The family in a pandemic: Will we ever be able to travel with young kids?

A health worker at the Dadar railway station in Mumbai collects the swab sample of a passenger to test for Covid-19 test on Thursday, July 22, 2021. (PTI Photo)
As countries around the world attempt to reopen their borders, officials have come up with an ever-changing list of labyrinthine polices to allow travel. A range of entry restrictions have been deployed, from home quarantines for vaccinated adults to spending up to three weeks in government-authorized facilities, with multiple tests along the way. The best strategy isn’t yet clear, but one thing is common: Few are taking into consideration families as a unit. 

Acknowledging the difficult balance between the realities of employment and family demands could become one of the most important steps to  opening up economies. But until parents have more clarity about how to cross borders with their young children, or the hoops they have to jump through to be with them, there’s little hope of a full recovery.

Before the pandemic, travel had become an economic necessity for millions of people, who crossed borders every day to go to work and come back to their families. Globally, there are over 250 million international migrants. These aren’t just C-suite executives gallivanting between financial hubs. Foreign domestic workers, corporate employees and economic nomads move around the world when better shots at employment emerge. Such migration rose manifold in the years before the pandemic. Knowing that loved ones were just a flight away was a critical piece of that equation. 

All this has been thrown off by Covid-19. While rising vaccination rates are helping, many parts of the world remain shut to travel. This has created a huge emotional burden for families that have been separated. There’s an economic toll, too. Those who had to leave jobs to be with their families are facing the monetary consequences.

Substantial sums are at stake: Remittances, or money sent home, totaled over $550 billion in 2019. Spending on business travel is worth at least $1.4 trillion a year--and that doesn’t even account for all the informal sectors that require mobility for employment, such as domestic workers, startups or freelancers. 

These days, those intrepid--or desperate--enough to travel as a family have to consider some of the rules for young children. Most governments impose the strict guidelines for unvaccinated individuals on this group, which comprises about a fifth of the global population, despite the fact that shots aren’t available for them yet. The burden is borne by the entire family.

Hong Kong, which normally generates one of the highest tallies of outbound travelers in the world, now has some of the most stringent measures when it comes to children. Here, kids (or those that aren’t vaccinated) have to present a negative test, conducted within 72 hours of departure and upon arrival undergo a compulsory 21-day quarantine in a government-authorized hotel. While there, they must take four additional tests.

Young children who have stayed anywhere outside China are required to submit stool samples during their quarantine period. Those measures vary depending on the point of departure. Even when the city shortened quarantine measures for people arriving from certain countries, it maintained the three-week isolation for those under 16. Would minors be expected to stay on for an extra week by themselves? Again, families are on the hook.

Some nations have done better than others, but the rules are inconsistent. In the U.S., children are treated as unvaccinated. They have to present Covid-19 tests taken no more than three days before they arrive, but can quarantine at home with tests three to five days after travel. In Australia, children under 4 are exempt from testing and those younger than 11 aren’t required to wear from masks on planes. Countries in Europe seem to be the most progressive: In France, for example, measures applicable to vaccinated adults apply to minors accompanying them.

Quarantines and restrictions on travel have been a necessary evil to control virus transmission. Such considerations are even more critical as the delta variant spreads around the globe. To be clear, this isn’t a case for circumventing any of those precautions. But the wide-ranging recommendations and rules show that, a year and a half into the pandemic, policy makers have given little thoughtful guidance to families when we have far more information at hand.

If countries are now brave enough to host massive sporting events and arts festivals, surely there are ways to ensure parents and children can cross borders safely to reunite and to relieve brimming social anxiety. Governments may not have all the answers, but we need more frequent and better communication about how families will be accommodated and deeper consideration of the difficult decisions they are now contending with. Those choices will eventually impact how people seek employment, where they work and eventually, the flow of people across the globe. 

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