Are Travel Groups on Social Media Contributing to Irresponsible Leisure Travel During COVID?
As someone who loves to travel, I belong to many social media groups dedicated to travel in general, traveling with kids, and using points to travel. I have watched in astonishment as so many people have continued to post about their latest vacation plans and ask for recommendations about where to go and what to see in any given place right now. I am equally astonished that so few people chime in to remind them that there happens to be a global pandemic going on. In fact, reading most of the threads in these groups over the last ten months, you would think there isn’t any pandemic at all.
Although there are certainly people whose posts specify that their questions are about future, post-COVID travel when it’s safe to do so, most posts have clearly talked about current travel and even how to get around COVID restrictions or going to places where there are fewer restrictions. And following nearly any post in these groups is a long thread of commenters encouraging current leisure travel, suggesting ignoring the experts and news, and even making blatant anti-science statements, clinging to the idea that COVID isn’t anything to be worried about and even bragging about how they are antimaskers. Although some groups’ moderators have posted rules against such comments, the group members posting these things are rarely reprimanded. Nor are their comments deleted.
Allowing these kinds of threads to continue implicitly condones leisure travel during a global pandemic when all experts advise against such travel. While some celebrities have been publicly blasted for vacationing during this time, it seems that regular people vacationing in droves isn’t getting much attention.
Partly because of this travel, COVID cases are surging in most places around the world with only a few exceptions. There have been more than 94 million cases and more than two million deaths worldwide, with almost every country having residents with the virus.* Interestingly, commenters in these social media groups sometimes try to rationalize their behavior by pointing to places like Australia and New Zealand as examples of people living normal lives with COVID under control. What they fail to recognize is that those countries’ success is precisely because of people adhering to lockdowns and quarantines and not traveling.
As of early January, there have been more than 22 million cases and 375,000 deaths from COVID in the United States.** Many hospitals around the country and world are filling up and have dangerously low capacity levels. According to a New York Times report, “Almost one-fifth of U.S. hospitals with intensive care units reported that at least 95 percent of their I.C.U. beds were full in the week ending Dec. 24. Nationwide, 78 percent of intensive care hospital beds were occupied.” Ambulances in southern California have to wait hours in front of hospitals, and hospitals have had to turn gift shops into patient rooms. In the Bay area, ambulances wait up to 10 hours to bring their patients into the hospital.
This isn’t limited to the United States. Across Europe, more than 90 percent of hospital beds are inhabited by COVID patients. In the UK, it’s taking longer to get to patients who call an ambulance, and once at the hospital, ambulances are waiting up to 12 hours to enter. And in Mexico — a location to which many Americans are “escaping” — hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID patients. A new study is also predicting that COVID could “collapse” the hospital system in Mexico’s capital, a city where I once lived. In fact, COVID is surging across Latin America and South American beach resort areas.
As scientists feared, there was a spike in cases and deaths after Thanksgiving when thousands of people ignored experts and traveled in spite of warnings against doing so. This travel led to a twenty percent increase in cases across the country with 3000 deaths per day. The week before Christmas saw record number of travelers ignoring evidence and warnings. Two days after Christmas, the TSA reported screening nearly 1.3 million people, a record number since the pandemic began, despite repeated warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and other medical experts against travel. The resulting post-holiday surge has resulted in between 3,000 and 4,000 deaths a day in the United States alone.
None of this has seemed to discourage those in these travel groups from traveling right now and, in the process, encouraging others to travel right now as well.
Many people cite their frustration with being cooped up in their homes and need for self-care as reasons for their leisure travel. But as one brave person in a social media group stated, “Many of us would love to engage in self care and mental health.” She went on to say that in her healthcare workplace, the percentage of people who have tested positive for COVID jumped from 20 percent to 70 percent and said, “We need everyone to double down on their committee to shelter in place. This surge may not seem real for the privileged who can afford to [travel] and are sure to get high quality health care when they get sick, but I assure you it is hitting the community incredibly hard.”
Some social media groups’ moderators have been proactive about discouraging current travel-related posts and discussions. In one local group, for example, the moderators changed the rules of the group to specifically exclude posts related to current leisure travel for the time being, including a statement acknowledging how “many posts have been misleading around COVID cases, transmission, and mask wearing.” This is the most responsible thing I have seen. Other groups’ administrators have essentially given up on moderating discussion about current travel, claiming that it’s too challenging a task to try to keep people from talking about vacationing now or in the near future, especially in a travel group. In one group, a moderator argued that it’s no one’s place to judge others on their travel decisions and suggested that those who don’t like reading about it should simply mute the group for the time being. In another group, I was kicked out for daring to suggest that it might not be the most responsible thing to travel right now while the pandemic is surging.
Encouraging leisure travel, even implicitly, during the pandemic only makes the pandemic last longer than necessary, making it longer for responsible people to not only resume traveling, but to resume normalcy with work, kids’ schooling, and emotional stability.
Those of us in these travel groups are there because we love to travel. Prohibiting or discouraging discussions about current travel doesn’t mean we can’t continue to discuss travel and enjoy these groups. We should all be sacrificing now so we can all travel responsibly again sooner. Social pressure is an effective way of changing behavior, so social media group moderators should be working toward using their power to help curb irresponsible behavior.
*When I started writing this article about two weeks ago, there were 81 million cases and 1.8 million deaths.
**Two weeks ago, there were 18 million cases with 330,000 deaths.