Should You Fly? A Dilemma of Viral Proportions - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Should You Fly? A Dilemma of Viral Proportions

Should You Fly? A Dilemma of Viral Proportions

By Emma Wilkins

Chinese children wear protective masks as they wait to board trains at Beijing Railway.
SourceKevin Frayer/Getty


What might seem like a safe destination might not be by the time you're set to return.

By Emma Wilkins

My phone is set to silent when the email arrives. Later, when checking the time, I see it previewed on the screen. I forget all about the time.

It begins with a line of text, but what I notice first are the emojis: three lines of identical skulls. The text (“Have you heard of the black death. This is what it dose”) would be threatening if it weren’t for the grammar and spelling — reminders that its author, an earnest boy with a vast imagination, is only 8 years old.

In some ways, I had brought it on myself. A few weeks ago, the Australian school year had started, but our son’s Chinese friend was notably absent. So I tracked down his parents’ email address to see how they were. We knew the family had gone to China to visit relatives, and that travel restrictions aimed at containing the coronavirus were delaying their return. Our son responded to the opportunity with gusto, happily typing a few choice words from my email account to his friend — “hurry up and get back from China”— before spewing forth a seemingly random but painstakingly considered stream of emojis.

The “black death” email on my phone is from the Chinese friend to my son. It’s part of a thread that includes a photo of the boy and his dad sporting face masks, and the words: “The good news is that im going back shortly. Bad news is THIS CORONAVIRUS IS MAD. GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!! WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY.” And, yes, the message ends with a stream of highly expressive emojis.

“Here” is Tasmania, the small island below mainland Australia, next stop Antarctica, where it’s easy to assume the big bad world is somehow “up there.”

The plight of our son’s friend and his family was not the only reason the virus was on my mind. At the time, my husband had a work trip to Frankfurt, Germany, booked for the end of February. I worried that if he went, he might have trouble coming home. Europe was largely unaffected by the virus at that stage, but I knew this could change without warning, and the chances of disaster striking there were surely higher than here. 

“Here” is Tasmania, the small island below mainland Australia, next stop Antarctica, where it’s easy to assume the big bad world is somehow “up there.”

Sure, my husband travels several times a year, so we routinely take risks. Viruses, volcanic ash, wild weather, security threats, terrorist attacks and transport strikes can all ground flights anywhere, anytime, without warning, but when there’s not an immediate, specific fear to fixate on, we simply don’t think twice.

In the end, my husband was forced to cancel this particular trip for other reasons, so we were spared the decision — well, almost. You see, I too had booked a flight before the outbreak. I’m on the board of a national nonprofit, and we had a training weekend coming up.

My flight would be domestic and short, 100-odd minutes to Sydney, but if an outbreak forced a total travel ban, the distance might suddenly be insurmountable. To make matters worse, Tasmania is famous for its strict biosecurity precautions: At the airport in Hobart, the capital, sniffer dogs aren’t trained to detect only illicit drugs, but also fresh produce. If the authorities exercise this level of vigilance to stop fruit fly larvae, imagine their response to a dangerous virus.

I don’t know what’s more astonishing: the advances that made long-distance air travel possible in the first place or the faith we have that when we book a return flight, we will be able to return. We’re often talking about distances that are difficult to fathom, and a means of transportation that an ordinary person could never procure, let alone pilot, alone.

The speed and seriousness with which the world has already responded to COVID-19 has reminded me anew that while we’re usually in control of where we fly and how much we pay, when we depart and return, these choices can be taken from us — without warning or consultation.

I knew I could easily pull out of the training weekend, and the next, and the next, just in case. I could quit the board altogether and urge my husband to quit his job; we could resolve to never be parted by oceans and time zones again. But this would be a gamble dictated by worst-case, not most likely, scenarios.

The thought of being somehow separated from my family is terrifying, but so are many other thoughts, and the risk that a Berlin Wall equivalent would be erected in my absence was remote. Furthermore, there are countless other ways the world could part us.

And so instead of obsessing over worst-case scenarios, I decided to leave my house and state as planned, and got on my plane. A few days later, I returned home, safe. Now we’re waiting for that earnest boy and his family to get back home too.

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