Traveling in the time of Covid

Traveling in the time of Covid Featured

CUSTOMARILY, I write a column or two while on Christmas holiday. These are fundamentally upbeat as I travel with my family and grandkids like we did years back. Some excerpts: "I have now experienced more than seven decades worth of Christmases, and I have pleasant and wonderful memories with those that I can still remember. But the years have extracted their toll, and seldom do I recall occurrences in streams. The mustiness and fog concealing precious details are just too thick to penetrate, perhaps locking them forever." Our current 2021 to 2022 vacation is no exception, wonderful experiences with the little ones and warm family bonding deposited into memory banks later to be retrieved at leisure, except for a pall of dread and trepidation hovering over our lives these days. This is not, therefore, about holiday vacations per se, but the stress of flying in and out of airports.

International travel used to be a cinch prior to Covid-19. Just make sure your passports and visas are updated; book your flights and hotels early to avail of deep discounts; pack your bags, not forgetting the kids' devices needed for a long-haul flight; and then settle down in the plane. More importantly, don't leave any kid behind — as in the Christmas movie, "Home Alone."

Not this year. My grandkids left for the States at the end of June 2021with parents Matt and Lara as soon as school was out. They had been isolated in Davao since April 2020 at the start of the pandemic with the kids doing online schooling and parents working from home. They had a much better time in the provinces as Metro Manila's congested populace underwent a series of lockdowns and quarantines running intermittently through 14 months. Davao was not exempted from these strict protocols, but infections were comparatively low. Davao with its wide open spaces, greenery, beaches and mountain areas coupled with the local government's excellent handling of health protocols gave the kids safe venues and parents peace of mind.

After a respite of five months, we the grandparents followed the kids to the US, settling with the whole family in a farming community in Reisterstown, outside Baltimore in Maryland, where the dying days of autumn presaged the coming cold winter nights. The kids wished for snow on Christmas Eve as it would be easier for Santa's sleigh to travel over from chimney to chimney. It didn't snow that day and Santa may have just outsourced deliveries to Fedex and UPS, as the boxes of gifts and toys were laid around the tree on Christmas morn.

Travel bureaucracy

But getting to the States in November 2021 was another story. Having planned this trip two months earlier, we updated our Philippine passports as they were expiring in six months upon arrival — beyond the minimum requirement of the US Immigration Service (USIS) allowing foreign guests in — even with valid US B1/B2 visas. But thanks to the Deegong's restructuring of the DFA passports office, we got ours renewed in two weeks, and won't need another renewal for the next 10 years.

It was different with flight bookings. We decided on PAL as it offered a convenient 16-hour direct flight to New York. The first hurdle was to take a Covid test, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) 48 hours prior to boarding a local flight which is likewise valid for the international leg, provided your connecting flight does not go beyond 72 hours. Our five-day stay in Manila with our other grandkids required another PCR test for the flight to NYC.

Aside from the mandatory masks and shields (the latter "only in da Pilipins" courtesy of Pharmally Inc.), passengers need to download the Traze mobile application to one's cellphone or IPad to "generate and scan their QR code when entering in, boarding from, and upon arriving in all Philippine Airports starting Nov. 28, 2020, as mandated by the Philippine Department of Transportation." All passengers must register with the PAL passenger information form 24 hours before flight time, showing as evidence that the passenger is Covid-free with their PCR test results. If you don't have a screenshot of this in your device, you can have this printed. Sylvia and I had both — para sigurado.

Covid travel protocols

But months before, the two-step vaccination is required for any passenger, local or domestic. We had the two Sinovac jabs done in early June and mid-August. But social media postings were rife about the US rejecting the Chinese vaccine — which turned out to be fake news. But again, para sigurado, we had a booster shot of Moderna the first week of October, and for good measure, another one two weeks before our flight.

We had to laminate our Covid-19 vaccination cards as part of our growing pile of IDs and documentation, aside from our passports and valid US visas, and present them at the PAL counter where for some reason, this hazmat-suited guy, who may not even be a PAL employee, perhaps a Philippine immigration bureaucrat, rejected my second set of Moderna vaccine accepting only my Sinovac vaccine card.

Weird, but luckily I had both. Several passengers on the queue were still arguing with the hazmat guy when we were done with our departure formalities; perhaps the reason why the four-hour waiting time at airports was prescribed.

Flying back home

Our three-month stay with my grandkids from the Thanksgiving weekend to Christmas Eve dinners and New Year celebrations have been documented in my past columns. Unlike past vacations we didn't have a Delta variant fighting it out with Omicron. And these are concerns that pervade and restrict our every move — from bringing the kids to school, to grocery visits at Wegmans and shopping for stuff at Target, Marshalls, Home Goods, etc. and the usual visits to museums and zoos and sites which were ordinary travel activities in years past.

So far, we have postponed our trip back to Manila twice awaiting clarification on the quarantine protocol which has been reduced to the current 5 from 10 days. Travel costs aside from the usual flight tickets and hotel bookings have been substantially increased. For one, PCR tests which go for around P3,000 a pop have to be taken four to six times per head depending on your final destination. But the bigger amounts are the mandated stays at select hotels upon arrival in Manila adding an estimated 20 to 30 percent to your vacation budget.

These protocols may be good for preventing the spread of the pandemic and a boon to hotels but may be negative to the tourism industry in the long run. There are no enforced quarantines for arrivals in America, but Covid testing kits are widely available and some counties dispense them for free.

To lessen travel stress, it is imperative for the IATF to review its international travel policies. The enforced hotel quarantine may perhaps be substituted by a better tracing and tracking system, preventing such isolated incidents as this "Poblacion Girl" escaping from a Makati hotel.

Duterte has done a good job compared even to America. But it's high time for a reboot for the country's health and economy.

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Read 766 times Last modified on Wednesday, 12 January 2022 12:36
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