Our dream tour of Asia took a year of saving, planning and organizing before we finally uprooted ourselves from our home in Malta, put our things into storage at a family’s house in Italy and got down to the logistics of leaving. Erring on the side of caution, we had an appointment in mid-December with an Italian travel clinic, where they diligently went over the dangers of all food and mosquito-borne illnesses. We got our vaccines done, took our pamphlets and naively assumed we were ready to fly.
It was two weeks before our flight was set to depart from Italy to Singapore when we heard the first rumblings of a new coronavirus strain being found in several patients in China. At the time, we were more preoccupied with the Taal volcanic eruption grounding flights out of Bali. The “Wuhan flu” seemed contained and while concerned family members asked if we were planning on cancelling our flight to Asia, we answered with a resounding, “No!”
Our flight to Singapore was full of mask-wearing travellers and Changi airport was still operating flights to and from China. It being our first foray into South East Asia we had braced ourselves for a culture shock that simply never came. After a day of wandering the downtown core of Singapore we remarked to each other how eerily quiet it was. Streets weren’t as full as expected and even the Marina Bay Sands area was quite calm. By the second or third day we noticed a higher prevalence of masks and a cashier asked us why we weren’t wearing one. When we left Singapore by bus and crossed the border into Malaysia, there were three people on the bus and the border was all but deserted – something a frequent traveller told us had never happened before.
Upon entering Malaysia we stayed in Kuala Lumpur for several days and again, while the streets weren’t as busy as we expected, malls were still quite full and many tourists were without masks or any extra precautions. Most taxi drivers were wearing masks and when they saw us without, inquired as to whether or not we were following the news. By this point it was early February and the worst was still to come. As we moved by bus (again, empty) to the northern city of Penang, it was largely deserted and we were asked to give our temperatures during check-in at our hotel. We started wearing our masks when we went out but we were met with looks of scorn by many mask-free travellers. Eventually, after seeing the majority of people mask-less, we discarded ours as well. There was little talk of the virus and we weren’t following the news or the panic inducing website reporting all new cases and deaths yet; we were both laid up for three days with a cold that we couldn’t shake and figured it was better to stay in our hotel rather than alarm anyone with our coughs.
The problem with the media coverage is that, from what we’ve seen, most of it is built on the desire to fear-monger and cause mass panic. We have now travelled through Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam and up until a few weeks ago, the general atmosphere was one of caution, not full-scale panic. No one was stocking up on supplies and most tourists were not wearing masks unless they were at an airport.
Several airports, hotels and malls have required us to get our temperature taken before we are allowed to enter. No hotel has asked us for a detailed travel itinerary but all have signs asking travellers to report if they have been to Wuhan province (though it has now been expanded to several hot spots, especially in Europe).
Is this the best time to travel Asia, or the worst? I suppose it depends on what you’re looking for on your trip. We’ve thus far managed to skip the crowds, wander normally busy cities stress-free and book into hotels we wouldn’t have been able to stay in. However we can’t help but feel pained when we see the strip of hotels at night with a sparse amount of windows lit up inside each one; how are the locals going to adjust to this massive slump in income? How will the smiling family-run business at the night markets afford the low season if the high never comes? Unfortunately what was initially an issue for the harder hit Asian countries (who relied on the large influx of Chinese tourists during New Year to sustain the season) it’s now become a larger global economic issue. It feels callous to discuss the fallout of stocks and imagined value when in real-time this virus is ripping across the globe and affecting thousands of people. We have basically isolated ourselves in our hotel in Vietnam until we attempt to fly back to Europe, but we are watching the news with equal parts of fascination and disgust as terrified citizens, being hyped into crazed mobs by their media and government, are causing food shortages.
For many, this is the first time we have suffered through a pandemic upsetting our daily routines. For some, it brings out their innate generosity and for others, the rampant panic has resulted in fist-fights over toilet paper and hand sanitizer. After watching Italy become the hardest hit after China many countries are waking up and initiating lock-downs and pre-emptive quarantines, as well as social distancing, to try and prevent the spread of this virus.
While initially I stubbornly insisted we may as well stay in Asia as Europe and North America are rapidly becoming hot beds of viral activity, we are being blocked from entering most countries and being forced to quarantine for two weeks upon entry. After wandering the streets in Da Nang, Vietnam, and seeing multiple shops close and being refused service several times, we decided we could no longer wait and booked tickets back home. A few days after we booked, the United States halted all travel to and from the Schengen area and UK and the world collectively lost its shit. We have watched anxiously as more restrictions are implemented and sit idly losing our minds as we wait to board our plane. At the behest of the Italian consulate we found a travel clinic in Da Nang and completed physicals stating that we are “Fit to Fly” though of course there is no guarantee we will arrive at our destination unscathed at this point.
This virus is highlighting numerous social issues and conversations that will need to be resolved once the illness is eradicated. While many people are being told to stock up on a two-week supply of whatever provisions they need, work from home and keep their kids out of school, the reality is that most people simply can’t afford not to work. Watching CNN this week we heard numerous times about how most students rely on the school’s food programs to provide them with meals, otherwise they can’t afford to eat. The sheer thought of the amount of billionaires in the world increasing while students in America are forced to starve if they can’t go to school… How can the US, or any of these developed countries, brag about their economic status? At the risk of launching into a communist manifesto, we need to bridge the wealth disparity in developed economies. Unless the majority of citizens are comfortable and stable, how can governments brag of the 1% that enjoy lives of luxury? Numerous studies have shown that the wealth gap in America is staggering and this virus is only further highlighting the vast divide; a study by Forbes in 2019 revealed that 78% of workers in America live paycheck to paycheck.
Rather than placing blame on other countries and governments, now is the time to react to the current pandemic on a global level, with every citizen coming together to take responsibility and help ease the detrimental effects on society. In an unprecedented event, we need to take unprecedented actions. Hopefully the vulnerable are given aid and the wealthy lend the resources they have available.
As the general director of WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a recent briefing in Geneva, “Every country must be ready for its first case. No country should assume it won’t get cases. That could be a fatal mistake. This virus does not respect borders. It does not distinguish between races or ethnicities. It has no regard for a country’s GDP or level of development.”
Once the dust settles we can use the opportunity to adjust societal, political and economic problems. For the time being, the health of global citizens should be everyone’s priority.
*The opinions are mine and mine alone and they are still being formed. If you feel that I have incorrectly reported any information please let me know.*