While I would never do anything to put my family at risk, I’m relatively at ease about taking my two young daughters to Italy for a holiday next month.
I can understand why people would be skittish about travelling to Italy. It has emerged as a hot-spot for the COVID-19 coronavirus, with the highest number of cases in mainland Europe.
ABC journalist Linton Besser has reported on empty shelves and abandoned streets in the epicentre of the Italian outbreak; the provinces of Lombardy and Veneto, in the country’s north.
COVID-19 is highly contagious and may be approaching pandemic status, causing deaths in Iran, Italy and South Korea as well as the country from which it emerged, China.
Italian authorities set up roadblocks, called off football matches, cancelled the last two days of the Venice Carnival and shuttered sites including the famed La Scala opera house in Milan.
Still, we don’t plan to cancel our holiday to Rome and Sicily in mid-March.
Why I’m not that worried
The general public is fascinated and afraid of the virus, and the media has responded by reporting on it extensively.
This means we’re bombarded with COVID-19 stories every day. While those stories are fulfilling the public’s strong desire for information, the sheer magnitude of the coverage feeds into the sense something huge is happening, and we should be concerned.
My first step in deciding whether my family will be safe is not to count the number of headlines about coronavirus, but to check the travel advice for Italy on the Smart Traveller website.
It’s actually quite reassuring.
“Due to a heightened risk of sustained local transmission of coronavirus (COVID-19) in parts of northern Italy, we now advise you to exercise a high degree of caution in the regions of Lombardy and Veneto.
“We continue to advise you to exercise normal safety precautions in the rest of Italy.”
There are four levels of travel advice on Smart Traveller, and the centre of the outbreak is currently rated at the second-lowest level, while the rest of Italy is Level 1.
And that is what we’ll do: exercise normal safety precautions.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said the outbreak is “deeply concerning”, but not yet declared it a pandemic.
“The key message that should give all countries hope, courage and confidence is that this virus can be contained, indeed there are many countries that have done exactly that,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
Mr Tedros said on Tuesday that for now, authorities were not seeing an uncontained global spread of the virus or witnessing widespread serious cases or deaths.
Without being the slightest bit dismissive of the danger of COVID-19, which has claimed thousands of lives worldwide, I am also conscious of the relatively low level of threat it represents.
That means even though many people might be diagnosed with coronavirus, in many people it will be a moderate illness.
Most importantly from our perspective, children are not more susceptible to the coronavirus than the general population, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Most confirmed cases have occurred in adults.
The CDC also says on its website it appears children who contract the virus do not have a higher risk of severe illness or morbidity, and generally present with mild symptoms.
What steps will we take to stay safe?
The level of warning for Lombardy and Veneto, where there have been 322 confirmed cases and 11 deaths so far, has not reached Level 3: Reconsider your need to travel or Level 4: Do not travel.
Level 2 advice is:
“There are more or higher risks than what you would typically find in a large Australian city. We’re not saying ‘don’t go’ to this location. But you should do your research and take extra precautions.”
It’s hard to predict how the virus will spread in the two weeks before we arrive in Rome, but if we assume the situation has worsened, the virus has moved south and cases are detected in the Italian capital, I am confident we can meet the requirements of Level 2 advice.
None of us have symptoms of respiratory illness. We will be hyper-vigilant in monitoring media reports, as well as checking in with Smart Traveller and other advice from authorities.
We will also be extremely cautious about large crowds. This may seem like a major dampener on a Roman holiday, but if it means seeing the Colosseum from a distance and taking the kids for pizza and gelato in some hole-in-the-wall place instead, then we will just have to suffer thusly.
And we’ll be following good personal hygiene such as hand washing and forcing the kids to as well, no matter how much they protest.
Will we all be wearing face masks on the plane? Nope. Face masks are not recommended for the general public, only those who are already showing flu-like symptoms.
The best- and worst case-scenarios for us
If we’re lucky to be personally unaffected by coronavirus in any way, we’ll likely get the unexpected side-effect of emptier plane trips, and semi-deserted piazzas and tourist attractions.
But what if things go pear-shaped?
The worst-case scenario is that one or all of us contract COVID-19 and are forced to ride out the illness in an Italian hospital.
Australia has a Reciprocal Health Care Agreement with Italy, so you can get treated in public medical facilities if you show your Medicare card and passport, though you still need your own private travel health insurance.
Medical facilities in major Italian cities are considered of a good standard.
Beyond that scenario, it is so difficult to predict how coronavirus will spread that it’s very hard to make contingency plans.
If we were rich enough, we’d probably postpone the holiday to a later time, just in case, and absorb whatever extra costs that entailed. We’re not rich enough.
As it stands, I’m most worried about authorities in Italy imposing sweeping quarantines across the country and us winding up stuck — or similar situations unfolding on other legs of our trip, in the UAE or Britain.
In an unpredictable and evolving situation, there’s a risk of this happening, but we’re just going to have to see how it pans out, and act accordingly.
After all, if you insisted on eliminating all risk, you would never travel at all — and probably never leave your house.
More on the coronavirus outbreak:
- What the updated coronavirus travel alert level and additional border measures will mean for you
- The WHO has declared a global emergency for just the sixth time. Here’s what that means
- Aboard the Diamond Princess — how the cruise from hell unfolded
- China says coronavirus is ‘under control’ as 6.5 per cent of world population is in lockdown
- A diary from Christmas Island: A Melbourne mother shares her experience as a coronavirus evacuee
- How the coronavirus emergency is exploited on eBay and Amazon
- Australian lab recreates coronavirus, helping vaccine push
- What exactly is coronavirus, and should you be concerned?
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