The U.S. Is The Worst Place To Be In A Pandemic, So I Left

by Karen K. Ho
Margaret Flatley

A little more than a week ago, my plan was the same as many other New Yorkers: Buy enough food and supplies to hunker down as the city attempted to reduce the spread of coronavirus. I had been reporting on the highly contagious respiratory illness known as COVID-19 since early January, so I understood how social distancing could ease upcoming demands for health care services. I had a great setup for working at home. I thought I knew what to do.

I was mostly preoccupied with figuring out how I would help take care of my boyfriend’s parents. Claire and Burt Silverman are incredibly smart and accomplished but elderly immunosuppressed people with serious chronic health conditions. I had already done a few grocery drop-offs for them, and bought extra cans of Lysol spray to disinfect future deliveries.

Then early last Saturday morning, my mother texted: “Karen, I would suggest you fly back home. I will pay for your ticket.”

For more than a year, I have been working hard not to permanently relocate back to Toronto, the city where I was born and lived for most of my life. It seemed likely the next stage of my career would be in New York, where I attended graduate school, completed a prestigious fellowship, and met my boyfriend. I spent $6,160 on legal fees to apply for a visa that would allow me to work as a reporter in the United States. Before COVID-19, I was starting to feel like I was building a life here.

My mother’s text made me reconsider. Was it more important to be near my boyfriend, his family, and career opportunities during the pandemic, or to be in a position where I would be safe if I got sick? Going back to Canada also posed an ethical dilemma: With the high rate of infection for coronavirus, it’s extraordinarily important for people to reduce travel as much as possible.

I felt new levels of anxiety as I grappled with what to do. I talked through my options with Debbie Lu, a young woman from Wuhan I had interviewed, and several other Canadians. “Your low health care is the one that makes me say, come home,” one friend texted. “It is built to fail [in the United States].” Claire told me in a phone call she didn’t want me to stay in New York just to help take care of her and Burt, even though she offered to help with medical expenses if I did.

I can’t vote in the United States, but I wish the health care available to me in Canada was available to everyone here so I didn’t have to make this decision.

I knew from my research how unprepared the U.S. government was for a pandemic, and confirmed on Wednesday that my limited policy for accident insurance wouldn’t cover the costs of any treatments for COVID-19. After freelancing for more than a year, my goal has shifted to getting a full-time job with benefits, ideally in New York, but this feels less likely in an economy that’s now in a recession.

In Canada, where I still pay taxes, I wouldn’t have these concerns because public health insurance services there aren’t tied to employment. I didn’t know what a co-pay was until I moved to New York City for graduate school. Even though insurance enrollment has reopened and cost-sharing for COVID-19 testing is not allowed, there are serious, ongoing concerns about the limited availability of tests, ICU beds, and ventilators, as well as the potentially high out-of-pocket cost of treatment. A Norwegian university went as far as urging students abroad in the United States to return, citing “poorly developed health services and infrastructure.”

I can’t vote in the United States, but I wish the health care available to me in Canada was available to everyone here so I didn’t have to make this decision. After the Canadian government issued a global travel advisory encouraging citizens abroad to return, major air carriers announced several weeks of flight suspensions and cancellations. It felt like the window to fly back to Toronto could soon close. I wondered how easily I could borrow a car and drive to the border if necessary.

One-way flights between New York and Toronto were inexpensive and plentiful, so for $66 — the price of a nice dinner out — I bought a ticket for Thursday, March 19. The next day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a formal travel policy restricting air travel to Canadian citizens, their immediate families, and permanent residents that don’t have symptoms of COVID-19. Americans are also allowed to enter under the policy, but my boyfriend and I determined he shouldn’t go with me. He worried that in Toronto, he would be too far from his own parents and a burden on my family.

The decisions COVID-19 forces us to make transcend the rational. None of us will know for months whether we were right or wrong.

In announcing the policy, Trudeau said, “Let me be clear, Canadians who are abroad: It’s time to come home.” It reminded me that home is supposed to be a place where you feel taken care of, where you are safe, and where you are with loved ones. Even though I love my boyfriend deeply, and am aware that many people die trying to enter the United States each year, the fact remains that the president is systematically failing to take care of Americans and endangering Chinese people like me by misnaming COVID-19.

I know I am incredibly fortunate that there is ample room for me at my family’s suburban home. My mother even offered to help me with rent, transportation, and other expenses if I decided to temporarily relocate to her place. I am also fortunate that I can work remotely during the 14 days of self-isolation the Canadian government asks returning citizens to undergo.

Against the backdrop of layoffs, ventilator shortages, homelessness, and a growing number of deaths, it felt silly and small to worry about what I needed to pack. Was I going to be there long enough to need a swimsuit? What documents did I need for my taxes? At the same time, it felt necessary to think about what my life might look like months from now. Was I foolish to hope I could return to the United States before September, and pick up at the next stages of my life and career? Would everyone I love and care about still be here when I got back?

As a reporter, I made the best choice I could with as much reliable information as I could gather in a short amount of time. But the decisions COVID-19 forces us to make transcend the rational. Some have to choose between seeing a dying parent or staying away to reduce the risk of infection. Health care workers are mulling whether to stay in Airbnbs to avoid going home and potentially spreading the virus to their families. None of us will know for months whether we were right or wrong. A part of me still wishes I didn’t get on the plane.

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC or NHS 111 in the UK for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all Bustle’s coverage of coronavirus here, and UK-specific updates on coronavirus here.