Thousands have crisscrossed the globe to be home for the pandemic. A smart move?
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There's no place like home. But getting there can be risky

Thousands have crisscrossed the globe to be home for the pandemic. A smart move?

Many governments, including Israel and the US, are making massive efforts to repatriate citizens stuck abroad. From a medical perspective, it often doesn’t make sense

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Israeli tourists boarding a Honduran military plane on their way back home, March 26, 2020. (courtesy Honduran Military)
Israeli tourists boarding a Honduran military plane on their way back home, March 26, 2020. (courtesy Honduran Military)

There’s no place like home — even if getting there could ruin your health.

As the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has gradually shut down global air travel, many governments have made massive efforts to bring their citizens home. But in some cases, embarking on long journeys and possibly transferring through one or more airports may actually increase passengers’ risk of catching the disease, especially if it is hitting their final destination harder than the place they left, public health experts say.

The US State Department has brought back home 46,000 American citizens from over 70 countries on 449 flights, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs Ian Brownlee said Tuesday. The US — a country without universal health care — has by far the highest number of coronavirus infections in the world, and the third-highest number of deaths resulting from the disease.

The US Embassy in Jerusalem sent home American employees or their family members “deemed at higher risk of a poor outcome if exposed to COVID-19,” an embassy official told The Times of Israel last week. Here, too, that raises the question of whether some in potentially high risk groups might have been safer staying inside their Israeli homes.

Israeli travelers who had been stranded in South America arrive at Ben Gurion airport on March 20, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg / Flash90)

The German government has repatriated more than 200,000 citizens at the cost of more than 50 million euros. Germany, too, has been hit hard by the pandemic, with more than 107,000 known cases.

Israel has arranged dozens of flights to the four corners of the earth to bring stranded backpackers back home, citing the principle of “mutual responsibility.” While it might make sense for Jerusalem to rescue Israelis hiking in the Amazonian forest or the Himalayas, it appears less reasonable, from a purely medical perspective, to fly people home from developed countries where the coronavirus is much less prevalent, such as New Zealand or Slovenia.

“From an epidemiological point of view, there are different priorities,” said Nadav Davidovitch, the director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Prof. Nadav Davidovitch. (Ben Gurion University)

“I am not saying that this should not be done at all, but I’d be happier if the same energy and resources would be put into developing better programs for the elderly, and other vulnerable or marginalized groups, such as the ultra-Orthodox or the Arabs.”

But the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem takes great pride in its commitment not to leave anyone behind.

“Our rationale is simple: In times of crisis and uncertainty, the safest place for an Israeli citizen is in Israel,” ministry spokesperson Lior Haiat said. “We don’t know for how long the skies will remain closed, and many people are currently in countries where the healthcare system is not as good as it is in Israel.”

A lot also depends on what stage in life the traveling citizen is at, Haiat explained. Imagine a 23-year-old backpacker stuck in Australia. Considered to be at low risk of catching the virus, he may not want to spend all his savings just to be stuck inside a hostel room abroad. Why shouldn’t the government help him come home?

An Israeli backpacker disembarks an El Al flight from Lima, Peru, at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, March 2020 (Sivan Farage)

“And there’s also the principle of mutual responsibility,” he added. “Everyone needs to decide for themselves where they want to be. We’re not bringing people back who want to stay. But we’re taking care of everyone who wants to come home.”

As of this week, the Foreign Ministry is aware of fewer than 2,000 Israelis still abroad who are looking for ways to return.

A Lufthansa plane preparing to bring German and Israeli tourists from Lima to Frankfurt, March 26, 2020 (courtesy Israeli Embassy in Peru)

There is no doubt that one is more likely to contract the coronavirus in airports and planes than inside one’s own four walls, or even in a packed supermarket, according to Davidovitch, the public health scholar. And yet, the question of whether it’s better to stay abroad or pack your bags and go home has no clear-cut answer, he said.

“Currently, if you have a place where you can isolate yourself and keep a physical distance from other people, it’s probably better to stay where you are,” he said. “But of course, there may be other factors involved, for example if you have sick family members or you don’t have enough resources to stay at your present location.”

The government has assisted not only stranded backpackers but also Israeli citizens who have permanent residences abroad but feel they want to sit out the current crisis in the Jewish state.

“I assume that it is related to the fact that under huge stress or threat, groups tend to stick together, to go back to their most inner circles and to their more basic values,” said Eran Halperin, a psychology professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “That’s why the government has such motivation, and also why people who are now abroad feel — rationally or irrationally — that it would be safer for them at ‘home.’”

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