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Traveling in corona times - thoughts the day after returning from Malta

Traveling in corona times - thoughts the day after returning from Malta

- ”Where have you been on holiday??”. Back home in Stockholm, we barely have time to get into the taxi at Arlanda Express before the taxi driver asks the question. Of course we understand why he asks. -"Malta" we say. -”Inga cworry there yet” we add. The taxi driver looks relieved and shows his two bottles of hand sanitizer. No risks are taken here.

This weekend we came home from a trip to Malta, a journey that wasn't quite like all the others. Sure, the discussions about covid-19 had been swirling in the media for a few weeks, but the real media frenzy didn't start until during our trip, when the virus outbreak in northern Italy took off. On the way down to Malta, Arlanda was almost as usual. Sure, we saw some people with face masks and we had packed hand sanitizer in our hand luggage, but nothing strikingly different at all. People were hugged goodbye and welcomed home. A completely ordinary day at Sweden's most international meeting place.

Malta airport introduces fever scanning of all arriving passengers on the day we land on the island. The coronavirus has not yet been detected in Malta, but the first case has been detected in Sicily. The island which is only 1 hour and 45 minutes by catamaran from Malta.

On the same day that we land in Malta, the first quarantine operation also takes place at the airport due to suspicion of corona infection. When a plane from Frankfurt lands, two policemen and medical personnel enter the plane and pick out an 88-year-old Maltese passenger for sampling and voluntary quarantine. The man has not shown any symptoms of infection, but he has stayed on a cruise ship in Asia that was found to have had an infected person on board. The man is very upset. In the Times of Malta he says -”I felt like Al Capone getting arrested by the FBI. I felt like a criminal!".

I'm not usually spooked easily, but after suffering severe pneumonia in Asia a few years ago, I'm not one to take any unnecessary chances. Without a doubt, I can say that the pneumonia is the worst experience I've had in all the years I've been traveling. When the doctors finally found an antibiotic that worked and I was allowed to fly home to Sweden again, I was so happy that I cried. Getting seriously ill abroad, no matter how good the care you receive, is not something I wish anyone to ever have to experience.

Carnival in Malta is in full swing. If this had been a normal February week, we probably would have gone in and looked at it. Crowded and sweated and danced with all the people. But none of us are hungry for this trip. You can't turn on the TV without being drowned out by Sky News and the BBC's news coverage of the situation in Iran and northern Italy. The news in Malta reports that the shelves of grocery stores in Malta are starting to gape empty and that the dock workers in Paola and Valletta no longer want to handle goods coming from Italian ships. The worries in Malta are beginning to be felt, even for us tourists.

The hotel in Malta is full of English, French and Italians. I find myself willingly hanging on the lock when the buffet breakfast opens and often looking a little too long at the hotel guests coughing over the buffet. Does it appear to be whooping cough, or is the person sick?

We spend the days together with our rental car, on tiny little roads on the tiny little island. Absolutely wonderful days under clear blue skies, where it's mostly just us and nature. Far from news and scare headlines. It is not until we are about to fly home that we are directly reminded of the progress of the virus.

At the airport in Malta, there are a lot of rubber gloves and large banners with information about covid-19. No matter what language the people around you speak, you understand what is on everyone's lips through a single word. Corona. The word that seems to be the same in all languages. An alcohol gel container hangs in every corner of the airport. To get the alcohol gel out, however, you need to press it with your hand. If you didn't have bacteria on your fingers before you took the alcohol gel, you are guaranteed to have it afterwards.

The queues for the restaurants at the airport are a little more airy than usual and there is less crowding at the security checkpoints. No one wants to stand too close to another passenger. A Swedish couple who are going on the same plane to Stockholm with us are wearing masks with particle protection for construction work. Unclear why. Last I checked where are virus particles not the size of construction dust?

When boarding the SAS plane to Stockholm, we all need to show passports. Or really, we just need to show the outside of the passport. Our Swedish passports got us through boarding quickly. The family with Chinese passports next to us, however, were given a long list of questions before they could board. Where had they traveled before Malta? How long ago?

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We land at Arlanda. Here we are not greeted by any fever scans. At the luggage belt, a TV screen is shown with advertising and a quick message that you can call 1177 if you feel sick. It is noticeable that Sweden has a slightly different approach to limiting the possible spread of infection than Malta or, for example, Australia and the USA. It is not until we meet the taxi driver that we realize that the corona fever has also reached Sweden.

Would I travel again in the coming months if corona continues to spread?

We traveled around eastern Canada during the worst period of the swine flu epidemic in 2009. The hysteria was total and there was still no vaccine. Fortunately, none of us in the family were infected, but in total over 10.000 people in Canada were infected by swine flu in 2009. Over 400 died. Should I travel within the next few months if the corona epidemic continues? I don't think so, but there is no easy answer. It all depends on the destination and how I would travel there. Right now, I personally would clearly prefer direct flights before a stopover in, for example, Germany or Italy. I would much rather choose to travel in countries with well-developed and efficient healthcare. I would also pay extra for cancellable accommodation and I would check my travel insurance an extra time, so I would know exactly what was covered if someone got sick.

What can I do to reduce the risk of getting sick when I travel?

There are no tricks that are 100% sure to avoid infection - neither at home nor when you are traveling - but I have three simple (and quite obvious) things that I usually keep in mind.

  • WASH YOUR HANDS OFTEN. Nothing beats soap and water. Wash thoroughly also between the fingers and don't forget the wrists. We have learned to sing the song "Happy Birthday" twice while washing your hands. If you are done with the two countries before the song ends, then you have rubbed too little.
  • DO NOT PUSH YOURSELF IN THE FACE. The most difficult thing when flying. The eyes get dry and the nose gets dry, but no matter how much it itches, it's best not to.
  • HAND WASH. Hand sanitizer doesn't replace soap and water, but it helps when you're on the go and don't have a sink nearby.
    And you – avoid poking at seat pockets/seat trays and reading in-flight magazines. The seats are not always freshly cleaned and there can be a lot of dirt near your airplane seat.

My advice to all of you who are going to travel in the near future?

Follow the authorities' recommendations and form your own opinion. Other than that, there is no right or wrong. Don't ask travel forums on Facebook what to do with your trip - what feels right to you might feel wrong to someone else.

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