The Coronavirus has infected hundreds of thousands worldwide and continues to spread rapidly. Not only that, but the death and displacement tolls rise each day. There is now no doubt that this exceptional bug COVID-19 is a crisis that many folks could have never imagined beyond the perfunctory warnings reviewed in history class.
Governments have urged travelers to return home, which makes sense if you’re on a short-term vacation, but what if you were staying somewhere long-term?
My partner and I had been living in Germany with separate host families for nearly 8 months. In January, we began to plan a massive road-trip through Spain and Portugal. We started at the end of February before the virus had exploded and, at that point, everyone still treated Corona like an annoying fly in the room: get rid of it if you can, it’s not a big deal if you don’t.
The Spanish cities glowed as we expected them to. Valencia was especially buzzing with the start of the Las Fallas festival when approximately 2 million people arrive annually to watch the daytime fireworks and nightly papier mâché burnings. In retrospect, the first clue that chaos loomed was the narrative of a local we met. She mentioned that the festival’s daily activities were not as full as usual which seemed weird to her, but she put it down ostensibly to the time of the month. That being said, the square was still occupied from corner to corner with excited locals and tourists, shouting and dancing to the bone-rattling blasts.
Slowly, the crowds in each city thinned and every traveler we met along the way had a different story about COVID-19: students were ordered to return from their study abroad, borders were closing, and people had to say goodbye or even break up with their partners who repatriated. And even as they tried to leave, passengers were abandoned and stuck for hours at airports. We caught the anxious hype and started to check the news every day along our journey, and you know the rest: the number of cases reported only grew, bringing fear, anxiety, and supply shortages.
A couple of weeks into our journey, the call came from the Spanish government to close the borders. We happened to be in Ibiza and desperately needed to leave the island and find our way back to Germany before movement stopped entirely between the countries. Not only were we running low on finances, but being stuck on a foreign island in a pandemic is material for a horror film. Bars, restaurants, and clubs were closed indefinitely. Buses never had more than five passengers. Events that we wanted to attend that weekend got cancelled the day we arrived, and beaches that normally draw large crowds in the hundreds or thousands barely attracted a single seagull. A shop we visited had sale signs plastered on every rack, and the owner mentioned to us during our checkout that the last few months were the most difficult times he had ever seen on the island — with the worst conditions yet to materialize . The locals knew what was coming and with the island feeling so lifeless and strange, we had an idea as well. Fortunately, we were given a few days to sort our affairs, but this was just the first of many hurdles to clear.
Upon returning to Hamburg, we listened for 72 hours to every news broadcast around the world we could find (and understand). Every minute of the day we weighed the options: stay or go? Borders started to close around Germany as the U.S and Canada shuttered their doors to foreigners entirely. We came to Hamburg to play hockey and work, but both were canceled even before our return. No work, no athletics, no attending events or concerts. We also weren’t allowed to visit friends. After Spain, my partner and I couldn’t even see each other because of quarantine! Like the Romeo of a parallel universe, I snuck to her house in the night to retrieve a forgotten item, which she gracefully shoved out of the basement window.
We were blessed that our host families promised to take care of us during the crisis, but we couldn’t claim any social assistance from Canada while abroad. On top of that, our insurance company stated that “epidemics may not be covered.” Awesome. Broke and potentially left uncovered in the event of illness, we decided it would be best to return home. We immediately registered for our country’s “citizens abroad” program to apply for repatriation assistance. We had to leave personal belongings and all of our hockey gear behind in the scramble because the fastest and best flight to Canada was a Lufthansa economy light flight, which meant we could only take one carry-on and one checked bag. Our host families were kind enough to let us store items, but we still had to make decisions on what to bring and what to leave. We also didn’t have the time or option to say goodbye to many people in fear of spreading the unseen pathogen. It was heartbreaking.
We were privileged to have places to stay in Canada after returning on short notice. For people on long-term visas or those who are in the process of getting permanent residence status abroad, the call to return home may be a more difficult decision. How will immigration continue? Will the process have to start over if you leave? Trying to clarify my partner’s situation, we found that many countries don’t allow Permanent Residents to reapply for their status from abroad — not even from an embassy. Her Canadian PR card expires later this year, and the thought of her not being able to reenter the country and the process being delayed by several months (or possibly years) put new stress onto our travel situation that neither of us had anticipated. On top of all that, a whole new PR application made us worried about her potential status as a future citizen. Her test is scheduled for September, but if she couldn’t return to Canada, how far would it be pushed back? The Canadian government didn’t have answers, just going to show that this pandemic can and will create any number of unpredictable issues.
This series of events made me think about immigrants and refugees worldwide. Many countries have closed their borders to everyone, including asylum seekers. This will likely increase death tolls in regions where extreme war, poverty, and political persecution exist. Not only that, but the limits placed on immigration and foreign aid around the world may lead to an increase in disparity between developed and underdeveloped nations, even after COVID-19 subsides.
2020 has been compared to the last world war in regards to the economic downfall, emergency measures taken by governments, and the mortality rate. People who have never felt unsafe in their countries or disagree with generous immigration policies may now understand and empathize with foreigners seeking a new life. The fear, anxiety, lack of resources, inability to see loved ones, and complications brought on by COVID-19 have demonstrated issues refugees must deal with on a global scale. As more people who live abroad repatriate, it becomes increasingly apparent that starting a new life anywhere, even in the country of your birth, is difficult and downright terrifying.
Without being able to work and without the ability to obtain pandemic benefits from a government body, paying for necessities becomes impossible and people become dependent on savings, current resources, and hope that the pandemic will end sooner rather than later.
All displaced travelers are worried if they will make it back to people, places, and things left behind in the wake of panic. No one wants to feel helpless and rarely do millions of people worldwide experience the same helplessness simultaneously. The emotional, physical, and structural damages caused by the pandemic may evoke major changes. Whether these will be temporary or not is the largest uncertainty. If COVID-19 dissipates as quickly as it came, political business and large corporate players will likely return to business as usual with great alacrity and push for global partnerships to flourish. Whether the general population is able to put aside fear of the disease spreading and shift our focus to alleviating the burdens of those most affected by financial hardships will shape how we travel from here on out, among many other things.
In the meantime, the fact is that scientists are equipped with the fastest ways to track, replicate, and eradicate invisible invaders; the only foolproof way to avoid misinformation is to put our foremost trust in science. If there is any silver lining to be found in this crisis, it is hope that authorities on public health and disease science are able to influence policy more directly. Just as we may not have envisioned today’s airport security measures thirty years ago, our traveling future may involve a new normal of required vaccinations and health checks.
We will have to wait and see about answers to these and many other questions, but we will also continue to create new, innovative ways to explore safely and consciously in the post-COVID-19 era.
The pandemic will remain in our minds and shape the way this generation travels in the future, but travel is just a manifestation of the interconnectedness between us that this crisis only emphasizes. It won’t stop us from hugging, celebrating, and crossing borders to be with one another, or indulging in our travel fantasies. A perfect scenario in which we recoup all our travel losses may not exist, but hope for the future does.
On a final note, if you’re stuck or still considering whether to stay or go, my main advice to you is this:
Discover what rights you have wherever you are, and prepare wholeheartedly for the worst — while hoping for the best.
Wishing you all good health!