Berlins and Outs,  Feeeeelings

Traveling During the Pandemic

Back in October, I started working on a blog post. I was writing about the accidental Icelandic layover I had in early September on my way to visit the US. I was excited about that post, really grounding it in the sensory experience of being there, and I hope that when you read it, you’ll feel like you’re with me. But the next day, when I continued working on that draft, I decided it was irresponsible to share travel content without first providing some context about how I came to the decision to travel during the pandemic.

400+ angry words about the pandemic later, I decided this ought to be its own post.

So, first of all, I know that during this pandemic, lots of people have flown internationally and domestically, with and without being fully vaccinated. But until September, I was not one of them. Since March 2020, E and I have been very cautious. For our own safety, certainly, but also for everyone else’s safety.

Vaccination Timelines

Germany’s vaccine rollout was slower than the US’s and we weren’t fully vaccinated until the end of August.

We got our first dose back in May, but it was AstraZeneca, which studies show is most effective with a 12-week window between the first and second dose. So, we twiddled our thumbs for three months and then got our second shot in August. (Our second shot was Pfizer-BioNTech because the German Vaccine Commission recommended that people who got a first dose of AstraZeneca got a second dose of an mRNA vaccine.)

After we got our first dose and figured out our vaccination timeline, I asked E if he wanted to try to go home in September (right after we would be fully vaccinated) or for Christmas. He pretty quickly decided he wasn’t interested in going at either time.

Reasons NOT to Travel

In part, E just couldn’t imagine getting on a plane. He doesn’t feel comfortable flying yet, and that’s a personal choice and we could leave it at that. It is much easier to talk about these things as individual choices, and to pretend that our individual choices don’t affect other people.

But our choices do affect other people and so I want to complicate this narrative that suggests decision-making is all about personal comfort level. As vaccinated people, E and I were unlikely to catch or spread COVID while traveling, but that risk would be even lower if we just stayed home. And that is why E chose not to travel and I thought long and hard before I booked a flight.

Every time we travel, every time we gather in groups, every time we make people go to work in person when their jobs can be done online, we are prolonging this pandemic. When we move around, we give the virus opportunities to move around and to mutate. Some actions are less risky than others, of course, and everything you do is less risky if you’re vaccinated (so for the love of God, please get vaccinated), but the risk is not zero.

Risk Assessment

Now, I know, humans are terrible at assessing risk and life involves some degree of risk and for the most part people are doing their best to balance being cautious with some riskier activities in order to maintain their mental health and relationships.

I flew to the US in September because I assumed cases would continue to rise (which they have) and there wouldn’t be another lull until next summer (we shall see) and I couldn’t bear the thought of going another year without seeing my mother. I let my desire to see my mom in person for the first time in 20 months outweigh the risk of flying internationally to do so.

And to reiterate, when I say ‘the risk of flying internationally,’ I’m not just talking about the risk to me and my health (ie. the chance that I personally will catch COVID), but the risk to everyone I encountered in airports, on planes, and while I was in the US. I’m talking about the opportunity I gave the virus to move around and to mutate. I’m talking about the risk of prolonging the pandemic.

I chose to fly and visit the US instead of stay home in Germany. I put my individual need to see my mother ahead of the collective good, so I’m not trying to condemn anyone else for making similar choices. What I’m trying to do is remind us that these are the choices we’re making. When we weigh the desire to take a vacation with the risk of flying to do so and decide that vacationing is worth it, we are saying that our vacations are worth potentially prolonging the pandemic.

“Back to Normal”

Something I have been struggling with for months now is my deep disappointment that we have allowed ourselves to go ‘back to normal’ when COVID case numbers are still so high. (It is worth noting that I wrote this before Germany’s numbers spiked higher than ever before. So, I’m not just saying this because things are a mess in Europe right now. I have felt this way for much of 2021.) I know we are all tired of this pandemic, I know we are all ‘languishing.’ I know.

But I feel like, when we take vacations and throw big parties and refuse to wear masks, we are signaling that we have gotten the pandemic under control as much as possible and we’re not willing to change our lifestyles anymore. We’re tacitly agreeing that this is an acceptable state of things. And it’s not. Too many people have died and are continuing to die.

People talk about COVID becoming endemic like the flu, but we’re not there yet. Personally, I don’t want to go ‘back to normal’ with this pandemic at its current level. I want a better world than this for all of us.

With that in mind, please get vaccinated so we can bring the number of COVID cases and deaths down. Please wear a mask (especially indoors, in crowds, and around people that you aren’t typically in close contact with), even if you are vaccinated. Please think about other people when you make decisions about how to spend your time.

And thank you for reading and considering my thoughts.

Emma Holliday is well-traveled. After 5 years in Boston, she and her husband upended their lives to move to Berlin where she is currently writing a (funny) book about travel and grief and attempting to learn German.

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