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Vagabond Journey

Travel in the Age of Ebola

How world travel has adapted to the recent Ebola outbreak.

Fears of Ebola becoming a global epidemic have shaken just about every country into action. Though the risk of this actually occurring have so far remained incredibly low — the potential is there, but that’s about it. Though this, along with previous outbreaks of SARS and Bird Flu, have driven a new consciousness that in this age of mass global rapid transit, infectious disease could spread fast in the event of a worldwide outbreak.

Over the past few months I’ve crossed borders to Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines — a criss-crossing path with China usually in the middle. As I’ve traveled, I’ve gotten a feel for the additional precautions that countries have established to counter Ebola, and to put it simply, they seem incredibly practical and realistic.

In fact, the biggest obstacles that I’ve faced so far were having to read posters and handouts informing me of Ebola and occasionally having to fill out an extra immigration card affirming that I’m not sick and did not just visit a country inflicted with Ebola. Though I have walked through some infrared sensors manned by additional medical staff on the way into some countries, this has been standard practice in Asia since the outbreak of SARS years ago. It is clear that for passengers from low/ no Ebola countries going to low/ no Ebola countries there is little restricting the path of travel — flying internationally is little different than it always is.

Though for those coming from countries (or even continents) with a higher Ebola prevalence, it’s a different story. Airports around the world have intensified screening and quarantine procedures for passengers coming from these regions. “Before school started my family went to Egypt and when we came back there were men at the airport who were dressed like people at the hospital. It took a long time for them to check us and the other people on the plane. It was very long and scary. We almost missed our train,” said a Chinese university student.

Such geographically discriminant procedures seem to be standard around the world. Singapore has announced that it will now impose a new temporary visa on visitors from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone because of Ebola, while Australia outright ceased granting visas to applicants from these countries. The Philippines are sending its 2,000 foreign workers and peace keeping troops working in infected countries into quarantine on a remote island when they return. The examples go on and on . . .

ebola health form philippines

Though what isn’t standard here are the social climates in various countries of the world regarding Ebola. The perspectives of people regarding the virus and its potential spread tend to be starkly different depending on what country they’re from, ranging from all out hysteria to hardly a whisper.

Even at the height of the Ebola scare a couple of months ago hardly anybody was even talking about it in China. It was a non-issue here as far as the public was concerned. It wasn’t really a topic of conversation, it wasn’t really something that people were scaring themselves over. It just wasn’t on the general public’s radar of concerns.

Vagabond Journey’s Lawrence Hamilton tested this apparent lack of concern in his university classes in Kaifeng. He started out three classes by writing the word “Ebola” on the blackboard, and asked the students what they thought of it.

“Most students struggle to speak in complete sentences, so they blurted out words like ‘West Africa’, ‘Virus’, “Dangerous,” and surprisingly all three classes had settled on the fact that “90 percent of people die.””

When he asked the class if they were worried about the virus there was a smattering both yes and no, but when he asked for a show of hands, the classes overwhelmingly confirmed that they were not afraid.

For the most part, the Chinese remain rather pragmatic about the Ebola potential epidemic — if not, disinterested. Mitch Blatt reported that he interviewed a 30-something woman from Chengdu about it, who replied, “I’m not paying attention to it. I don’t think it’s a problem.”

I found that this stoic attitude was also demonstrated in Singapore. Few people seemed interested in discussing the matter. “It’s not here,” they said, often as a way to close the conversation.

Though in the Philippines the public reaction was very different. While I wouldn’t say that people there were in hysterics, it was definitely a topic of conversation. If you turned on the television there you saw images of people in white Tyvec suits, hospital beds, and sick Africans. On nearly every news channel were continuous updates about Ebola, and the covers of newspapers were full of mentions of the impending epidemic.

“Yes, Ebola can be very bad for us,” a young Filipino woman told me, “but I think the media makes us more scared than we need to be.”

Of course, it is the same in USA. From what I can tell, from the news reports that make it to me and the words of my family and friends there, the place had been put on alert, fear was instilled, and people were talking this or that doomsday scenario.

There was an incredible difference in how the populations of China and Singapore responded to the potential epidemic compared to that of the Philippines and the West. The key difference fell upon how the story was reported in the countries’ respective medias. The medias of China and Singapore are largely state controlled (ranking 175 and 150 on the Press Freedom Index), and public hysteria is rarely to the benefit of quasi-totalitarian countries. Whereas the medias of the Philippines and most Western countries are generally left to the winds of the free market. Hysteria and fear sell newspapers, it trigger clicks to websites, and draws viewers to televisions. It was almost abstract when the Ebola scare was at its height to talk to my family in the USA about it, to read the hype in the U.S. news sites, and then go out into the streets of China and find that it was a complete non-issue.

These are two extremes in media that have a direct impact on their audiences, formulating and shaping their opinions and responses in very predicable ways. Both of these extremes in media are highly flawed, self-serving, and, ultimately, unworthy of trust. Each time an epidemic raises its head countries like China and Singapore will downplay it, hush it up, and keep their respective populations in the dark, while in countries like the USA the media will hype it up, exaggerate the potentialities, and blow the risks far, far out of proportion. The truth often lies somewhere in between, being too rational and uninteresting to sell on one extreme and too much information on the other.

Ebola is deadly, yes. 7,500 people have died from this outbreak so far. Though to keep this in prospective, 25,000 people around the world die in car accidents each week. I suppose the fear is if the Ebola outbreak spreads out of control — though this is highly unlikely due to the nature of how the disease is spread and the intensive global response of governments and health organizations. Information is needed about this outbreak, yes, but hysteria or fear? No way.

Unless you’re coming from West Africa, travel in the age of Ebola is business as usual.

Filed under: China, Epidemics, Health

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 89 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3515 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Prague, Czech Republic

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