Covid-19: Light at the End of the Tunnel

Taipei view from the Earth God Temple

I was in Taiwan when the covid-19 pandemic started, which was pretty much the best place to be. The government there didn’t wait for Chinese authorities or the WHO to confirm human-to-human transmission, and immediately started screening inbound passengers from China and asked everyone to wear masks, practise good hygiene, and avoid crowds where possible.

They’ve basically been ready for the next one since SARS in 2003, and the vice president being an epidemiologist probably helped. It was hard to get masks and sanitiser for a month or so, when this pic was taken:

…but they quickly ramped up production and introduced a rationing system to make sure people had enough.

It was also one of the fastest countries to apply border controls, and has generally done an excellent job so far of controlling the virus – it was mind-boggling watching from a distance as places like the UK and US so badly screwed up their own responses.

I was hoping to ride the pandemic out in Taipei, and I was initially allowed to overstay for 10 weeks beyond the end of my tourist stamp (see my post here for a bit more on life in Taipei during the pandemic). Unfortunately that wasn’t extended and I had no way to stay longer, so I had to either go back to the UK or go to the one other place near Taiwan that would let me in, which was Korea.

My quarantine room in Korea

Korea’s initial response wasn’t as fast and effective as Taiwan’s, and it suffered the first major outbreak outside China – however, after the bad start they got their shit together and even managed to be the only major economy to keep their border open to short-term visitors without also letting a ton of imported cases in and losing control of the virus. This was achieved by setting up an extremely strict quarantine system for everyone arriving in Korea – either at home for citizens and residents, or in government-managed facilities for temporary visitors (at visitors’ own expense). See here for a detailed account of quarantine in Korea and here for the rest of my stay in Seoul.

But after 14 days of quarantine and 76 days of relatively normal life in Seoul, I had to move on again. It still wasn’t possible to enter Taiwan, so back to England it was.

Here’s a photo I posted on Instagram and an excerpt from the little rant that went with it about arriving back in the UK:

being out of options I came back to England. Absolute joke. Walked right through the airport without speaking to a human being. Coming from Korea I didn’t have to self-isolate as it’s on the safe list, but nobody checked where I’d come in from anyway, or where I was going, or how I was getting there, or even what my temperature was (never mind an actual covid test)

In Korea I’d experienced a month of semi-lockdown in Seoul, which was triggered by a spike to 300 cases per day. It worked, and a month later they were back down to double figures.

By contrast the UK was up to over 20000 cases per day before Boris Johnson realised he’d better finally do something that his science advisors told him to do many weeks earlier (but which he seems to have resisted because it wouldn’t be good for his popularity). So now we have this lockdown, and even once it ends most of the country will probably have tier 2/3 semi-lockdown conditions through the winter.

Care workers are busting their asses and the rest of us are asked to curb our lives in lockdown – we’re all doing our bit, but the government is totally failing to do theirs. Useless

And that was before the new variant made everything even worse, which happened right after the government ended the lockdown far too early and against the advice of scientists (yet again), leading to yet another, stricter, longer lockdown which still continues as I write this.

At this point in the UK it’s already too late to stop the virus, so it’s basically just a case of waiting for the vaccine to be given to enough people for things to start getting back to normal. To be fair the vaccine rollout is the one thing that seems to have been done well by the UK in this pandemic and is progressing at pace, so hopefully things in the UK will be normal or at least normal-ish later this year. And that goes for everywhere else with an adequate vaccine supply – but there are many countries (still the majority globally) which don’t have that, so a lot of people around the world are unlikely to get it this year and a lot of countries around the world will still be messed up while others are getting back to normality.

I’m guessing this all means that borders will start slowly opening again soon, but most countries will probably only let you in with proof of vaccination.

The whole thing also has me wondering about the whole “digital nomad” thing. It sounds great, being able to travel around staying for a month here, two months there, chasing the sun or the snow or ticking off travel ambitions all while you work from your laptop; but then what happens when the shit hits the fan, countries close their borders, and most travel shuts down? You probably end up having to go back to the country you’re actually a citizen of – most others won’t let you in, and even if you can go somewhere (like I could to Korea for a few months) your income might be decimated. Mine certainly was, and any other travel blog you read will probably say the same thing.

For example, the traffic over on my Korea snowboard website this ski season was 90% down, and the income from it was 98% down. Meanwhile here on this website I’d put a ton of work into a Tokyo guide for foreign visitors heading to Japan for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, which obviously didn’t happen in 2020 and now look set to go ahead in 2021 but without any foreign fans. So that project ended up being a lot of time down the drain, and thousands of dollars of lost income.

Which is to say, job security isn’t great for digital nomad travel blogging – that obviously goes with the territory, but for many the pandemic saw that go from being a potential problem to a very real and immediate one.

Furthermore, despite this romantic notion of being a ‘citizen of the world’, of nowhere and everywhere, once again we see that your passport really does make a difference. This winter under lockdown in the UK hasn’t been a lot of fun. But (despite the idiot politicians in charge) at least I could come back to a country with a great health system that would treat me (without billing me) if I did get sick, which has developed vaccines and is rolling them out quickly, and where daily life for most of the population has remained safe & comfortable enough (although dull & frustrating). Again we see that the accident of birth on one or other side of a border can make a huge difference.

So was it all bullshit, being a digital nomad – or on the other hand, in the long run might the pandemic be seen as having accelerated the trend? One thing that always sucks about it as a long-term lifestyle is visas – take Thailand for example, which for years now has been host to a revolving population of digital nomads, some staying for a few months at a time, but others staying for years with visa runs every couple of months as necessary. It always seemed to me that Thailand (and others) would be smart to introduce some sort of long-stay visa for remote workers, allowing people to legally stay for say a year while working online, charging a visa fee in lieu of income tax.

Well, a whole bunch of countries have now started schemes along these lines, with more likely to follow: Antigua & Barbuda, Bahamas, Anguilla, Barbados, Bermuda, Caymans, Mauritius, Costa Rica, UAE, Iceland, Estonia, Croatia, and Georgia all now have some sort of remote work visa system for long stays. Although it is also worth noting that they’re mostly only available to those with income above a certain level, which is usually way more than I’ve ever earned online (50 grand in some cases) and I’m pretty confident is way more than most of those digital nomads in Thailand (and elsewhere in SE Asia, Central America and so on) have ever earned. But it’s a start, and it’ll be interesting to see if it becomes an established thing.

Even for many people who either can’t or don’t have any desire to be digital nomads, the pandemic has been a first experience of working remotely. Most of my friends in the UK, for example, have been doing their regular jobs from home during the various lockdowns – some like it, some don’t, but either way it’s definitely been a demonstration of the possibilities provided by modern tech for doing remotely what used to require everyone to commute for. In the future we may well also look back on the pandemic as being a key event in changing work cultures, perhaps with it becoming the norm for people to do a combination of office work days and remote work days.

This post is starting to ramble beyond the scope of a travel blog, but it’ll be interesting to see how it all pans out once the pandemic is finally under control globally. It did expose the insecurity of being a digital nomad, but it has also shown the viability of widespread remote work becoming a new norm.

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