The novel coronavirus—now officially named COVID-19 by the World Health Organization—is already impacting air travel worldwide. I’m about to take off for South Africa and wondering what precautions I should take. Will there be virus in the air while I’m in the air? Will I need face masks? Do masks even work?
I was already concerned about whether my connecting flights on South African Express would be canceled, as I wrote about two weeks ago. Now COVID-19 comes along, though as of today cases are not yet reported anywhere on the vast African continent, let alone the Republic of South Africa.
I never used to worry about catching something on a plane. Winter after winter over four decades I crammed in beside ill travelers sneezing virus-laden mucus particles airborne while airborne at 35,000 feet with nowhere to hide. I usually didn’t get sick myself, and I never thought twice about sharing the sardine can with a bunch of sick people. The airlines let anybody on board as long as they proffered a valid ticket.
Obsessed with work and anxious that I might be fired for not showing up, I myself once flew with the flu. It was in the early eighties when people still smoked on planes, so many passengers were hacking and coughing per usual. No one noticed that I sounded and looked like death warmed over. I sat in the back of the plane with the nicotine addicts like me (before I quit cold turkey in 1985). Didn’t even get a second look.
No one wore a mask then, either. Certainly wearing face masks is a newish air travel phenomenon that became widespread during the 2003 SARS outbreak. SARS lasted about six months, but the habit of fearing face masks on board planes, particularly in Asia, persisted. The 2012 MERS outbreak saw the face mask habit resurge, though not so much in the USA that I recall.
But we Americans are up to date on the mask routine now. I’ve seen pictures lately of U.S. airplanes on domestic routes with lots of flyers wearing masks, so the habit seems to have taken hold quickly here. Makes me wonder how many travelers are just being cautious, and how many are sniffling and really sick.
Either way, I thought it prudent to take some masks with me to wear—just in case—on the 16 hour flight from Atlanta to South Africa. But checking Amazon two weeks ago, I was not able to buy masks. And nearby local pharmacies have been out since January.
Out already? Really? There are only a few known cases yet in this country.
Guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. Reports are that COVID-19 has caused face masks to become a scarce commodity across the globe. China reportedly makes over half the world’s medical face masks, and domestic demand there far exceeds supply.
Panic buying has gobbled up what surplus there was here, it seems. So much so that I heard an expert on the BBC opine yesterday that the shortage could shut down surgeries and routine medical procedures in clinics and hospitals everywhere.
All of which made me wonder if I even need to wear a mask on a plane, or if the masks are at all effective. A Washington Post report says I shouldn’t fret as long I am not too close to someone spraying nasal droplets through sneezes. More than two seats away is probably safe, as this WaPo graphic indicates:
Heck, the BBC says wearing a mask isn’t that effective against airborne viruses because the masks don’t shield the eyes and are not tight against the face, either. Masks are probably pretty good at preventing hand-to-mouth transmission of germs, though.
Still, like Linus in Peanuts, I will feel better with a security blanket despite facts to the contrary. My doctor provided me with a dozen high quality N95 face masks which give me comfort for the upcoming trip.
I just hope I don’t need them.