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International Air Travel Resumes, But Is It Worth It?

GELFAND’S WORLD - I just got back from a trip to Europe. There were several lessons to be learned, first regarding the difficulties of travel in this era of the Covid-19 epidemic. 

It is a different world 

Lesson 1: Air travel is changed, and if you expect to fly to another country, expect to endure red tape and nasal swabs. Have you ever heard of an EUdPLF? Neither had I, but it stands for the European Union digital passenger locator form. It's a long form you are supposed to do online, in advance of your trip. It includes every leg of every flight, your seat number on that flight (!), the airports you are coming from and going to, and your expected address or location when you get there. Leaving those boxes blank if you don't have the information just gets the form kicked back to you. The helpful airline people explained that I could just type in NA (not applicable) for information I did not yet have. It works. The EU people don't tell you that. 

You might wonder why some far-distant foreign government would want to know your seat assignment. The idea, if I understand correctly, is to be able to track down anybody who might have been exposed (by you) if you come down with the Covid. Hence if you are in seat 32B, they could potentially find and warn the people who were in 32A and 32C. In practice this doesn't seem all that practical, but you know how difficult it is to remove a governmental rule once it gets started. 

Then there are the Covid tests. Luckily the governments of the world seem mostly OK with something called the Rapid Antigen Test. In this test, the masked technician sticks a cotton tipped rod into the back of your nose. Your results can be ready in 10 minutes or so (mine were). At LAX, they charge $80 for this. In Italy, I had it done at a pharmacy for 15 Euros, which is the equivalent of about $18. 

That's right -- the US government required that coming back, I had to have a covid test within 3 calendar days of my return. That means that if you are overseas somewhere and you want to be allowed onto your flight, you have to find the Covid tester. Luckily, in Europe, they are not hard to find. 

A New Era 

We were all required to wear masks during the entire trip, except while eating and drinking. It wasn't much different from attending the opera here in L.A. a couple of weeks ago, where the audience were required to wear masks for the entire performance. 

So there you are in Europe -- there is an old post-World War II skit about the fellow who is constantly saying, "My papers are in order." Those days have come back, to this limited extent. You are not going to be arrested as an American spy like in the old thrillers, but you can be denied boarding an airplane, and theoretically you could be told to get off a train or to leave some public building. 

There are also some language curiosities. Before I went over there, I was hearing about the requirement for a Green Card. Now in the U.S. this obviously means something entirely different. It turns out that Italy was talking about something they refer to as a "Green Pass." It's just a piece of paper that certifies that the holder is fully vaccinated. And. by the way, your CDC card (the white cardboard thing they gave you) is fully accepted as your version of the Green Pass by the European authorities. 

Sometimes the context is a little strange to the American. During a stopover, before my connecting flight, I went for a walk around Frankfurt, Germany. When I stopped in a MacDonald's for a Big Mac and coffee (don't laugh -- I really needed that coffee) the man behind the counter asked me about vaccination. I showed him my CDC card, which seemed to confuse him a bit. He let me have the cheeseburger, though. 

So to summarize the red tape, you have to show proof of a Covid test within 72 hours of entering Italy (but apparently not in every other European country), you are supposed to submit the EUdPLF in advance, you are required to show your papers (i.e.: the vaccination certificate) repeatedly, and I was required to wear a mask in most public places. 

It sounds a little complicated, but if you have a passport, the CDC vaccination certificate, and whatever rapid Covid test is required, you are good to go. There is one complication that the young people will laugh at. If you are at LAX and the airline tells you that you need to redo the Covid test (it happened to me due to that pesky 72 hours rule), you can get it done at the airport, but you have to stand there and make a reservation online using your cell phone. If internet service isn't working for your phone or if you are a little cell phone illiterate, it becomes a problem. It was for me. 

One last point. In this era where the Covid requirements are added on to the already-existent TSA screening, it really can take you that 2 hours to get from the curb to the plane. By the time you get through a long check-in line, maybe get another Covid nasal swab, report back to the airline desk, and then go through TSA screening, you might as well have taken the bus. Except it's hard to find a bus that goes across the Atlantic ocean, so there you are. 

Public attitudes about vaccination and the new social rigidities over in Europe 

I was curious as to how people from different European countries were taking to the Covid rules, particularly the latest regulations. If you haven't seen this on the news, here's what's going on in Italy. You are required to show the Green Pass (evidence of vaccination) to take the train (my CDC card was checked), to enter government buildings, to attend some public events (like our film festival), and more recently to have a job in the public sector and apparently in a lot of the private sector. 

You have to remember that Italy was battered by the epidemic early on. As of now, there have been 130,000 Covid deaths in Italians out of a relatively small population of about 60 million. As the news stories explain, they don't want to go back to a situation where they don't have enough people and facilities to bury the dead. 

In conversation, I raised the issue of vaccinations and the other precautions with people from a number of European countries, among them Britain, France, Italy, Serbia, and Germany. They were all vaccinated and they generally supported the new regulations. They did seem to understand the overall concept of herd immunity, that is to say, if enough of us get vaccinated then life will get a lot closer to normal. When pressed, a lot of them are tired and resentful of those who refuse vaccination, on the basis that they are dragging down society's ability to come back to normal. 

Are there anti-vaccine people and anti-regulation people in Italy? You bet there are. When I was coming out of a screening at the film festival in Pordenone, I saw a substantial crowd in the Plaza right in front of me. (In Italian, a plaza is called a piazza). It seemed to number in the hundreds, perhaps as many as a thousand. A few days later, there were even larger demonstrations in Rome. The news media treated these demonstrations as relatively minimal in terms of the fact that the vast majority of Italians are vaccinated and seem to accept the new regulations.  

The public face to these protests is wrapped around the idea of liberty, as in Nobody Can Tell Me What to Do. That liberty apparently includes the right to avoid getting vaccinated against a contagious disease that has already killed about one in five hundred Italians so far (a ratio not much different from what we have in the U.S.). The protesters oppose the increasing regulation of Italian life in the sense that you will need to show proof of vaccination (the Green Pass) to do most things that involve going to work or participating in the public sphere. 

In direct conversations with people from around Europe, including a number of Italians, my impression was that the people I spoke to were supportive of vaccination and were frankly tired of the vaccine deniers. I suspect that it is not terribly different from what we are seeing in California, where Gavin Newsom's recent election victory was, in effect, a vote of support for strong anti-Covid rules and regulations. I did not run into even one anti-vaccine person among the festival-goers. 

I should point out that this collection of people was strongly self-selected, in that they would not have been allowed to attend without proof of vaccination. But the fact that a large number of people who had been attending for many years were still showing up is indicative that at least among academics and intellectuals, there is strong support among most for getting vaccinated. Many of them seemed to feel that this was their way of getting on with something approaching a normal life. 

And of course there was that crowd outside, demonstrating against the regulations and, if I understand correctly, many were also against vaccination in general. The news sources (cited above) suggest a strong right-wing skewing in the protesting groups, with some stories using the term Fascist directly. In this sense, the European right wing anti-vaccine protesters resemble the comparable groups in America. 

One curious observation: I would ask each person what level of vaccination their country had achieved. Pretty much every person tossed out a number of around 70%. According to news sources, Italy has already gotten to 80% of those who are eligible, so my interviewees were underestimating. I got that same number from people of other European regions. I don't have any explanation for this observation, but we might speculate that 70% is a nice comfortable number to report. It can't be very low or too high compared to what the actual vaccination rate really is. In any case, European countries and most American states seem to have achieved fairly similar levels of vaccination on a population-wide basis. 

Nevertheless, The United States is still showing a Covid mortality rate far above that of the European countries, more than 5 times as high as Italy, Sweden, Germany, and France. Those countries are seeing around one death per million people each day, whereas we are five times higher. Perhaps this difference is due to higher numbers of people dying due to their failure to be vaccinated, but if that is the explanation, there has to be something more. Perhaps we are dealing with a more strongly regional vaccination hesitancy in this country, resulting in a larger pool of people who are not only susceptible, but who also are in contact with large numbers of equally susceptible people. 

That is the formula for a new spike in the epidemic. With the newer, more contagious variant, the result is even worse. In the meanwhile, we might hope that places like Los Angeles will rival Europe and east Asian countries in keeping our future numbers low.  

It's a whole different world out there 

That's my take on the experiences of the past couple of weeks. Government bureaucratic requirements have gone up enormously -- but for good reason -- as the epidemic will, we hope, be brought to some level of control. Long distance travel is at least momentarily a pain in the nose, both figuratively and literally. Come to think of it, I wonder why people would voluntarily substitute recurrent nasal swab testing in lieu of getting vaccinated, since the shot is barely noticeable and you only have to do it twice.

 

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])