Traveling Responsibly in the Time of the Coronavirus

Read before you travel shame

Ten months into the global lockdown, the question “Is it okay to travel during COVID-19?” continues to elicit negative reactions, but rightfully so. As a solo female backpacker who survived major depressive disorder, it’s difficult for me to give a straight, black-and-white answer.

The virus is real. I have relatives and friends who have contracted the coronavirus. Some did not survive. Some are still experiencing its toll on their bodies months after they were cleared of the virus. I have friends who are doctors, and their stories are enough to keep me a socially responsible #WearAMask supporter. I have relatives who have hardly left the confines of their home since March 2020. I also have careless partying friends who seem to think that the pandemic magically evaporated on New Year’s Day. I subscribe to conscientious travel bloggers who responsibly follow the medical protocols while traveling, and not as frequently as before.

Where do I fit in this paradigm?

I’m trying to be the latter—for the sake of my mental health.

Hear me out. I strictly followed the Philippine government’s protocols and did not leave my house from March until July 2020. I’m privileged to survive the economic crisis brought by the pandemic. I have many dogs and cats to keep me sane (sometimes insane), an outdoor garden, space to exercise, and all my necessities met. But come July 2020, just when I thought I was doing a good job surviving the pandemic, my mental health spiraled. I won’t delve into the details of my relapse, but I was diagnosed again with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

I reached out to the mental health community. Turns out I wasn’t alone. To say that there’s a spike in mental health issues during the pandemic is an understatement. If it’s hard for me, I can’t imagine what it’s like for those who are alone in a smaller, sunless space with financial instability and no access to affordable mental health services.

By the fourth quarter of 2020, I noticed that people were finding ways to address quarantine fatigue and depression—by traveling. My knee-jerk reaction was disgust—how could they travel when there’s a killer virus ravaging the earth?!—and then I read their lengthy disclaimers. Some went camping in a remote spot away from other humans. Some went to their private beach houses for the weekend. Some checked in resorts that follow strict health protocols. Some went hiking or biking away from the city.

Ah, to be a beach dog with no worries about COVID-19 or political turmoil. This is Darwin, one of the rescue dogs of Casa Antonio Glamping, Batangas.

My disgust turned into envy. I read up on how they were able to travel. For the conscientious ones, it involved lots of preparation and carefully treading through the health protocols. Credible travel journalists, such as the writers of Condé Nast, aren’t fully condemning travel in the time of COVID-19—but with precautions.

“A lot of people have COVID fatigue and are starting to travel again (not just to relocate somewhere for months but for a short, leisure trip),” Nomadic Matt blogged. He wrote: “I think we need to treat the virus and travel like we treat STDs and sex. We can’t pretend people aren’t going to have sex (or in the case of the virus, come in contact with other people), but we can arm them with the best information about practicing safe sex (reducing one’s risk of contracting the virus), wearing protection (masks), and the need to get tested often.”

Kate was here in Calatagan, Batangas, December 2020. Think before you shame. Read the caption of your friend’s travel photo before you cancel their entire soul. Is it a throwback photo? If not, did they follow the strict protocols? Did they take a quick vacation in a remote spot away from crowds? Did they take off their mask only for the photo and not the entire trip? Each photo has a backstory and context.

Back to the original question: Should you travel during COVID-19?

If you’re doing it for vanity and you’re going to act like the travel version of Karen, then no.

I find the following reasons acceptable for responsible travel in the new normal:

1. Strong, work-related matters

2. Emergencies, like getting repatriated, attending to a sick or dying loved one, plus other exceptional reasons to leave home

3. For your mental well-being. Being stuck in a confined space for months can do a lot of mental health damage.

But ONLY IF you’re amenable to the following conditions:

1. Be socially responsible by wearing a mask, or in the Philippines, a face shield on top of your mask when out in public. I can’t believe many people still don’t get this basic tenet. Getting a negative COVID-19 test result is not a free pass to go maskless in public.

2. Wash your hands properly and regularly.

3. Apply hand sanitizer when soap and water aren’t readily available.

4. Maintain social distancing, even when you seem safe with friends and loved ones.

5. Get tested for COVID-19 before going to your destination. Most destinations require a negative result 1-2 days before your date of arrival. If you have any current, known exposure to COVID-19, do not travel! And for the love of mankind, do not be the a$$***e who submits a fake test result.

6. Avoid crowds and parties. Travel only to places where you can maintain social distancing. Choose spots that follow health protocols.

7. Respect the rules of the city or town you’re visiting. Do your research before booking your socially-responsible trip. Do not try to get away with breaking the health protocols just because some douchebag gloated about it on Instagram. You don’t want to be that person who broke quarantine rules and caused a surge.

8. Caption your travel photos responsibly. Let your readers know that you followed health protocols. If it’s a throwback photo, make that clear in your caption—not just to avoid being travel shamed, but to prevent giving people the wrong impression that it’s safe to party again. As for angry social media users—know the context or backstory before you travel shame.

This doesn’t mean I encourage jet-setting or backpacking like it’s 2019. While we wait for mass testing to be more affordable and readily available (Hello, Philippines!), effective vaccines to be fully rolled out (Hello again, Philippines!), and herd immunity to be achieved (Goodbye, Philippines!), here are safe travel options to choose from:

1. Long, scenic drives. This was my first step to getting some semblance of normalcy. When my anxiety disorder got worse in July 2020, I started driving my car around town a few times a month. I would check out how life is in my neighborhood (Where are the post-apocalyptic hot men hunting for food?), and then drive a bit further to a place of calm and greenery.

2. Travel local. Pre-COVID, I was all about my international bucket list. I remember taking a travel writing course from Matador Network years ago. One unforgettable lesson they taught me was (paraphrased): Before you can become a great international traveler, you must start with your neighborhood. As establishments have begun opening their doors to the public (albeit with strict protocols), I realized now’s the time to rediscover my neighborhood—safely, of course, and not frequently until we’ve reached the level of safety of Australia and Taiwan.

Social distance glamping at Casa Antonio, Batangas. Remember: each town or city has its own COVID-19 rules before allowing people to enter their zone, so do your research. You can’t just walk in and look for vacancies. Everything has to be pre-booked now.

3. Camping or glamping. If you don’t mind roughing it, camp in the great outdoors away from the confines and stressors of the city. To err on the side of caution, get your own tent or stay only with someone you’ve been living with for the last few months. Do not stay in the same tent with someone from a different household, even if it’s a friend you trust. You might potentially be asymptomatic and could infect each other, or worse, bring the virus home and infect someone else in your house.

4. Hiking or biking on wide-open trails. I’m still wary of enclosed gyms, even with all those acrylic dividers and hygiene theater. Hiking or biking outdoors is a safer way to exercise while getting your dose of mother nature.

Throwback: Mt. Batulao, 2019. Some cities and provinces allow visitors to hike up their mountains, provided you follow their health protocols. It’s best to get in touch with LGUs (local government units) for their rules before you plan your trip.

5. Remote destinations. Whether it’s your own private beach house or an accommodation you can book online, a remote vacation just might help with the quarantine fatigue. I’m seeing more people post photos of their social-distance vacations in the likes of Boracay and Palawan, and I’m not going to immediately diss them. For as long as they followed the government’s health protocols and they aren’t out partying with strangers, then I’m happy for them.

Personally, I’m not yet ready to hop on a plane to go on vacation. When I looked at the list of requirements and all the extra steps I have to take to keep safe in the plane and airport, my anxiety kicked in. I’ll just stick to #1-4 of this list for now. Besides, the COVID-19 vaccine has started rolling out (in the countries with good government, at least), so I trust that global tourism will be easier and safer in the latter part of 2021. I can wait.

6. Consider remote working by the beach or mountains. If your job no longer requires you to report to the office and you can work anywhere for as long as you have a decent internet connection, well then, lucky you! A lot of people from Manila have temporarily relocated to the beach or highlands where rent is cheaper and they can work in the company of Mother Nature away from the stressors of the city.

Have you traveled recently? Did you follow health protocols? Tell me what your experience was like. If you’re planning your first trip since the start of COVID-19, please #travelresponsibly.