heat radiating from my head was gone. My throat was clear. It was the most psychosomatic sensation I’ve had in my life.
A lot was made of the US’ decision to put a temporary ban on flights from Europe last week, but at the time when I traveled home—just within 24 hours of the so-called deadline for departures—there was little firsthand perspective. No one could tell me exactly what the Dublin airport would look like, what I would go through.
It was a horrifying day.
Before checking in, we were each handed a form by a man who offered no explanation of what it was. It was a US travel health declaration, and it prompted us on our flight information, our contact information, our travel history in the last 14 days, and our experiences with any of the 3 symptoms in the last 24 hours:
No pens were provided. I watched as the few hundred people in my line, elbow-to-elbow with one another, filled out the forms, sharing a dozen pens with one other.
The customs line was ten-fold greater than the check-in line, and snaked throughout the international terminal—putting us in contact with every person coming to and from their gates. In each direction I faced, there was a person within inches of me. A man wearing a decorative painting mask stood in front of me. A young mother stood blocking the front of her crying baby’s stroller.
After 3 hours, the line kickstarted and moved us almost immediately to the customs desk. We passed an airline employee and asked why this was so sudden. “Someone made a call,” she said. “We’re now just screening people who were in Europe, not the UK.”
In 4 hours of crowded lines, having gone through 2 security screenings and been given not a single direction on what was next, I was asked all of 2 questions about my health before being passed onto my gate. The customs agent did not even glance at my form. No one ever did.
We flew home, and arrived to not a single screening or precautionary measure in the US. We just took our bags and went home. It wasn’t until we did our own research the next morning that we learned to quarantine ourselves for 14 days once returning from the UK.
Just before I went to bed the night I returned, I felt more uneasiness. I let it out again—I ranted to my wife how no one seemed too worried about us, how no one seemed to have taken charge in assuring what we were going through was even the right thing. And again, she felt the same.
What scares me—and I think a lot of people—about COVID-19 is how uncertain it is and how unfamiliar it has made the world in such a short time. And as much as we want public health response to be capable in lessening its effect, we also want it to reassure us. I’m not sure it can do both, at least not immediately.
The first effect of this pandemic has been anxiety. You can get it very easily from the threat of the disease. You can also get it from closures, curfews, travel bans, screening, isolation—every response we can put in place to fight it. I got anxiety from both. I treated myself both times, simply by talking.
It’s on our public health officials to make deliberate, timely decisions that reduce the spread and effect of the coronavirus. But it’s on ourselves to find assurances—and when assurance isn’t available, an acceptance of our predicament. The strategies put in place to combat this disease require us all to act a part. Those parts require clear minds and open communication.
If you’re feeling unwell—in any of the ways we can feel unwell right now—talk about it with someone. That’s how you start to feel better.