Editor’s note: This is an op-ed piece. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.
Facebook and Instagram have always been a battlefield of aesthetics, where we line up our most heavily filtered photos like soldiers and pit them against each other for likes and engagement. The rules of “engagement” used to be simple: Post the most enviable vacation photo or diabolical thirst trap on a beach, and you win the battle. Now, the rules have changed.
In a pandemic fraught with universal illness, poverty, grief, and loneliness, the public expression of joy is considered taboo. Rather than tamping down the mundane aspects of our lives and elevating the few lustrous moments, as usual, now we do the opposite. Social media is still a battlefield of appearances, but it’s all about appearing the most empathetic and responsible. That might sound like a welcome change if it wasn’t accompanied by a new, toxic trend: shaming.
Staying sensitive to the plight of others amid a global health crisis is important. To do otherwise would be tone-deaf. But personal sensitivity and responsibility have spilled over into outright judgement of those still choosing to share their fun experiences online. We’ve all seen it. The beach photo of a friend who took a cheap flight to Mexico, or the vague airplane window Instagram story with the caption, “Sunshine, here I come!” You know, the people whose social isolation looks more social than isolating. In perhaps the biggest sign of our times, the comments under that post no longer read, “Jealous!” or “Yaaaas queen!” but “Did you quarantine?,” “You’re traveling in the middle of a pandemic?,” or even worse, just a passive aggressive “thinking face” emoji.
The only thing that makes our homebound state somewhat bearable is that we’re in it together. Nearly everyone else in the world is in the same situation, and in a schadenfreudian kind of way, that makes us feel better. So when we see someone breaking out of their stasis and actually enjoying themselves, we think, “what the hell? I thought we were a team.” Traveling in the era of COVID-19 restrictions is like crossing a picket line, and understandably, the union of workers still holding the line are pissed. Before we start policing each other online, though, it’s important to take a few things into consideration.
Travel is safe… if you follow the rules.
Judgment is a dangerous game because you never know the full story. Most foreign destinations have a high degree of safety measures in place, whether that be testing requirements, mandatory quarantines, or masking and social distancing rules. Some are so stringent — like Cambodia, which requires three PCR tests for incoming travelers — that it would probably dissuade the vast majority of leisure travelers from visiting. You might envy your friend’s beach pics, but you definitely wouldn’t envy their nasal swabs. Masks, PCR tests, and hand sanitizer aren’t likely to make Instagram cameos, after all.
As much as we may hate to admit it, FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) plays a huge part in our judgement of others. We used to handle travel envy by scrolling through #travelporn on Instagram and frantically searching Skyscanner. Now, travel envy manifests as a Facebook comment that says, “Should you REALLY be traveling right now?” What it really says, in the subtext, is “I’m following the rules, why can’t you?” Truth is, they might be. So unless your friend’s photo shows them in a mosh pit at a massive indoor concert, or doing body shots off strangers, it’s best to reserve judgment.
It’s also important to remember that many countries — particularly Caribbean islands popular with American tourists — rely on tourism for economic survival. We tend to view tourism as a selfish activity we inflict on other countries, but in reality it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. Destinations have had to strike a tough balance between financial stability and travel restrictions to manage COVID-19 case numbers. In Aruba 80 percent of the economy is tourism-based, which spelled catastrophe for the island in 2020. Instead of viewing travel as inherently selfish, it might be time to consider who might be benefiting from it.
Local fun isn’t canceled, either.
The shame-fest isn’t just reserved for international travelers — domestic fun-havers are also invited to the party. “Lockdown” has become a colloquialism to describe our collective lives this past year, but that doesn’t mean everyone has literally been sitting inside staring out the window since March. Seeing friends is not only acceptable but also vital for our mental health. Even Dr. Fauci would agree that having picnics, going for group hikes, dining at outdoor restaurants, and going for short road trips are safe as long as public health measures are followed. If you’re itching to travel but not comfortable going abroad, visiting a state or national park, or going camping, can be the perfect getaway to take your mind off the tedious vaccine rollout.
So if someone tells you they had a picnic yesterday, or went for a weekend road trip, don’t roll your eyes. There are all kinds of creative ways to safely stay mentally and physically healthy during “lockdown,” and that almost always involves leaving the house.
It’s ultimately a personal decision.
Caring about your personal freedoms more than public health can be a selfish, slippery slope; there’s certainly enough viral videos of people refusing to wear masks in public space for no good reason to fuel our outrage for the remainder of the pandemic. There’s even more egregious examples of people blatantly flouting health protocols in the name of travel that deserves outright condemnation. Tourists were recently arrested in Hawaii for trying to bribe a TSA agent to avoid providing negative COVID-19 tests and mandatory quarantine.
So sure, sometimes travel shaming is justified. But is it productive to go after average people doing their best to take a socially distant vacay? Probably not. If people are following health protocols — they’re wearing a mask, they’re getting tested before and after their trip, they’re avoiding crowded spaces and sticking to socializing with their group, and they’re patronizing businesses in need — they don’t deserve the same level of ire as those tourists trying to leverage their privilege to get around the mandates meant to keep everyone safe.
Deciding to travel during a pandemic ultimately comes down to one’s personal comfort level. Everyone assesses risk differently. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer for how to handle travel right now. Personal health, living situation, and the destination itself all play a role in our comfort level and decision-making process. Ideally, the responsible traveler will weigh these factors against any potential risk and make the decision that’s right for them. There’s enough vitriol and divide in the world as is — let’s keep it out of travel.