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The Critical Points: Why I'm not slowing down my travel during coronavirus

March 06, 2020
7 min read
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Each week in his column “The Critical Points,” TPG Loyalty and Engagement Editor Richard Kerr presents his opinion on a loyalty program, card product or recent news that he believes is overlooked, unsung or the result of groupthink taking mass opinion in a direction with which he doesn’t agree. His goal is not necessarily to convince you to agree with his position but rather to induce critical thought for each of the topics and positions he covers.

Author Update: The world was a different place when this was published. The right decision is for everyone to pause travel and help ease strain on the healthcare systems. I look forward to travel resuming and doing everything we can to support small businesses, the travel industry and our local communities. - Richard

DISCLAIMER: I am not a medical expert and have no medical training. What follows (as I clearly state in my column introduction each week) is not my attempt to convince you that my view on coronavirus is right. Instead, it's my opinion on the outbreak and an attempt to engage critical and independent thought about the current situation. You should come to your own educated conclusion and base your travel actions on that conclusion.

In mid-February, the news cycle and social media began a blitz of coverage related to a novel coronavirus (the name given to a family of viruses). The outbreak of COVID-19 — which appears to have originated in Wuhan, China — has led to cruise ship quarantines, canceled or postponed events and reductions in flights from carriers like JetBlue and United. It has also created a laundry list of questions for the traveling public.

Over the last couple of decades, there have been several new diseases that have presented as a potential pandemic. As a result, I now have a natural, built-in skepticism when cable news channels begin displaying maps of infected areas with doomsday-like headlines that play to viewers' fears.

Here are a list of the incidents where this has occurred in just the 21st century:

  • 2002 - West Nile Virus
  • 2003 - SARS
  • 2005 - Avian Flu
  • 2009 - Swine Flu
  • 2014 - Ebola
  • 2016 - Zika

In each of these cases, the initial hysteria, irrational behaviors and speculation died down as the true threat (or lack thereof) came to light.

READ MORE: Visit this page for TPG's full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

That said, there were positives of such behavior. Each outbreak reminded the population, governments and private agencies of the importance of being able to respond to new disease outbreaks, and each provided public education and awareness on how quickly an actual pandemic could occur. Ultimately, none of the above diseases reached true pandemic proportions.

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Doing my homework

When I began seeing this new coronavirus as the next potential disease to cause a pandemic, I dug for what research I could find from sources I deemed to be the best educated, least biased and most likely to present an accurate assessment of the seriousness of COVID-19 (‘CO’ stands for ‘corona,’ ‘VI’ for ‘virus,’ ‘D’ for disease and the '19' for 2019). Here are my own conclusions — again, not medical conclusions — based on my reading and questions to trained medical professionals:

  1. A healthy individual who contracts COVID-19 will likely have symptoms ranging anywhere from nothing to a bout of the common flu. Mortality rates are anywhere from 0.2% to 2%, but they're likely on the lower end given the number of people who have the virus but are unaware.
  2. Like the common flu, COVID-19 can be a significantly more problematic virus for certain groups, especially the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions.
  3. Those infected could be asymptomatic for up to 14 days (or potentially longer), meaning people would have been traveling with it for weeks before it even became clear. In my opinion, that means the virus is likely already worldwide, will continue to spread and can't be contained.
  4. Currently, the common flu is a much larger health hazard to me and my family than COVID-19. Coincidentally, my wife, two kids and I have all had the flu in the last month and have now recovered.

Based on these conclusions, I see no reason to slow down or limit travel at this point in time, as my risk for COVID-19 is roughly equivalent to my risk for the common flu.

In fact, continuing to travel may counteract one of the most concerning aspects of COVID-19 (to me): the effects the virus is having on the travel industry and the global economy.

Why the public overreacts

In my opinion, the behavior I see in the general public is an overreaction and unnecessary at this point given the information we have. That said, I can understand why the public has taken such actions. Fear of the unknown is part of our DNA, and the age of social media makes everything — even absurdly bad recommendations — much easier to share. Then, of course, there's the 24/7 news cycle that repeats warnings over and over again.

Earlier this week, Travelbloggerbuzz (one of my biggest fans) linked to an article describing the three stages of risk that does an excellent job of describing the effects of uncertainty amidst danger:

"Risk has three parts: The odds you will get hit, the average consequences of getting hit, and the tail-end consequences of getting hit. How people respond to risk is heavily influenced by the tail-end consequences of getting hit, even if it’s the least probable outcome."

The majority of the public — because we aren't epidemiologists — doesn't understand COVID-19 from a factual, medical standpoint. This means a lot of uncertainty, with one notable exception: we know the virus has the potential for death (the tail-end consequence). Despite that end result being incredibly unlikely for the vast majority of us, we're gripped by the fear of it. We rationalize behavior like buying hygiene and survival products and preemptively canceling travel plans due to this anxiety, with Groupthink guiding our response to this perceived risk of the tail-end consequence.

Bottom line

Is there an upside to the last few weeks? I actually believe that several exist. Millions more of us are washing our hands (correctly) now than a few weeks ago. Governments have been tested and will hopefully learn lessons on how to better respond in the future to biological threats. Airplanes and mass transit that may have gone months or even years without thorough disinfecting are now being cleaned.

Of course, that doesn't take away from the death toll, and unfortunately, I don't think we're anywhere close to feeling the full effects of the coronavirus from an economic perspective. I still personally perceive us as being in the knee-jerk-reaction stage to the virus, but it'll take time to measure the full global impact of the outbreak.

I've made the personal decision that COVID-19 won't slow my travels due to my perceived risk of being infected and the consequences if I am infected. I will follow the same protocols I already do for avoiding the common flu, and if I begin to show symptoms, I'll follow the same protocol as if I have the flu.

Let's all spend some time away from social media and sources with an incentive to spread fear in order to drive clicks or viewership. Complete your own research and establish your individual risk tolerance. Then enact behaviors based on those educated conclusions. If we make a concerted effort, I believe we can collectively move in the direction of a more even-keeled public and industry response to COVID-19.

Featured image by Universal Images Group via Getty