Going viral: Travel in the time of the coronavirus


Life goes on here in Rome. The Eternal City seems convinced of its immortality. The roads are as chaotic as ever. Public transport is packed; the trains chug, the buses rattle. No-one wears face masks. No-one cleans their hands obsessively. No one avoids bars or pasticcerias or restaurants.

Right now it seems as if Romans are collectively pinching their fingertips and thumb together and shaking their hands at covid-19.

Coronavirus? What coronavirus? If you didn't check the news you'd forget there was even a problem here. Except, I do check the news. I check the news every day, every hour, almost every few minutes. I check for the latest updates. I check to see the dangers. Now 100 Italians have contracted coronavirus. Now it's 300. Now it's 800. Now it's 2000.

I don't know what the figure will be by the time you read this, because things tend to change here quickly, and dramatically. By now Rome and Italy as a whole could have gone into full-scale crisis. Or, like the buses on Via Marmorata near my apartment in Testaccio, the country could have just kept on rattling on.

I had no idea I would end up in the middle of a pandemic. My partner and I booked our five-week trip to Rome back in November. We flew over here from Spain three weeks ago, when coronavirus was still a thing happening "over there", when it was a Chinese problem, an Asian problem, a problem we would have to consider when embarking on our eventual journey home to Australia via Singapore and Thailand.

But then, covid-19 came to us. My brother messaged me from London one morning: "Scary what's going on in northern Italy atm." Is it? I checked the news. Coronavirus cases up into the hundreds. Small villages sealed off. Milan considering lockdown.

Before my partner and I knew it, Italy was the epicentre of the virus in Europe. We were in the middle of the storm, despite being in Rome, where still, miraculously, barely any cases have been discovered at the time of writing.

So now we find ourselves in limbo. We find ourselves in the same limbo that so many travellers must find themselves in right now. What do we do? Do we stay or do we go? Do we flee or do we stick it out? Do we panic or do we remain calm? Do we change plans or stay the course?


This, surely, is the main effect coronavirus is having on Australia's travelling community at the moment. Paralysis. Indecision. Most of us so far haven't been infected by the disease, and – God willing and the creeks don't rise – most of us never will be. So what is the right thing to do here? What is your next move? What is our next move? It's so hard to gauge.

As of this moment, as I write this story, we have decided to stay in Rome for the final two weeks of our holiday. This is a decision we re-evaluate daily; sometimes hourly. It might have changed by the time you read this, as the number of cases explodes, as Rome inevitably becomes affected.

It's so hard to stay rational in situations like this, to be clear-headed about the dangers that present themselves and to remember the rewards for sticking them out. Normally you would turn to something like Smart Traveller, the DFAT travel warning site, for a doomsday prediction that you could then try to dial down to reality – except, southern Italy, up until a day ago, was rated by DFAT as green: "Exercise normal safety precautions".

It's now gone up to yellow, "Exercise a high degree of caution". But how does one do that? We're already washing our hands obsessively, avoiding contact with other people, staying away from crowded areas where we can. What else can you do?

Meanwhile, other governments' rules and warnings seem to swing around wildly. The Thai government released a statement on official letterhead saying it would be enforcing 14 days of self-isolation for any tourists arriving from "high-risk" countries, which included Italy and Singapore. Big news. Big consequences for travellers, even those just transiting through Singapore.

Then, hours later, the government took the statement down. No explanation. No clarification. No idea what just happened, or what will.

We're also not covered by travel insurance over here in Italy. We checked our policy: epidemics and pandemics are specifically excepted. Anything coronavirus-related, we will have to bear the cost.

The obvious temptation in a situation like this is to run from danger. This is fight or flight stuff, and the fight doesn't sound like much fun to me. Our instinct is to just get on the first plane back to Australia and feel safe at home, even if, by that point, we may not be.

But we've decided to stay. That's mostly because we see the risk, for us, as being relatively low, despite all of the media coverage and the panic. Yes, more than 2000 people in Italy – at time of writing – have contracted covid-19. But that's still only a very small fraction of the population, and right now they're mostly a long way away, up in the north of the country. We'd be closer to the main problem areas if we lived in Switzerland.

My partner and I are also (relatively) young and healthy, which puts us in a lower risk category for coronavirus than some. Our son is 18 months old, which puts him in even less danger. We take all the recommended precautions. We try to reduce the danger as much as possible.

We're also lucky to not have to worry about potential consequences back in Australia. My partner is on maternity leave from her job, and I'm a freelance writer who works from home. In the event that the Australian government decides to ask travellers from Italy to self-isolate for two weeks when they return home, we will be OK. We won't lose income. We won't lose our jobs.

So for now, we stay in Italy. This shouldn't, however, be taken as advice to anyone else to do the same. We've assessed the risks and made up our minds, but there's no guarantee of safety. I would love to sit here and encourage everyone to come to Italy and help support a tourism industry that is suddenly struggling, but that advice isn't right for all travellers. You have to do your own research; make up your own mind.

There are so many factors at play here, so many potential consequences to consider and get comfortable with.

How old are you? That makes a huge difference. The older you are, the more severe the virus is likely to be if you contract it. Where are you actually going? A country is just a set of imaginary lines: you could be closer to the site of an outbreak across a border than at the other end of an affected nation. What will happen if you get stuck, if your flight is cancelled or your destination closes its borders or Australia enforces new quarantine rules?

All of this has to be tossed up before you decide to stay or go. And I can sympathise immensely with those making the decision. It's almost impossible to know what the right things is to do here. It's impossible to know what is going to happen in the next week or so, let alone in the next few months. Travellers have some very big and very difficult calls to make.

As far as my partner and I are concerned, right now we're doing as the Romans do, which seems to be to just carry on as normal, coronavirus be damned. We drink our cappuccino and eat our "cornetto" at our local pasticceria every morning. We shop in the Testaccio market for fresh produce. We take our kid to the park each day. We catch public transport. We get back to our flat and we wash our hands like crazy and thoroughly disinfect our junior traveller.

We try to have fun and see the sights of the Eternal City and do our best not to worry that every scratch in our throat or every little cough we make is a sign that we've been infected.

Life goes on in Rome, as it does for so many of its visitors. For now, we just have to live it.