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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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Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

Photo of a person in a space suit walking toward the ​Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

At the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

Sarah Scoles

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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