Life in limbo: COVID-19 border restrictions separate thousands of families

Jul 17, 2020

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As the coronavirus epidemic progresses, much of the world has settled into a temporary routine: Masks, social distancing, working from home, homeschooling. Yet the ripple effect of the COVID-19 disruption extends far beyond physical restraints, even for people who have avoided contracting the disease thus far.

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Bi-national families and couples have been separated for months as countries worldwide closed their borders, hoping to halt the spread of the coronavirus. But some couples have begun petitioning their governments for leniency as the pandemic passes the half-year mark worldwide. In fact some European countries have agreed to let foreigners in if they can prove they are in a committed relationship with an EU citizen. Norway, Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands all now allow or are considering allowing cross-border couples. Family members, though, still aren’t allowed in many cases.

Stranded in Seoul

Under normal circumstances, many travelers might fancy a summer week in Korea. But for third-year medical student Jennifer Tu, 25, a recent week in Seoul represented a nightmare.

Denied boarding for a connecting flight through Hong Kong due to border restrictions, Tu found herself stuck in limbo for nearly a week at Incheon International Airport (ICN) without an onward flight, living out her own 2020 dystopian version of Tom Hanks’s “The Terminal.”

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Tu was en route to Shanghai to care for her mother, who had recently suffered a life-threatening stroke while visiting extended family. After Tu’s mother miraculously pulled through, local medical authorities urged Jennifer to take on as much of her mother’s daily care as possible in order to aid her recovery and rehabilitation.

Better days: Jennifer Tu and her mother pose at a scenic lookout on a trip together. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Tu.

Tu immediately put her studies on hold for a year in order to help out. But two additional major obstacles stood in the way: As a U.S. citizen, Tu had to obtain an emergency visa from the Chinese consulate in order to enter the country. Furthermore, China’s stringent border control restrictions limit foreign airlines to one international arrival per week.

For many weeks, a ticket from the U.S. to Shanghai (PVG) was well-nigh impossible to find at any price point. While waiting and praying, Tu supported her mother by recording videos for hospital staff to play by her mother’s bedside.

Related: Reopening soon? A country-by-country guide to coronavirus travel restrictions

Tu finally managed to secure a flight to Shanghai: RDU-SEA-ICN-HKG-PVG. But both Tu and her airline overlooked that Hong Kong had closed its borders to transit passengers at the time — until an airline official refused to let her board her flight from Seoul to Hong Kong.

“I’ve been stuck in this airport with no exit plan,” Tu told friends in a despondent Facebook update two days into her week-long sojourn at ICN. “It turns out that none of the Chinese airlines are willing to sell tickets to a non-Chinese national, even one with an emergency visa.”

Related: This 8-hour health screening could become the new norm for international travel

Jennifer studied abroad in Asia in 2017, and explored Taipei and Shanghai with her mother. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Tu.

As the clock ticked down, Tu and her team finally managed to find a unicorn flight, just two days before her emergency visa expired: a whopping $8,800, from Seoul to Shanghai via Osaka.

Upon arriving in Shanghai, Tu entered quarantine at a government-monitored facility, and will be able to rejoin her mother once her 14 days are complete, assuming she shows no signs of COVID-19.

Families separated as countries fight COVID

Tu’s grueling ordeal is just one example of the impact of global border closures designed to curtail the spread of COVID-19. The Tu family is just one of thousands that have been affected by recent restrictions. Binational families have begun using the hashtags #LoveIsNotTourism and #LoveIsEssential to raise awareness for couples separated by border restrictions, while a Facebook group of more than 8,000 members offer solidarity, encouragement and resources for each other.

The European Union eased up on its restrictions on July 1, opening up the countries to a select number of “safe zone” counterparts. The U.S. was pointedly left off of that list, as well as the most recent update on July 15, due to its steadily increasing number of COVID-19 cases (although individual countries within the EU are allowed to make their own rules for international entry, such as in Croatia’s case).

Elsewhere, select countries are tentatively inviting U.S. travelers back, primarily in tourist-friendly Caribbean island nations. But as a whole, travel freedom is nowhere near what it was just five months ago.

In the TPG Lounge Facebook group, readers chimed in to share their stories of separation with us. “My father passed away in April,” Fred S. told TPG, “and I had to watch it happen on FaceTime.” The next commenter responded, “Ditto, in March. My condolences, Fred.”

“The current travel ban for US citizens prevents me from being able to help out my mom when she had recent unexpected surgery,” Shingo T. said. “My entire family lives in Japan and I usually go there about every one to one and a half years. My mom and my aunts and uncles are all older, so I try to visit while I can.”

Anne C. told TPG that she and her significant other have been separated since March 1. “I’m European (Schengen) and he is American,” she said. “[We’re] looking at reuniting in the Caribbean, spend[ing] 14 days there and enter[ing] the U.S. from there.”

“I am used to traveling to Europe five or six times a year, and right now the travel restrictions make it impossible,” Amanda C. said. “Thank goodness for Skype, or I’d be going out of my mind. I really hope the U.S. gets [its] act together soon so we can travel again.”

The separations don’t just apply to international relationships: Domestic boundaries have also posed issues, even for people willing to risk potential exposure to COVID-19 right now. “I work for the military, and we have a 100-mile radius travel restriction,” Lynn L. said. “My husband lives and works in another state. I used to go home every weekend to spend time with him and the grands. Now I can’t go.”

“I haven’t seen my boyfriend since March,” Shana G. told TPG. “He went to Michigan to look after his elderly father just as the lockdowns were starting. His dad ended up having COVID and the flu at the same time. Fortunately he has recovered, but he still needs help. I would visit, but I’m afraid of catching COVID, so I’ll only fly if absolutely necessary.”

Kat K. lives in D.C., while her partner lives in Vienna, Austria. In late March, Kat took the last available KLM flight to Vienna, transiting in Amsterdam. However, she was denied boarding in Vienna because she didn’t have a negative COVID-19 test to show. “At the time of my departure, [officials] were only asking for tests from people entering by land, plus tests weren’t popular in the U.S. in late March, especially for people with no symptoms. I was given the option to either go back to the U.S. (!!!) or to go to Greece (I have a greek passport), so I chose the latter.”

Related: Why it’s important to keep your travel plans flexible right now

Kat’s partner followed a few days later with a 24-hour flight transiting Vienna to Frankfurt to Zurich to Athens, complete with an overnight layover in an eerily empty Athens, at five times the usual price. (The usual route is a two-hour direct flight.) “Neither of us know when we can go back ‘home,’ and we’re paying rent for two empty houses,” Kat said.

Many travelers may continue to find themselves in Kat’s situation for some time to come. COVID-19 cases continue to spike in the U.S., with numbers well exceeding original records from the beginning of the pandemic. As of mid-July, the U.S. has the most cases of coronavirus in the world by a long shot, with nearly 3.5 million cases and 137,000 deaths as of July 16.

Jennifer Tu turned to poetry and art to process her emotions during a grueling three-month ordeal to help her ailing mother. Image courtesy of Jennifer Tu.

Until we find a vaccine, or manage to flatten the curve of infections, most travelers separated from their families will have to continue to love from afar. Others, like Tu, must move heaven and earth to help their loved ones. “Very simply, if my mother needs me, I’ll be there,” Tu said during her time in the Incheon airport. “I love you, Mama. Wait for me, as I wait for you.”

Featured photo by Shutterstock.

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