The news about COVID-19 (the name given to the 2019 novel coronavirus) is scary and fast evolving. There are more than 80,000 people infected and over 2,600 deaths worldwide as of this writing. And the disease is spreading around the world through travelers. Business trips, cruise vacations, and airport connections are all a source of risk. The ease with which this virus spreads through contact with infected people has many predicting a massive global pandemic. At this point most experts seem to agree it will not be contained and all countries should prepare for widespread infection.
Here’s a decent video from the WHO giving basic facts about coronaviruses generally and COVID-19 specifically:
The impact on Asia is already enormous. China-based Airlines may go out of business. Hotels are facing huge losses. And the the cruise industry is dealing with a publicity disaster. So what does this mean for the small segment of travel that falls in the sharing economy?
Travel and infrastructure disruption
First I want to look at the general impact on travel. Many people have already had flights cancelled and plans disrupted. Especially those traveling through or to China. But as significant numbers of infected people are diagnosed in countries like Iran and Italy we can see just how quickly this virus moves around the world. And I’m starting to hear folks who are avid travelers rethinking their plans.
Let me be clear, I don’t think the act of traveling on an airplane puts you at significant risk (yet). But the act of going to a public event or public space (which includes airports and airplanes) naturally carries greater risk of infectious disease than staying home. Everyone needs to assess their own risk and decide how much isolation is needed. And this could change. As the disease spreads around the world, it might be a good idea to avoid airplanes.
I think it is a smart move that countries and private companies are cancelling public events. For instance, Facebook, Playstation, and Sony have all announced they’re pulling out of the big Game Developers Conference held annually in San Francisco. And that’s not the only trade show impacted. In Italy schools and museums are closed. And obviously China shut down just about everything in Wuhan.
Even if you decide you are low risk for this virus, and that your destination is safe enough, it’s possible some of the fun things you want to do on a trip will be closed. Public transportation might be impacted. And you have to consider the possibility that an outbreak while you’re away could lead to quarantine measures that impact your ability to return home.
Peer to peer travel and infectious diseases
Peer to peer travel is somewhat social in nature. But I’d argue that it’s probably lower risk that a lot of other forms of travel. For instance, staying in an Airbnb or home exchange only exposes you to a home where a few other people might have left some germs. Staying in a hotel carries a much higher exposure. Similarly, riding in a Blablacar rideshare across Spain exposes you to your driver and fellow passengers, but that’s just a few other people. A train or bus is going to involve lots more people. I’d say the same about peer to peer tours. These are usually private affairs with you and a local guide, maybe a few other people. Far less exposure than a big tour group riding around in a tour bus.
If you are still planning to travel, sharing economy travel is a good bet. I definitely wouldn’t shift away from peer-to-peer travel options from infectious disease fear.
Should you still plan travel for 2020?
Well I’m still booking travel, but I’m assuming some of my trips might be disrupted. And I’m keeping an eye on the situation. I’m flexible enough that I could still fly to a region and just adjust my plans if necessary. Like if I had planned to fly to Europe and spend some time in Italy this month, I would probably rethink the Italy portion and shift that to another country. I think the key is to only book things that you’re ok changing.
Consider that this might be a good time to buy travel insurance. Just make sure it covers things like pandemics. This means you need a “cancel for any reason” policy, which is more expensive than standard policies. But most standard policies exclude epidemics and pandemics.
If you’re going to travel, make the most of it. Just employ good public health practices, and stay informed on the situation in your destination.