On Monday, for the first time in 18 months, the United States welcomed international travelers to its airports. The Mexican and Canadian borders were opened, too. Coming on the heels of the vaccine boosters and the announcement of new pills to treat COVID, the end of the travel restrictions looks to many like a major step toward the end of the pandemic.
I myself decided to go to Europe, accompanying my husband, who was doing so for work. I hadn’t been to Europe since 2019—or, as I think of it now, the Before Times. I was curious to see how Europe was handling pandemic life. And also, as the daughter of the author of Fear of Flying, I fight desperately against fear, largely by practicing exposure therapy. That means sucking it up and flying as much as possible.
In Paris, I watched cable news (as one does when they’re in the City of Lights), and I was struck by how different it is from ours. I watched hours of climate coverage on Sky News, France 24 (in English), BBC, and Al Jazeera. It was week two of COP26, the big climate conference where President Joe Biden and Barack Obama both spoke. (Donald Trump was busy golfing, taking credit for Glenn Youngkin’s Virginia win, and starting a special purpose acquisition company SPAC that “may have skirted securities laws.”) American TV news was covering it, and our print coverage was much better than in previous years, according to Mark Hertsgaard, the director of Covering Climate Now. As he told Columbia Journalism Review, “I’ve covered UN climate conferences since the 1992 Earth Summit”—the event that kicked off subsequent COPs—and “never have US news organizations devoted as many newsroom resources, produced the sheer volume of coverage, or given the story such big play as they did in the opening days of COP26.”
But Media Matters found that the big three cable-news networks lagged in their coverage, devoting a total of four hours to it in the first four days of the conference. CNN led with about two hours. In Europe, meanwhile, the news showed hours of the marches in which the streets of Glasgow teemed with people urging more action on climate change. Greta Thunberg’s disappointed eyes stared at me from the television in my hotel room, saying, “It is not a secret that COP26 is a failure. It should be obvious that we cannot solve the crisis with the same methods that got us into it in the first place.”
But the thing that struck me most in the European reporting was how much personal responsibility was woven into the discussion of the issues. I watched an interview with a Parisian extolling the virtues of the TGV, France’s high-speed train, noting that she enjoyed the fact that it was better for the environment. Some of the reporting I saw made the case for personal sacrifice, something you’d likely never see on American TV.
On the streets, Paris was much like New York, with vaccine cards required to enter hotels and restaurants. The French were also pretty good about masking. Their taxis had plexiglass dividers. Uber drivers insisted on masks. People were confident but careful. Parisians may smoke in higher numbers, but they don’t want to get COVID.
The same could not be said about what I’ll call Little Plague Island, across the English Channel. I decided to take the train from Paris to London. To do so, I had to fill out a “health locator form” that included a barcode that could be scanned when I checked in to board the train. The form required that I sign up—and pay for but NOT ACTUALLY TAKE—a COVID test. The idea was that I would get tested on my second day there, and it wasn’t clear what I was supposed to do with the results. My Paris hotel’s concierge told me I didn’t actually have to take the test, just book it in order to complete my form, get a barcode, and travel to Little Plague Island where there are (seemingly) zero COVID restrictions and everyone just acts like everything is completely normal. Uh, okay.
When I finally did board the Eurostar for London, I noticed that I was the only person wearing a mask. Nor did I see many masks when I got off the train—not in stores, restaurants, or taxis. The U.K. has a high vax rate: According to the BBC, “almost nine in 10 of those aged 12 or over [have] had a single jab and almost eight in 10 [have] had a second.” (The U.K. is only just rolling out vaccines for children 12 to 15.) Still, the U.K. infection rates remain higher than the rest of Europe’s. “In the 7 days between 17 October and 23 October, Spain recorded 286 infections per one million people, and Germany 1,203. The United Kingdom registered 4,868 over the same week,” Nature reported.
I visited with one of my friends in London, writer and radio host Rachel Johnson (sister of Boris). She told me that England is becoming “like the U.S.”: “Wearing a mask is a sign of political allegiance. It signals that you clap for carers, and you secretly think the pandemic is the most exciting thing that has happened to you your whole life, and all the costumes and accoutrements of COVID theater—stickers, masks, PPE, tests, endless bossy signs—make you feel important, as if you are a brave soldier in the First World War.” I hoped no one sitting near me in the crowded club had the virus.
And then there was the problem of getting home: You can’t leave the U.K. without a COVID test—remember that COVID test that I needed to book but didn’t need to take? Well, I needed to take it, or I couldn’t leave Little Plague Island. When it came time to leave, I was briefly gripped with panic. What would happen if I was positive, despite being vaccinated? Would I have to stay in my hotel until I tested negative? Would that take a week? Maybe two? But the irony of needing to be tested to leave the country with the fewest COVID restrictions was not lost on me.
Luckily, I had my lateral flow test done at a London pharmacy, and my test was negative. I boarded a flight home on Virgin airlines, where, for the first time in my pandemic life, some fliers were unmasked. One of the crew members announced that some people had religious exemptions from masking. I’m sorry, what? I didn’t realize any religions were against masks. Maybe I’ve become more neurotic during the pandemic, but it certainly felt like I was surrounded by coughing people during the flight. But I did have my negative COVID test in hand, so at least I knew I didn’t have a breakthrough infection—yet.