One Day I’ll Fly Away, COVID Permitting

With Fall in full swing, many of us are asking “when will I begin to live my life again?” Life involves traveling, yet 2020 was the worst year in tourism history, with 1 billion fewer international arrivals than 2019. And now, after an optimistic summer, travel bookings for Labor Day were down 15% from 2019, indicating that the Delta variant dissuades people from traveling. Still, getting away is a human need, and an economic need. In a recent press release, the U.S. Travel Association urges everyone to vaccinate, for their own protection, and “to help put us on the path to full recovery.” Why then are people, including the fully vaccinated, staying put?

I blame learned helplessness. Eminent psychologist Martin Seligman coined this term as he noticed that “…uncontrollable events can significantly debilitate organisms: they produce passivity in the face of trauma, inability to learn that responding is effective, and emotional stress in animals, and possibly depression in man.” For more than a year we stayed at home, schooled online, wore masks outside of home – and COVID did not stop. No wonder we are helplessly giving up on things that we could still do, like air travel.

For me, coming from the world of psychology and behavioural economics, the matter of air travel is settled with four questions. The first questions are answered with data, facts and figures. But the last two, only with emotion.  

First, there’s the question of: Is flying anywhere even a possibility? As long as airplanes are in operation, you can go visit your college buddy in Idaho. And as long as foreign countries admit US citizens, you can fly, say, to Germany, even if it involves being fully vaccinated, and proving that you have a justifiable reason to visit. To find out whether they’ll let you in, check the State Department website, and hit the “refresh” button on the travel restrictions at your destination, as they constantly shift. Recently, the European Union has removed the USA from its “safe list” of countries, and every country is interpreting it as it sees fit. Norway is closed to US travellers, Finland will only admit them if vaccinated, and Germany will admit, but quarantine, unvaccinated Americans, according to Forbes. The answer here is – yes, but.

Then, there’s the question of – is it safe to fly. NPR says that the risk of catching COVID during a flight comes almost solely from fellow travellers, and it is greatly reduced if everyone is masked. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn: “Do not travel internationally until you are fully vaccinated.” Yet, they caution that even fully vaccinated travellers might be at an increased additional risk for getting and possibly spreading some COVID-19 variants if they travel internationally. 

I respect that. But I also know that safety is destination-dependent, which makes the blanket assertion of ‘international travel bad’ moot. Consider what Worldmeters tells us about the numbers of COVID deaths per million residents. On September 4th, 2021, the USA had 1,996 such deaths, Greece had 1,324, Germany – 1,104, Belize 894, and the Ivory Coast had 17. Or we could use the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list travel restrictions by country. Mali, Hungary, and Slovakia feature in yellow, indicating the lowest COVID risk, at level 1. Mexico and Canada are dark orange, at level 3 of high risk. Guess what country features in ominous claret, at estimated risk level 4, very high risk? It’s the land of the free and the home of the brave. So, are we really safer if we stay at home? 

personalized risk assessment could help: If you’re older, suffering from hypertension, have a history of falls or fragility factors, or type 2 diabetes, you are at a greater risk for being hospitalized or dying from COVID. And let’s not forget your vaccination status, because even young, restless, and initially healthy individuals can get hit fairly hard by COVID if unvaccinated.

Then we can gauge the risk level of a destination by vaccination rates: These are 1.1% in Mali, 56% in Greece and 60% in Germany. ‘International’ isn’t necessarily dangerous. And let’s not forget that the US (53.6% overall) includes Vermont, with a 68% rate fully vaccinated, and states like Idaho, with only 44.41%. ‘Domestic’ isn’t necessarily safe: hugging your unvaccinated college buddy and his wife, or even stepping into a supermarket in Idaho might be putting you in greater danger than lying under a parasol on a Greek island. The second question—is it safe to fly?—can be answered with a number estimate, taking into account what age and physical condition you are in, how protected you are, where you come from, and where you are heading.

At this point we depart from objectivity and rely on subjective measures. This is how most of us decide most of the time anyway. Welcome to the emotion zone, and to where the plot begins to diverge, depending on you, the would-be—or wouldn’t-be—traveller. 

Fittingly, the third question is – does it feel safe to travel. Well, does it feel safe to you? Prof. Jay Bhattacharya contends that “The emergency phase of the pandemic is over. Now is the time to undo the sense of emergency.” Still, different feelings and different levels of risk tolerance for different folks. Your sense of safety might be very different from your partner’s, your employer’s, or your college buddy’s, who does not understand why you won’t visit. 

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) shows that, when it comes to the COVID pandemic, female respondents and Democrats are less willing than their respective counterparts to tolerate risk. Accordingly, women reduce every manner of traveling, and Democrats reduce non-work trips, making for marital disputes, and no right or wrong answers, because our feelings cannot be wrong. 

We come to the fourth, and even more subjective question: Is it worth it? Are the pre-and post-testing, the quarantine, if needed, and the reproaching looks from those whose risk tolerance is lower than yours, worth the chance to ride your bicycle in the paved streets of Prague, dip your toes in a faraway ocean, or roam Namibia’s red sand dunes.  

At the end of the day, experience is a vital part of life, so you must ask yourself: What are you giving up in the name of risk, and what are you just giving up?


Dr. Talya Miron-Shatz (Ph.D. in psychology) is an author (of YOUR LIFE DEPENDS ON IT: What You Can Do to Make Better Choices About Your Health), consultant, speaker, and researcher, who studies medical decision-making in a humanistic way. She was a researcher at Princeton University and taught at the University of Pennsylvania. Now she’s a visiting researcher at Cambridge. Dr. Miron-Shatz is the CEO of CureMyWay, an international health consulting firm. 


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23 Responses to One Day I’ll Fly Away, COVID Permitting

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    I like traveling soo much. Especially with plane. For longer journeys I use to take an eye mask to get some sleep, or just simply listening some cool music while I resting my eyes

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    Thank you for bringing up this painful topic for many. In fact, COVID has brought too many consequences for our daily life and it’s just awful. We are literally just alarmed by tomorrow, as we are standing on rather shaky ground. I really hope that we will soon return to our normal life, where we will not need to be afraid to breathe next to another person and we can safely travel for our pleasure and not be afraid for our lives. I hope that this will really end soon and we will sigh calmly.
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