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Thursday, March 19, 2020
For the last two days prior to the start of spring break, my mom and I frantically worked to cancel our flights, hotels, and Airbnbs in Italy and throw together a new trip. A couple of days before, we discovered that the coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China and had since only spread to several other Asian countries, had broken out in northern Italy. Though we were planning to travel to southern Italy where there were no confirmed cases, we feared flying into Rome and the possibility of any restrictions returning to the United States. And so, on the morning we were set to depart for Italy, we called United Airlines, were able to receive a refund on the flights despite the airline’s policy of denying refunds for economy tickets, and booked new flights to Madrid departing the next day.
That was when Italy had 330 cases of COVID-19.
Now, the total number of cases in Italy has surpassed 41,000.
Flying into Madrid Airport, I felt chilled as I spotted numerous travelers wearing blue and white masks on their faces. Nevertheless, Spain only had around sixteen cases of the coronavirus, and most were concentrated in the north rather than the southern region of the country where my mom and I were headed. Though I obsessively checked the growing number of cases in Spain, as we explored the country’s southern cities and remote beaches, I felt somewhat detached from the threat of the virus (well, that’s not completely true, as I did experience anxieties when we were in crowded areas). I saw very few Spaniards and tourists wearing masks, and the historic sites of the cities were still attracting hundreds of tourists.
After we had spent about a week in Spain, we drove to the southernmost point of the country, Tarifa, parked our rental car, and boarded a ferry headed to Morocco. Although the cases of coronavirus had risen steadily in Spain and in other nations around the world whilst we were in Europe, it seemed that during the last week of our travels the numbers shot up. While we felt safe knowing that Morocco only had six active cases of the virus, it was frightening to watch the total cases rise, especially near Madrid, where we were supposed to depart from.
Phone calls and messages from family members increasingly streamed in, their voices laced with panic and uncertainty. Videos revealing empty shelves in grocery stores throughout the United States were streamed on every social media platform. Schools across the country announced that they would be switching to virtual learning. True chaos erupted when the President announced a travel ban on Europe, and family members panicked that we would not be able to return home, unaware that the ban did not apply to American citizens. And, the day before we were set to leave from the city of Marrakesh and return to Spain via ferry, where we had left our rental car to drive back to the city of Madrid, we discovered that Morocco had banned all travel to and from Spain.
After countless unsuccessful attempts to contact our airline and rental car company due to their being bombarded with calls relating to the virus and also difficulties with international dialing, desperate to get back to the United States and to quell the anxieties of family members anxious for us to return (even though quite frankly we felt safer in Morocco than the United States due to its low number of cases), we booked a flight out of Casablanca and back to the United States.
The airport was packed with travelers, many of whom wore masks or covered their noses and mouths with their hijabs, and a few who donned plastic gloves. A frenzied mob crowded behind the AirFrance counter in reaction to Morocco’s ban, and many sat on their luggage or lay outstretched on the hard floor. The acerbic scent of hand sanitizer permeated the air. Aboard the airplane, passengers vigorously rubbed their tray tables with disinfectant wipes. A single cough or sneeze incited nervous looks among nearby travelers.
Upon arriving at Miami airport, my mom and I were part of a large group set aside by customs officials since we had traveled to Europe in the past fourteen days. What we thought was going to be “testing” actually meant being escorted into a small, overcrowded room full of travelers and airport security guards and being asked about our travels while a man slowly typed the information into a computer. It involved no temperature taking, no questions about any possible symptoms, and no information regarding any need to self-quarantine. It seemed to me to be quite counterintuitive, since drastic measures have been enacted to limit gatherings of people, to have so many recent travelers squashed into a tiny room simply to gather information about where they have been and as opposed to their health and to not provide suggestions regarding self-isolating.
Now, as I sit in my bedroom typing, I am filled with a myriad of questions that no doubt hundreds of other individuals across the globe are pondering as well. How long will these draconian measures last? When will things return to normal? Will the virus subside within a few months and ‘social distancing’ come to a close, or is a greater period of time needed to ensure that the virus poses no threat to society? Only time will tell.