You spent the past year planning a big trip this spring. And now you’re wondering if you should cancel that trip. Is it safe, or even a good idea to travel during the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic? I’m in this situation. I have two big trips coming up in May. I’ll be very sad to cancel them, but that’s almost certainly going to happen. I also had two smaller trips planned for March which I’m cancelling. I want to share my thinking and advocate for action based on public health interests.
The global path of this pandemic is clear
I’m writing this from the United States. But my perspective is more global than one country. I think the science about the Coronavirus pandemic and the path of this disease is pretty clear. The COVID-19 disease is spreading along a remarkable similar path in all countries. Basically an exponential growth of cases. Follow that link, it’s a great explanation of the math.
Other countries give a good indication of where the United States is headed. But other countries have implemented lockdowns that we probably won’t see here. So it could very well be worse here. Italy is a good case study. Italy’s (very good) health care system is overwhelmed. People are dying from lack of access to care. Doctors are forced to make horrible choices prioritizing patients. Choices based on likelihood of survival. People are being denied care because they don’t have enough ventilators, hospital beds, doctors, and other equipment.
Personal risk and considerations
If you’re young and healthy your personal risk is low. You might get COVID-19, but you almost certainly won’t die and you probably won’t even end up in the hospital. So it’s tempting to continue with your travel plans. In fact, it’s tempting to jump on cheap flights as the airlines start offering deals to counter travel fears.
First, here are some selfish things you should consider. You could get stuck where you are going for weeks or even months. Or you might be isolated at home for 2 to 3 weeks upon your return. You might need treatment in a place with limited healthcare facilities. If you get sick you could spread the disease to friends and family who are older or have lung conditions. Perhaps these things will make you reconsider your travels. But I also hope you will consider the best interests of society a bit more broadly.
Social risk and preventable deaths
I don’t think we should panic. But putting personal interests aside, I do think we should be aggressively practicing social isolation. It’s not about your personal risk as a young healthy person, but more about society in general. If we don’t slow down the rate of infection, hospitals in the U.S. (and other countries) will be overwhelmed. People will die from lack of care.
So I’m on the Flatten The Curve bandwagon. I think this is a responsible public health message. In fact I think the graphic above is not aggressive enough. Don’t just stay home when you’re sick. Group gatherings are an excellent vector for disease transmission. This includes airplanes, public events, and even bars. If you’re over 60, or have a compromised immune system, or have diseases that put you at risk, you need to isolate yourself as much as possible for your own personal protection. But if you’re young and healthy you should be thinking about society and the impact of your actions. This is going to get worse before it gets better.