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On Conferences and Travel During a Pandemic

On Conferences and Travel During a Pandemic

Conferences tend to come in seasons, with the great majority grouped in the spring and fall. While there are some exceptions, it is quite rare to see a Christian conference very early in the year, very late in the year, or around the same time as vacations and holidays. Glance at a calendar and you’ll see that we are just now entering into prime season. Over the next few months there will be hundreds of conferences large and small. And, as it happens, they are coming during a time of some uncertainty about the wisdom of traveling and gathering. They are coming during a time when it seems likely we are facing a true pandemic.

You’d have to be living under a rock to not have heard about coronavirus COVID-19 which began in China and has since made its way to every continent save Antarctica. You’ve likely heard some people speak about it as if it’s an existential threat to humanity, and others speak about it as if it’s no more noteworthy than the common cold. I think the majority of us are somewhere between those extremes. Most are keeping a wary eye on it and, for now, taking just the most basic of precautions—perhaps trying to wash our hands a little more and touch our faces a little less.

Personally, I have been thinking about the coronavirus a lot because of some upcoming travel, most of which is for conferences, but some of which is for other purposes. In just a couple of weeks I am due to head to Greece. I’ll be transiting through Vienna, spending some time in Athens and a couple of other Greek towns, then heading home via Rome (where I plan to make the most of a 24-hour layover by visiting a couple of the usual tourist spots). Every single country on my route is on the virus map, though to this point the outbreaks in all the nations (save Italy) are minor. When that trip is complete, I have a couple of conferences to attend in America before heading back overseas, this time to Romania (which is also on the map).

I’m not overly concerned about contracting the virus. Obviously I’d much rather not have it, but it is still very rare when measured across whole populations and still doesn’t seem like it’s likely to sound the death knell for someone like myself who is relatively young and relatively healthy. But what does concern me is being exposed to it in some way, perhaps on a plane or a train, or in a hotel or an airport. Many countries have imposed advisable but sometimes borderline-draconian measures to attempt to stop its spread. This largely involves mandatory quarantines for anyone who may have come in contact with it. While I understand the purpose and possible effectiveness of such a course of action, I really do not want to be swept up in one! And who can blame me? I could gladly face two weeks in my own home, but hate the thought of two weeks in a Greek quarantine center, followed by two weeks on a Canadian military base. Many other frequent travelers feel the same way.

I was speaking to a gentleman recently who is a fixture at conferences within his industry. This month alone he was due to attend four of them across three different continents. But all four have been canceled. What’s interesting to me is that they were not canceled because the conference organizers deemed them too risky and decided to shut them down. Neither did governments demand they be shuttered. No, they were canceled because so many attendees decided not to come and, once a certain number bailed, the economics of the events no longer made sense. Similarly, the major airlines have stopped flying to many destinations in Asia not so much out of concern for the virus as that there are so few passengers to fly. A recent flight between Hong Kong and Vancouver, usually a packed-out route, had no less than 350 empty seats. Not surprisingly, Air Canada has announced they will shut down the route until the passengers return. It is possible that their flights to South Korea and perhaps even to Japan will soon go the same way. It’s not outside the realm of the possible that some of their European routes will also be put on hold.

It is this kind of uncertainty that is sweeping the world. While officials in all nations and on all levels of government are planning for various contingencies and taking action where necessary, it is also individuals like you and me who are making self-interested decisions. The response to this viral outbreak is, in some ways, being led by the little people and by their fears and concerns. As with me, most are not afraid of getting the virus as much as getting swept up in the response to the virus.

We are into a strange and unprecedented situation here, aren’t we? I’m two weeks away from a planned overseas trip and will need to be watching closely and monitoring the situation carefully. At this point I still intend to do all I had planned to do and go everywhere I had planned to go. But things keep changing out there. When I began thinking about this article there were zero cases in Greece, as I first put my fingers to the keyboard there was one, and by the time I finished typing it, there were three. I expect that by the time I post it there will be more than that.

And now, with all this said, I’d love to hear from you (perhaps by leaving a Facebook comment). Do you intend to stay the course with any conferences or other events you’re attending, or are you thinking of canceling? If you have non-essential travel plans in the next couple of months, are you considering canceling them? And if you were in my position, knowing what we know today, would you call and cancel your tickets, or would you set out and assume everything will be okay?

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