Lost among the travel ban headlines, news of quarantines and conspiracy-minded tweets is a simple sentence at the very end of the World Health Organization's (WHO) page devoted to the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak, international travel and health: "WHO advises against the application of any restrictions of international traffic based on the information currently available on this event." [Last updated Jan. 27.]
The WHO webpage on travel and the virus makes for pretty dry reading; its syntax is somewhat clinical, its statements are hedged by qualifiers. It's a much more challenging read than, say, "HOLY MOTHER OF GOD!" on a Facebook post linked to some video of unknown origin.
While a new and contagious disease is a serious and concerning matter, the danger it poses to us as individuals requires context. Currently, the WHO's only travel-related recommendation to curtail the spread of the virus is exit-screening procedures for travelers leaving China. (Guidelines have also been established for entry-screening elsewhere, though it's positioned as discretionary rather than recommended.)
On a related page titled "How to protect yourself from coronavirus," we're primarily reminded that there are quite a number of infectious diseases in the world, and the advice offered is nearly identical to advice the WHO gave travelers before Covid-19 emerged: Wash your hands frequently; cover your mouth if you cough or sneeze; don't stand close to people who are coughing, sneezing or have a fever; see a doctor if you're experiencing respiratory issues; and avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
One caution may have been added recently: "As a precaution, practice general hygiene measures when visiting live-animal markets, wet markets or animal-product markets."
While it's no fun to be reminded that we live in a world that includes infectious disease, the WHO nonetheless leaves it to individuals to evaluate the risks of diseases against the rewards of travel, pointing out that some places are more risky than others.
Personally, I find comfort in statistics. For example, I know that I have a greater risk of being killed by daylight saving time than by terrorism¹; I'm safer boarding an airplane than drawing a bath²; and I'm more at risk of being a victim of crime off of a cruise ship than aboard one³.
For the moment, the WHO believes that a traveler's risk of catching the Covid-19 virus in most parts of the world is small. That's not to dismiss the seriousness of the disease. It, like terrorism, is frightening.
But I know I'm not equally at risk of either without taking other variables into account. I would not visit Wuhan right now even if I could, just as I won't be planning a visit to Somalia in the immediate future. If you live within a certain radius of Wuhan, the travel calculus is quite different than if you live within a similar radius of Waco, Waterloo, Wellington or Westminster.
Travel Weekly's poll of travel advisors regarding the Covid-19 outbreak reveals that a relatively high number -- 28% -- of travel advisors say they've had clients who are concerned about traveling anywhere. The intense media focus on the relatively small number of travelers outside China who have been impacted by the virus is certainly disturbing, and for many people those images make it more difficult to parse perceived risk from real risk.
I was at an Ovation Travel event last week and asked a few people how they handled clients who were concerned about traveling. I spoke with senior vice president of leisure and independent advisors Gina Gabbard about the advice she gives to travel advisors who have skittish clients.
"I say, 'First, remember: They come to us to cut through the clutter,'" she said. Ovation advisors provide information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"The media sensationalizes, and not everyone is as adventurous as some are," she said, "so we stick with numbers, stick with facts and let the client decide."
She also warned, "But if the advisor panics, of course the client will panic."
Ovation independent advisor Robert Goldstein said he's only had one cancellation -- a trip to China -- due to fears about the virus. His business has been more impacted by the relatively warm weather in New York.
"Typically in January and February, I'm hearing, 'Get me out of here!'" he said. But his 2020 Caribbean business is soft.
He's learned not to pooh-pooh client concerns.
"I don't tell them what they should do," he continued. "I may say what I would do. I'll say, 'Your flight is still scheduled to leave tomorrow.' They say, 'But what about next week?' I say, 'My crystal ball is in the shop.'"
¹There's a notable spike in fatal car accidents caused by sleepy drivers after clocks spring forward an hour.
²More than 300 people a year die in bathtubs in the U.S.; in Japan, the number is more than 4,000.
³The sheer number of cameras on a cruise ship discourages potential criminals.