Traveling during Omicron
Or feeling the inevitability of infection from an alternate universe
Last week, I departed Chicago for a 3-week backpacking trip through South America. Although I had planned on taking the trip for a few months, I waited to pull the trigger on flights until just a couple of weeks before, concerned that the next wave or the next variant might change things. Ultimately after a few weeks of hearing about Omicron with no noticeable change in things (and after getting a booster), I decided to go ahead with the trip.
So far the trip has been wonderful and I’ve felt generally safe and well-protected from covid. But as I read news (and Twitter) back in the U.S. over the past few days, there’s an impending feeling of inevitability that I will catch Omicron on this trip, which would mean getting stranded in Peru or Brazil since international flights mandate covid testing. I am not worried that I’m going to die from covid or even get seriously ill since I’m well protected with 2 doses of Pfizer and a booster of Moderna. It’s just starting to feel like an eventuality that I’ll get it, no matter how cautious I am. And doing so in a foreign country wouldn’t be my first choice.
I also feel a huge disconnect between what’s happening in the U.S. and my current experiences in Colombia and Peru. Although I don’t read or watch local news — so don’t know what’s actually going on — everyone seems to be behaving normally, going out and about, and gathering in groups. Meanwhile it seems life is cancelled back in the U.S.
For what it’s worth, Peru feels safer than the U.S. Two masks (or one N95 or KN95) are required throughout the country, and everyone generally abides by this rule, even outside at the parks. Every building also requires checking vaccine cards before entering.
But, it appears more obvious that vaccines aren’t stopping the transmission of omicron; and unfortunately, the vaccines used by most countries in South America appear to be completely ineffective against omicron. It seems only a matter of days until things change here.
With such high abidance of covid precautions in Peru by the general public, it strikes me what a fucking shame it is that they get second-tier vaccines that likely won’t be effective, while the U.S. is spoiled with the most effective vaccines and still some refuse to take them. Walking around as a foreign visitor with both a more effective vaccine and a booster that most don’t have access to here feels like a real privilege that I haven’t earned, but lucked into because of where I was born. I wish that the unvaccinated Americans reframed access to Pfizer and Moderna vaccines as something that “Makes America Great.”
In another bid of luck, I work for an employer that gives me free access to as many rapid tests to take home and use as I wish, and so I’ve brought 4 along with me on this trip, with the express purpose of pre-testing official testing before flights, so that I can avoid being officially flagged and quarantined.
Traveling like this gives me the necessary perspective of how fortunate I am to be a U.S. citizen. From the power of a U.S. passport, to access to the best vaccines, it often feels unfair that I have superior access to the best of the best, and I am so frustrated that people take that for granted.
Frankly, it’ll probably be a “miracle” if I make it through a 3-week trip through South America during the Omicron wave without testing positive. At the same time, perhaps I’m actually safer than I would be at home during the holidays? I’m never alone in closed spaces with anyone without masks and I’m in a tropical climate only eating outside away from others. Still, the panic from back home causes some serious anxiety. Either way, I suppose there will be a compelling story to tell…