Traveling in the Age of COVID-19

When impeached U.S. President Donald Trump started boasting about his kick-ass response to the coronavirus epidemic and then put world-renowned epidemiologist and science proponent Mike Pence in charge of the federal task force to prevent the spread of COVID-19, I had an inkling that strategy for prevention/containment was going to be woefully lacking in the U.S. I didn’t quite know how lacking until I flew to Jamaica on February 28, 2020.

There weren’t any travel advisories for Jamaica, so I thought, yeah, sure–take the trip. I’m always very cognizant of good plane hygiene, anyway. But I did expect there would be lots of questions at check-in. You know, where ya been? Know anyone with COVID-19? Maybe a team at the airport checking passenger temperatures–after all, a friend had been flying around Italy a few weeks ago, and all the passengers on her flights were lined up and required to have temperatures taken, and China has neat temperature-taking helmets. Trump is always saying the U.S. is the Best!Country!Ever! so I expected a real response. There was nothing other than the guy who looked at my passport before I went through TSA screening asking if I’d been to China in the last six weeks. No signage about COVID-19 and its symptoms. No signage to encourage passengers to wash their hands a lot and not touch the eyes or mouth. No handy tips for protection. No thermal scanners. No extra security. Not even questions about whether I’d been in Italy or Iran, two other places that are having outbreaks.

I thought, gee, that’s weird. There were a few passengers wearing surgical masks, which was pretty funny–I mean, none of them were sick themselves (or obviously sick), so the masks were not at all useful to them…plus, I witnessed each of them removing their masks at some point and touching their face. These folks clearly NEED tips and reminders, etc.

But then I got to Jamaica. You know, a developing country without a lot of resources. There were plenty of bright signs throughout the airport about COVID-19 and its symptoms, and about hand-washing, etc. Then there are the reports that Jamaica refused entry to at least one cruise ship that had sick passengers or staff. And a week ago, their health ministry extended travel restrictions to more countries than just China. They’ve developed capacity for testing, something the U.S. CDC doesn’t even have right. That’s right: Jamaica’s response to COVID-19 is more robust than the response in the U.S. Let that sink in for a minute.

It’s not like Trump and the rest of the Republicans haven’t had time to make a plan. It’s estimated that the first COVID-19 human infections occurred in November/December 2019–by the end of January 2020, the World Health Organization designated COVID-19 a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. I mean, sure, Trump fired the U.S. pandemic response team in 2018 to cut costs–and sure, the National Security Council’s senior director for global health security and biodefense left last year and wasn’t replaced–but even Trump couldn’t be dumb enough not to have a plan to address threats to the U.S., right? He wouldn’t be dumb enough to just . . . do nothing even while epidemiologists from WHO, etc, issued warnings and encouraged folks to prepare, right?

It’s fascinating to watch your government flub a response from another country. And alarming. U.S. deaths from COVID-19 continue to increase while Trump swans around convincing his devotees that the virus is all a hoax constructed by the media, ignoring the fact that the devotees who attend his rallies (predominantly rural folks and older folks, many of whom are unhealthy in one way or another, uninsured or underinsured, and/or who don’t have ready access to decent health care) are likely to be the worst impacted by contracting it. Meanwhile, super epidemiologist Mike Pence may very well have been exposed to COVID-19 a week or two ago.

Eternal optimist that I am, I thought for sure that the response coming back into the States would have to be more robust. Deaths from COVID-19 went from two to nine in just three days. Of course there’d be an actual airport-focused response. Alas, no. I flew back home on Monday afternoon. There was a single, very small digital sign in the Passport Control area of the area–which, by the way, was flickering and half hidden behind another sign. One of the Customs dudes was wearing a useless surgical mask. The Global Entry kiosks didn’t ask me a damn thing out of the ordinary. Sure, the American Airlines kiosk in Jamaica asked me again if I’d been in China during the last six weeks, but no mention of Italy, Iran, or other affected countries.

Let’s just say I’m not optimistic that this is going to have a happy ending.

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