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Coronavirus

Keep Calm And Travel On? Why We Can't Return To Global Shutdowns

The Omicron variant has sparked a new wave of COVID-19 travel restrictions, but the chances of returning to worldwide shutdowns are slim for a series of reasons.

Photo of a passenger walking past a sign indicating the testing center in Heathrow Airport in London.

London's Heathrow airport on Nov. 30

Carl-Johan Karlsson

SOFIA — Two weeks ago, I was swabbing my nose in a minuscule London hotel room, trying to navigate the faulty app that came with my COVID-19 home-test kit. Home ... as in, I need this damn test to be able to fly home.

After re-installing the app and re-reading the instructions, I called the phone number for the support line and got a friendly female voice with a Cockney accent. I asked if they'd had similar glitches in the past. “We get a lot of calls,” she said. “Bit of a pain, innit?


It was indeed. Before booking my ticket to the UK, where vaccinated travelers were still required to get an in-country test within 48 hours of arrival, I’d spent hours checking the green/amber/red traffic light country categorization, filling out the very laborious Passenger Locator Form and comparing prices at the endless list of (mostly fully-booked) NHS-recommended testing clinics.

What I’d forgotten to check, however, was the travel requirement for returning to my home in Bulgaria five days later. Apparently, as I was told by the check-in guy at Heathrow, Bulgaria had red-listed the UK and didn’t accept lateral flow tests, “but you can take a quick PCR at the airport … it’s £119.”

So back I went to London, again researching testing prices — and reading regulations for sleeping in public parks.

Closeup photo of a person take a COVID-19 lateral flow test

"Bulgaria had red-listed the UK and didn’t accept lateral flow tests..."

International Airport Review

The end of closed borders? 

Indeed, as we are reminded by the emergence of the Omicron variant — and the rapid-fire shutdowns of incoming traffic from southern African countries in most of the world — international travel is very much still in a state of, well, flux. Border closings and re-openings, test requirements, cancelled flights: This is the "new normal" of travel. And by that I mean a new kind of complete pain in the ass.

Only days after I finally arrived from London back in my current home of Sofia, the Bulgarian government added another 14 countries to its red-alert list to counter a runaway surge in COVID-19 cases among the European-high 75% of the population that is unvaccinated. That news, of course, has since been drowned out by headlines about the spread of the new variant, with countries around the world imposing travel bans on African nations and instating new public health measures at home.

The hoarding of vaccines helped create their struggle in the first place.

But while flying in the foreseeable future will no doubt be marked by constant alerts of new restrictions, changing government guidelines and updated (and often confusing) screening systems, the question is whether strict border closures is a feasible way forward.

Beyond adding new headaches for those of us who travel abroad for work or visit family, there are the other serious challenges of keeping the global economy running and avoiding that poorer countries continue to be disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

In South Africa, where the Omicron variant was first discovered, officials have lamented that the West’s hoarding of vaccines helped create their struggle in the first place. And now, even while most industry experts expect global air travel to return to normal levels in the coming years, the recovery is unlikely to be evenly distributed between rich and well-vaccinated countries and those lacking the resources to vaccinate and screen efficiently.

The effects of travel, like the virus itself, spread well beyond what we can see with the naked eye.

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Society

How India’s Women Are Fighting Air Pollution — And The Patriarchy

India is one of the world's worst countries for air pollution, with women more likely to be affected by the problem than men. Now, experts and activists are fighting to reframe pollution as a gendered health crisis.

A woman walking through dense fog in New Delhi

*Saumya Kalia

MUMBAI In New Delhi, a city that has topped urban air-pollution charts in recent years, Shakuntala describes a discomfort that has become too familiar. Surrounded by bricks and austere buildings, she tells an interviewer: "The eyes burn and it becomes difficult to breathe". She is referring to the noxious fumes she routinely breathes as a construction worker.

Like Shakuntala, women’s experiences of polluted air fill every corner of their lives – inside homes, in parks and markets, on the way to work. Ambient air in most districts in India has never been worse than it is today. As many as 1.67 million people in the country die prematurely due to polluted air. It is India’s second largest health risk after malnutrition.

This risk of exposure to air pollution is compounded for women. Their experiences of toxic air are more frequent and often more hazardous. Yet “policies around air quality have not yet adequately taken into account gender or other factors that might influence people’s health,” Pallavi Pant, a senior scientist at the Health Effects Institute, a nonprofit in the U.S., told The Wire Science.

“It’s unacceptable that the biggest burden [rests on] those who can least bear it,” Sherebanu Frosh, an activist, added. People like her are building a unique resistance within India.

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