Coronavirus and travel: Think it would be fun to be stranded in paradise? Think again

By now we know the speed of COVID-19. It's like lightning. The pace of the virus itself is matched only by the world's unprecedented response to it, with borders closing and lockdowns imposed with incredible haste.

Just a few weeks ago though, we had no idea. That's another indication of how fast the world is now moving. Just over six weeks ago, none of us had any clue. Just over six weeks ago Italy had absolutely no known cases of coronavirus. Not one. In six weeks everything we know about the world and our lives in it has changed.

So let's go back to that time before it really had. Let's go back to March 4, when I first wrote about the virus that would come to alter the world.

I was in Rome on March 4 – I'd been there for about three weeks. By that point, a few small towns in the northern Lombardy region had been sealed off for quarantine. Schools and universities had closed. There were just over 3000 COVID-19 cases in the country, predominantly in the north.

I wrote then about the way Romans were soldiering on, the way city life was continuing as usual with what I thought at the time was admirable stoicism but was in fact excusable but breathtaking ignorance. None of us had any clue what was about to happen. No one in the world did.

I've seen a few reactions recently to travellers who have been caught up in this crisis, and they're not exactly sympathetic. I've had several people contact me and ask, "Why would you take your family into a crisis zone?" I've seen others shrug at travellers caught in Ecuador or Chile or stuck on cruise ships with no friendly port to call into and say, well, you chose to travel – this is what can happen.

There even seems to be a feeling that this could all be part of the adventure for a hardcore traveller, that being stranded somewhere could have an element of excitement to it, exactly what any true adventurer would be after.

So I'm here to explain what really happens.

I didn't take my family into a crisis zone, just as the overwhelming majority of Australians didn't knowingly put themselves at risk, because none of us knew what was about to take place. No one could have predicted both the swiftness and the severity of the new world order that was about to be imposed.

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No one knowingly took this on as a risk, because no one could ever have imagined it.

And fun? Let me tell you about fun.

Rome in March was a scary place to be. On March 4 I wrote about how everything was probably OK, even though the north was struggling, even though other travellers were cancelling plans. Just four days later – four days – the entire north of the country was locked down, a measure that felt incredibly and unreasonably strong back then.

But still, Rome kept functioning. Romans kept moving. Our holiday continued.

The following night – five days after my story went live – we went out for dinner at Salumeria Roscioli, a long-time favourite restaurant. We booked a table in the wine cellar below the main eatery, where we dined on carbonara and amatriciana and didn't even think to check our phones, which didn't get reception down there anyway.

We emerged on street level after dinner at about 11pm, and Rome was deserted. Not a soul anywhere. Just a few bits of paper flapping down the empty cobbled street. Weird. We checked our phones and discovered that sometime in between our mains and dessert, the entire country had been locked down. Everyone go home. Nobody moves.

That's when the world really starts to close in on you, when you realise the value of the notion of home, and when you suddenly discover that this, for you, is not it. We don't speak the language. We don't know the people. We don't understand the protocols. We shouldn't be here.

And now we might never be able to leave.

That was the Monday night. Our flight to Singapore, which we had already brought forward by a week, was scheduled for the Wednesday morning. We had an extremely tense 36 hours to pack our bags and huddle in our small Roman apartment and watch the news to see if our flight would still operate, and if Singapore would let us in.

Rome folded in on itself in those 36 hours. The foot traffic disappeared. The people battened down for a crisis. The reality of the situation sunk in on citizens who had no choice but to hold steady and ride out the storm.

Tourists have no place being in a situation like that. It's not a time to enjoy, it's a time to survive.

We felt the reality of our position squeezing us. In that 36 hours, flights to London, a natural escape route, were being rapidly cancelled. British Airways pulled out with immediate effect. Ryanair cancelled most services. Spain, our former home, banned all incoming flights from Italy. Singapore banned travellers from northern Italy; it seemed inevitable the south would soon follow.

One by one our options were disappearing, while all around us the idea of the virus was hanging ever-present, this unseen army that was making a rapid advance towards the city.

Let me tell you, that's not an enjoyable adventure. That throws the superficiality of the tourism experience into stark relief. Travel is just a lark, you realise, a joy for the privileged. But all around us was serious, serious business.

So have some sympathy for those travellers returned recently from overseas. Spare a small amount of pity for those caught up in the crisis in the middle of what should have been a normal holiday, the type we all hope to enjoy.

None of us knew. None of us had any idea. This thing moves like lightning.

​See also: I just flew in from Italy, but it's Australia's lack of action that scares me

See also: Australia is a nanny state, because we behave like children

Were you affected by coronavirus while you were travelling? What was your experience like? Do you have sympathy for people who were caught in this?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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