Do Essential Workers Have a Responsibility to Avoid Travel?

PHOTO: Anete Lusina/Unsplash

Kylee Nelson, a registered nurse, asks the question: Are essential workers doing more harm than good by choosing to travel this summer?

Acutely aware of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the effects that have been felt worldwide, I have to wonder, as essential workers do we have a responsibility to stay home when the travel ban lifts?

From the day countries started closing their borders due to COVID-19, panic ensued. Governments did what they thought best for each of their countries. Some chose to implement lockdown orders, while other countries, like Sweden, chose to practice herd immunity. But with summer travel season around the corner (meaning big bucks for the tourism industry), countries are tentatively looking to reopen as travel lovers look for their next flight.

Day Dreaming of Travel Has Kept Me Semi-Sane During Isolation

No one is more excited than me. In fact, it is what has kept me semi-sane while isolated to my one-bedroom Seattle apartment. I’ve daydreamed and researched how to rent a car in Portugal and how to country hop along the Mediterranean Coast. I’ve grieved a wine tasting tour in France that I’d booked for me and my parents that I, of course, had to cancel. Travel teaches me not only about a place but about people and connections. However, as an essential worker–I’m a NICU nurse–I am overwhelmed with the newfound freedom to travel again. I have to go to work and be around others. Is traveling really the right thing to do?

I’ve now been “safe at home,” in Seattle, since March. While everyone’s lives shifted and changed, work continued as normal for me and other essential workers. I continued to go to the hospital every day where I cared for the same sick and premature babies. Inside the NICU, it was business as usual. Once I stepped outside of the hospital, however, it was back to my little apartment where life stood still.

But it’s not just healthcare workers whose lives were stuck in a strange parallel between normal and abnormal. It was grocery store workers, mail delivery services, chefs, and journalists. We all continued to go to work while so much of the rest of the world stayed at home. As COVID-19 spread through communities the fear spread with it, and all essential workers were praised at one point or another for our ability to keep interacting with others and working through a pandemic. We’ve risked getting and spreading COVID-19 because our careers force us to go out into the world and interact with others. And now with travel restrictions easing and the world opening up once again, is it fair to ask us to stay home? And do healthcare workers pose a higher risk compared to other essential workers?

Is It Fair to Ask Essential Workers to Stay at Home?

The unique risk of being a healthcare worker at a time like this is that we are knowingly interacting with people positive for COVID-19. We, in most cases, have the proper equipment to deal with the virus. We wear gowns, gloves, masks, face shields, all while entering a COVID-19 room, being extremely careful not to let the virus leave the hospital with us. Although it’s not a perfect system, we have been trained and educated on how to properly put on and take off our “PPE” (personal protective equipment) to minimize that risk and put our minds at ease. However, other essential workers could also be coming into contact with COVID-19 patients at their jobs. Whereas we typically know when someone is sick with coronavirus, other essential workers might not know until they become sick themselves. They’re not equipped with hospital-grade personal protective equipment. Sanitation is drilled into our heads in the hospital, but are other essential workers holding themselves to a higher standard when it comes to proper hygiene to protect themselves?

As a nurse and as a travel fanatic, I don’t think it’s right to ask essential workers to all the sudden stay at home after they’ve hustled through a frightening pandemic. I get it, not everyone will agree with me.

The nurse in me wants to tell all essential workers to stay at home. Please, stay put until there’s a vaccine and we can safely be in public again without the risk of more people dying! The numbers are climbing as more people become infected with COVID-19 every day. As healthcare workers, we have seen the implications of coronavirus first hand. We know the devastating effects of an overwhelmed hospital. Because of the number of people we expose ourselves to every day, whether we choose to travel through big cities or small towns, we are sure to knowingly or unknowingly transmit coronavirus at an alarmingly higher rate than if we choose to stay at home. Say we get sick and we don’t know it. If we travel to big cities and spread COVID-19 we run the risk of infecting hundreds of people at once. If we choose to travel to small towns, we run the risk of overwhelming hospital systems that may not be able to support an influx of sick people. Once we make the choice to travel, can we safely quarantine for 14-days before leaving for our trip? What about when we return from travel, are we able to properly quarantine ourselves for 14-days before returning to work? And how would that sit with your moral compass? Having two weeks at home quarantined while our colleagues work to pick up our slack all because we decided to leave town and have some fun?

Now, let’s pretend I’m not a nurse for a second. The human in me wants to throw caution to the wind! The human in me is sick of isolating and sick of being praised for doing my job and sick of being looked at like a leper when I have my scrubs on outside of the hospital. The human in me wants to take each essential worker by the hand and tell them to go ahead and book a flight, and to stop being scared, and that our time is now. We did the hard work. Now it’s time to return to normal along with the rest of the world.

Are We Doing More Harm Than Good by Choosing to Travel This Summer?

When we were in lockdown with no hope of travel it felt like a dark and dreary world. Once those bans lifted I was going to be on the first flight out! But, now that I see the light at the end of the tunnel, I realize I might not be as bold as I was six weeks ago. What if we have a second wave of the virus and are forced back to where we started in March? Are we doing more harm than good by choosing to travel this summer? The truth is, the answer doesn’t lie in me. It’s up to each and every person to do what they believe is best. As a nurse and as a travel fanatic, I don’t think it’s right to ask essential workers to all of a sudden stay at home after they’ve hustled through a frightening pandemic. I get it, not everyone will agree with me. If you are not an essential worker and you find yourself disagreeing, then maybe it’s you that needs to take on the responsibility of staying home. Maybe we, as people who have been put at risk and stayed committed to service, deserve to choose whether to stay or get away.

This COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over and it won’t be anytime soon, and essential workers have seen the implications firsthand. The right choice is to do what makes you feel comfortable and what allows you to sleep at night.

As for me? Portugal, here I come.

3 Comments
K
KayTom June 24, 2020

Frankly, you are in a much better position to travel than many. You take excellent precautions to keep COVID-19 from spreading at your work, and I would assume that you are careful around others when you go to the store or travel. Not so the many I see crowding grocery aisles or gathering with friends without masks or other precautions.

Anyone can spread this virus without knowing they have it. Wherever you go, you will find it already is there, but you can enjoy travel and still do everything possible to avoid spreading it.

My husband is a physician. I see his pain when his patients are sent to the ER with COVID-19 or his babies are diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses. I don't know who these people are, but I know how much he cares about them and stresses about them. He would never consider staying home from work to protect himself. Travel has been our way to cope, to take time to put things into perspective and to meet people who enrich our lives and help us to have a wider perspective into this world. We, too, will be traveling this summer - it's Alaska for us. But we'll be careful for the sake of those we come into contact with and we'll be following the local guidelines and laws. Sometimes mental health determines whether our travel is essential or not.

Enjoy Portugal!

M
morgacj2004 June 24, 2020

And what happens if there is no reliable vaccine?  Stay home for how long?