If I knew the pandemic was coming would I have gone somewhere else?
ASTORIA, New York- I recently went on Andy Graham’s daily live YouTube show where he’s interviewing people around the world about their experiences with the SARS-2 pandemic. Along with explaining how things are out in the locked-down streets of NYC and what I’m up to here, he asked an interesting question:
If I knew this pandemic was going to happen three months in advance would I have done everything how I did it?
To recap: I set up a base of operations in New York City in mid-summer last year. The reasons for this move were as such:
1) I’ve moved more into project work / speaking engagements that are almost randomly scattered all over the world. The days of me traveling in smooth, sequential paths across the world have been put on pause. I can make way more money, do more interesting projects, and accomplish way more if I use a global “spokes of the wheel” travel strategy. The spokes of the wheel travel strategy means that you set up a central base of operations in a well-connected hub and use it to access an entire region — traveling out and coming back again like moving up and down the spokes of an old wooden wagon wheel. As my interests have become truly worldwide, I no longer need a regional hub but a global one. There is only one place in the world that qualifies for this title: New York City. So I got an apartment that’s 10 minutes away from LaGuardia, 50 minutes from JFK, and a little over an hour from Newark — i.e. ground zero for global air travel.
2) My kids have been traveling all over the world since they were born. They want friends. They want to go to school. So instead of setting them up in a place where they only experience one culture why not give them a place that’s truly a cross section of the world? When you walk out of our Astoria apartment you will hear at least five or six different languages, there’s the Colombian section down the street, around the corner is Little Egypt, and a block or two to the north is the Greek district, a short subway ride to the east is Flushing, the real Chinatown, a 20 minute subway ride to the west is Midtown Manhattan. NYC is technically in the USA, but it isn’t really America — it’s global. (My kids’ school is also pretty good — my youngest daughter now speaks Mandarin too).
So there’s benefits to being here. But is this the best place to be during the coronavirus pandemic?
If I could choose a place to be to weather this storm, where would I go? Where would I choose to be stuck for three to six months?
Truthfully, there probably isn’t a good place to be during this, but there are bad places. The Philippines — where the president just declared that the police and military have been authorized to shoot people who violate quarantine — doesn’t sound like a very good place to be. Spain, where people aren’t permitted to leave their homes, even to exercise, doesn’t sound too good either. China, an authoritarian state where foreigners have become the scorn of the nation and are subjected to ever-increasing xenophobia and racism, no, that’s not a place where I would want to be.
If I knew how exactly this pandemic would play out I would have moved to Sweden. Hands down, in my opinion, Sweden is the best place to be right now. Why? Because they didn’t shut down — they didn’t sacrifice individual liberties for a virus that we have no defense against.
The second part of this statement is the most important. We can’t hide from virus and expect it to go away. When we come out of quarantine SARS-2 will be there waiting for us. The world is global; even if a virus is defeated in one place people from other places will just reintroduce it. This pandemic isn’t over until A) There’s a cure, B) There’s a vaccine, or C) Enough people get it and develop immunity that we have a “golden ring” of viral shields — i.e. herd immunity. Options A and B are probably not happening anytime soon. Researchers all over the world have been working on coronavirus vaccines since the first SARS outbreak in 2002 and haven’t come up with anything yet. We can’t maintain quarantine this long, so option C is the only real choice, regardless of what national strategy is used.
Social distancing doesn’t mean a lower number of infections; it means spreading the number of infections out over a longer frame of time to not overwhelm our unprepared medical institutions. Sweden said that it will not “take draconian measures that have a limited impact on the epidemic but knock out the functions of society” and initiated a strategy that was very similar to Trump’s and Britain’s Boris Johnson’s initial stances. The only difference was that they were for real about it. And it’s not as if SARS-2 hasn’t been impacting Sweden — the country actually has the fifth highest per capita death rate on the planet.
While I feel that Sweden is the best place to be, actually going there before the pandemic would have necessitated way too much foresight to be a proper response to Andy’s question. Nobody could have guessed that Sweden would be one of the only nations on the planet to remain rationale in the face of a crisis that country after country have wantonly turned into a much worse disaster.
(Think for a moment about where funding for hospitals comes from.)
So barring the option of being smart enough to have hunkered down in Sweden, I would have to say that a low-industrialized, agrarian society would be the best place to be — a place that produces its own food that has a lot of outdoor space that’s fairly removed from the world. A place like Lake Atilan in Guatemala, where Andy is, or rural Mexico, or Andean South America.
However, you would need to commit fully to being in a place like this for the duration of the pandemic — there would be no going back. If by some chance you did contract COVID-19 and needed medical attention in such a remote location … you’re basically f’cked. While you could surely out-compete most of the locals in terms of being able to pay for medical care, the availability and quality of that medical care would more than likely be questionable.
Being in a foreign country also puts you in a compromised position in a time of crisis. As we’re seeing in China, foreigners are being scapegoated as vectors for the disease (ironic, no?) and hotels have refused to house them and many restaurants have refused to serve them. Some people are actually having difficulty maintaining access to the homes where they’ve been living for years. The media there has stoked up the flames of anti-foreign sentiment, diverted blamed for the outbreak on the USA, and there’s no telling what will happen next. Foreigners in China also no longer have the choice to leave, as the country shut down most flights coming in and out. They are stuck in hostile territory.
While the political climate in China is a little different than in most other lands, this scenario can be played out in unexpected ways pretty much anywhere. National fear is a very dangerous thing for an outsider.
Being in a foreign land at a time like this also raises some other fundamental questions: What do you do if you can’t renew your visa because the immigration offices are closed due to quarantine? What do you do if a country that rounds up all the foreigners and orders them to leave but there’s nowhere for you to go? What do you do if the country you’re in cancels all flights (as most have pretty much done at this point)? Do you think your government is going to swoop in and save you? Think again: right now there are tens of thousands of travelers stuck in places all around the world.
So there is a definite advantage of being in the place whose name matches that of your passport. At the very least, you can’t be kicked out.
When looking at all of this I’d have to conclude that being in NYC isn’t so bad after all. Sure, it’s currently the global epicenter of the pandemic. Sure, almost everything is closed. But I can still go outside, jog in the sunshine, walk around and look at the blooming flowers on what are otherwise five early spring days. The supermarkets are still stocked — nobody fought over toilet paper here. My freezer and pantry have enough food for two weeks. My apartment is comfortable. I have a book to finish writing and a couple documentaries to finish editing. I’m with my wife and kids. Nobody has any work or school to go to.
The situation here is bad, but, relatively speaking, it’s not that bad.
So to answer Andy’s question, if I knew what was going to happen would I have come to NYC?
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3657 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York
April 4, 2020, 10:36 pm
Very interesting topic. I am currently staying on the outskirts of Newcastle, about 3o km out on a large lake. Over these last three weeks I have thought about it where would be the perfect place to be a lot and I guess I feel pretty lucky where I am. The premier of our state (NSW) doesn’t seem to be too big of a petty tyrant…yet. We are able to go out, fish, exercise, and work in the garden without any hassle. This probably isn’t where I would have chosen, but I am damn grateful to be here.
The premier of our state next door (Victoria) has gone full tyrant, banning fishing, hunting and even surfing. People just can’t be trusted he keeps saying. That scares me a lot more than this virus.
Glad you are safe!
April 5, 2020, 12:05 am
I was stupid enough to submit passport renewals for the kids before all this started and didn’t choose expedited….so I’m waiting and waiting for them to come. I’m stuck in Iowa for the time being(to answer your question on another comment).
I think we will soon see if Sweden made the right choice. If they have plenty of meds available and well trained doctors and nurses with equipment, then they probably can pull it off. The US has such a stretched hospital system and this just highlights the problems…..I live in small town next to a larger town with 10k people. The nearest hospital with an ICU is 50 miles away and in another state.
While the US isn’t the worst place in the world to get stuck with this(you are right about the Philippines), there are certainly better places. Net food and net energy producing countries without a high concentration of people would probably be a smart choice as you alluded to. I’d pick my poison as Uruguay or Paraguay.
April 5, 2020, 12:38 am
Hi Wade.. yes in a country that had no flights out and a visa that expires at the end of the week.
The boss of Kenya said he’d close down petrol stations if people kept moving county to county and didnt observe the curfew. Every night the police r on patrol. The sirens are going as they chase down the violators.
But as a budget traveller, in a country where many hotels r closed.. hostels in Nairobi are… i am well looked after. It could of been a lot worse. So i m in Naivasha for the duration.
See u on the other side
April 5, 2020, 11:02 am
I’m currently holed up in Antigua and there is nowhere I’d rather be, but for more micro reasons. I have a self contained cottage overlooking the sea with plenty of outdoor space, my family just next door and access to a pool & treadmill. Food supplies are still strong as is WiFi and I’m on the right time zone to still do most of my work.
It has got me thinking where I should base myself after this passes though, easy access to a beach seems likely to be more useful than access to a hub airport & great bars for the foreseeable…
Oddly enough, the big life choices/decisions I made 18 months ago in preparation for a no deal Brexit have so far (touch wood) stood me in good stead to weather this storm for a while yet. I was anticipating a UK recession and business to get tough, the house market to fall & freedom to travel for work to be somewhat reduced. I’m set up to work remotely, have residency rights in two countries and work split across several. Fingers crossed I’ve hedged my bets enough to get through this – as the scale of potential disruption is nothing like what I had prepared for.
April 19, 2020, 2:29 pm
Great article Wade, it makes several valid points regarding what qualities make a destination a viable safe haven during these turbulent times.
This is also one critical skillset some of us – the location independent professionals and perpetual travelers, have unknowingly gained through our experiences.
In a nutshell – most of us are all extremely skilled at making travel plans. We also have a wealth of experience allowing us to make more informed choices regarding where and when we should go next and what’s there to see and do.
However, probably nobody could predict that these exact skills and expertise that followed along through all these years of travel now can prove useful in an emergency situation.
We are all now facing a gloomy choice:
“Where am I going to get stuck for a while where I could survive there financially, get quick access to effective healthcare systems and obtain a sufficiently long term visa or another permit type – all of this knowing that all other choices will be soon out of question”.
Choosing the next country to explore – that’s easy.
Deciding on a country where you’ll be stranded for God knows how long – now this is serious shit.
Being equipped with all the tools, experiences, understandings of each country’s individual characteristics and cultural traits, making accurate predictions of their government’s next moves – these skills are an incredible asset to have now!
Let me guys share with you my quick background and express gratitude for choosing probably the safest country in the entire planet now as my base to get stuck for months.
Back when I was in Vietnam I put my travel research skills to the best use and after a few quick considerations and research – I boarded the flight to Kaohsiung, Taiwan.
Vietnam was doing really well with COVID-19. They definitely classify as a success story.
However, I always wanted to visit Taiwan and after some research, the timing was just about right.
One month later I can honestly say this was one single best travel decision I made this year if not in my entire life.
Taiwan really is a healthy unicorn in a struggling world.
They were among the first in the world to react to the worrying news coming from China. Not surprising at all giving their massive distrust to any sorts of information coming from the Mainland.
While the rest of the world was consulting WHO for advice, Taiwan (not a WHO member anyway) just did what Taiwan could do best and rolled out its entire system of emergency healthy procedures.
Everyone had the experience here with SARS nearly two decades earlier and it looks like they did their homework.
Taiwan’s total case number is comparatively low (below 400 in total) and all of them are effectively contained, receiving the necessary health services.
Last week there were three days with ZERO new daily cases.
All signs on heaven and see lead us to think that Taiwan is emerging as a big winner in this war.
Good job for one of the world’s most densely populated territories right by the coast of Mainland China.
How does it feel to be here now?
Everything goes totally smoothly. No lockdowns whatsoever.
Streets, night markets, parks, MRT trains, bookstores, restaurants – all crowded with people going about their business.
Don’t even think about going hiking anywhere popular on weekends – you’re be competing for your personal space there!
Most schools remained normally open.
Some clubs and bars had to temporarily close either voluntarily or following the police orders. Masks are compulsory on all trains. They tried to introduce social distancing but nobody really cares about it.
Seems that just like Japanese, the Taiwanese people generally like to wear masks in public during “normal times” so that’s not such a massive difference.
I’ve ridden the scooter around the beautiful island of Taiwan, freely exploring its amazing dramatic mountain sceneries and the spectacular eastern coast. Now while living in Taipei I spend nearly my entire days outside in coworking spaces, parks, cycling, hiking, munching on Taiwanese street food and practicing my Mandarin with locals.
None of these would be possible if Taiwan did not swiftly adopt the smartest and most flexible measures that could effectively contain the epidemic without requiring mass-scale lockdowns.
The healthcare system deserves a round of applause too. If ever had any serious health problem here or got struck by one of those maniacs cruising around on Kymco scooters – I know I would be in good hands as they could probably fit me in no time.
And a quick bonus: Taiwan has automatically extended visa exemption stay for people who arrived in Taiwan before the 21st of March. First, they added the automatic 30-day extension. Now, they automatically granted another one, allowing me to stay for a total of 150 days without having to leave.
Now, this is how things are done in a developed nation that not only cares about their own citizens but also extends their help to foreign nationals who might be stuck here for a while.
After spending a few years in China I knew that one day I absolutely had to finally visit Taiwan and perhaps set it my base of operations.
The timing could not have been any better.
Overall – I highly recommend Taiwan as a safe, culturally exciting, affordable, well organized, sufficiently prepared, friendly and simply beautiful haven for emergency times.
Unless the People’s Liberation Army takes too much action to speed up the reunification process – then I probably would be anxious to stay here.
But again, even though Taiwan’s relations with the mainland are cold and tense at best – I doubt there is any serious threat of military action going to happen any soon.
Best Greetings from Taipei!
PS. On a lighter (spicier) note – I am so really glad they actually know to make a proper 川菜 in some restaurants here in Taipei – that reason alone gave them a lot of my love!
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