OUR NEW NORMAL… MY THOUGHTS ON COVID-19 AND A BIT OF HOPE

I first heard about the coronavirus in early January, when news started emerging from China about a highly contagious virus that we knew little about. It felt like the next Ebola/Zika/SARS scare – while frightening, it was far from home and easy to avoid. I quietly thanked my lucky stars that I didn’t have any clients traveling to China within the next few months and went on my merry way.

Fast forward a few weeks and the virus had started spreading throughout Asia. Travelers planning to visit Asia over the next several months were uncertain… the infection rate outside of China was so low and there were no travel warnings for other Asian countries; it felt like the media was over-emphasizing the threat to capitalize on our own fear and tendency to panic. Fast forward another few weeks and Italy became a second hotbed for the disease. Suddenly all my clients traveling to Italy over the next few months (a lot more people given the popularity of Italy for spring break and summer vacations!) felt concerned… should they still go? Was it safe? Was the virus contained to just northern Italy? What would happen over the next few months?

I continued to walk my clients through the facts – sharing CDC travel warnings, WHO advisories, news and updates from suppliers on the ground – as well as options on how we could postpone or cancel trips and by what date in order to minimize financial penalties. This stage was challenging for two reasons: (1) the future was so uncertain – we were getting new information daily, and often the hysterical coverage in the media was in direct contrast to the calm and matter-of-fact updates and policies we were receiving from partners and companies in impacted countries and (2) insurance was no help… This latter part was perhaps hardest for clients to hear yet also understandable especially in light of the current situation we’re in now. Most travel insurance (unless premium Cancel For Any Reason coverage is purchased) does not allow cancellation of a trip for fear of a viral outbreak – this is excluded under the force majeure clause. Of course, this type of unprecedented and unexpected situation is exactly why travelers want to purchase insurance to protect their trip, but if it were a covered reason to cancel, the insurance companies would likely now be bankrupt. This post isn’t meant to delve into the ins and outs of insurance though so I won’t go into too much more detail here.

Every morning for the past several weeks, I have woken up and hoped to see better news, to feel a turning point coming – the uncertainty and anxiety among so many travelers was palpable and it was turning my fun job into an incredible stressful one. Every time there was a further restriction, I kept thinking… “This is it, this is the bottom, it can’t get any worse.” When Trump instituted the European traveler ban and the sports leagues cancelled all major events, I honestly didn’t think there was anything left to cancel. But apparently I was wrong…

Now here we are and most of us have had our lives completely upended. In the beginning, the travel industry felt disproportionately impacted by this global health crisis – there was fear of the virus itself and then fear of quarantine and being unable to get home that had a lot of people reconsidering their trips. But now, we’re all in the same boat. I don’t think there is a single person or business I know of that hasn’t been severely impacted by the virus we’ve come to know as COVID-19. We’re told to stay at home, restaurants are closed, bars are closed, travel plans months in the making are put on hold… and we have no idea when this is going to end. It feels unbelievable – not only because none of us have been here before, but because the enemy is invisible. We look outside and we see sunshine and a beautiful day; we step outside and everything is closed and eerily silent and empty. The panic now has spread from fear of dying to fear of quarantine to fear of unknowingly spreading the virus to someone we love (someone who is older or immune-compromised and may actually die from it, or at least be extremely ill) and now to fear that we are not prepared medically for an appropriate response. There is talk of a shortage of hospital beds and ventilators… we’re hoarding toilet paper of all things!

On September 11, 2001, I was in high school on Long Island. I had friends with parents working in the city, some in the Twin Towers. The terrorist attack felt like it happened in my backyard. We all left school early. We tried to donate blood but the blood banks were full. Soccer practice was cancelled for a week due to the smoke and dust blowing out from Manhattan. It felt incredibly scary… and as if everything else we had been worried about before (that upcoming English test, whether your crush liked you back) was all inconsequential. But a few weeks later, after the funerals and complete shock of the incident started to subside, we went back to our daily lives. Planes took off again, we returned to work and school. For a lot of us, life was put into perspective, but slowly we got back to “normal.” This situation is different…. we have no idea when we’ll be able to go back to work, or go out to eat, or hop on a plane to see our family, let alone reschedule that bucket-list trip we were planning for the better part of a year. For those that rely on variable income – there is fear over making ends meet and when the next paycheck will come in. For those that have a stable income, there is still fear over the stock market and how the volatility over the past weeks will impact retirement plans or even job security. No one is immune to the pandemic evolving in front of us – whether a wedding had to be postponed, income is lost, a family member gets sick, or a myriad of other things – we all had life going on and now we have to put it all on hold.

While the situation has left me with a lot of anxiety and stress, I can see a sliver of a silver lining. In a society where we are constantly connected and on the brink of burnout, grasping at every new wellness trend for a break, the universe has now forced us to take one. We officially have permission to stay at home, read a book, cuddle up with our loved ones, and feel grateful for the little things in life that we have. I also hope that when we come out the other side of this situation, we’ll be stronger for it. Like 9/11 – we came together, there were stories of incredible heroes and sacrifices of humanity… we can do that now.

Once I have the last of my client and personal trips cancelled through early May, I’ll be ready for a break myself – to read a book, binge watch a good show, take my dog to the beach and just spend some quality time with my husband. And when things start to return to normal, I’ll be itching to get back on a plane and explore the world, as I’m sure will so many of you. I pray that the extreme measures we’re taking as a society will help us to move swiftly through this frightening time.

Virtual hugs to you all!

Jenny

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