Globetrotting during a global crisis

The difficulties of trying to travel during the worst of the pandemic as a student

On March 12 2020, Chicago native and Trinity News journalist Shannon McGreevy was in Trinity Hall when Leo Varadkar announced the closure of schools and universities due to the Covid-19 pandemic. By March 16, international students, or approximately one in every three Trinity students, were informed via email that they had two days to leave College accommodation, excluding those who risked homelessness or were currently self-isolating with Covid-19. As a first year biochemistry student at the time, the panic felt by McGreevy and other students in the same position was “incredibly scary”. Despite passengers being allowed to fly in emergency circumstances, rumours and misinformation spread online left McGreevy and many other international students in fear that they would not be welcomed home.

McGreevy explained that “with no support from Trinity Hall, we were left fending for ourselves and scrambling for extremely overpriced tickets home.” While residents of Trinity Hall were initially told they would likely return in two weeks, McGreevy received an email the day after she arrived in Chicago informing her that all her belongings must be removed from the accommodation or she would face fines. McGreevy had no immediate family or close contacts in Ireland at the time, and Trinity Hall offered no storage space themselves.

McGreevy described the journey through Dublin Airport as something she “will never forget”, watching people on the phone crying to family because they could not come home due to restrictions, or a group of Americans attempting to go home and being questioned for hours by security if they were safe enough to fly. With PCR tests widely inaccessible and vaccinations non-existent, those like McGreevy had no way of knowing if they would be allowed to travel and wait out the pandemic in their own homes.

McGreevy eventually made it to Chicago O’Hare International Airport, but she had already heard of passengers upon arrival “on top of each other” in queues for a Covid-19 screening, with “multiple passing out” due to the crowded areas and waiting times of up to eight hours. These screenings consisted of passengers having their temperature taken and then filling out a form. Masks were not yet mandatory indoors or in crowded spaces.

“Needless to say, it was a surreal experience,” McGreevy sums up, “People were really concerned about travelling and spreading the disease and it was evident in the stress and eeriness of airline travel.”

McGreevy’s experience is just one of many faced by students travelling to and from Ireland at all stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. In line with health advice and international cues, the Irish government has regularly tightened and loosened travel restrictions for the past two years, from fourteen-day hotel quarantines to countries vying for a spot on the green list.

Covid-19 has been described as “the worst crisis in the aviation industry’s history” according to most major airline companies. By April 2020, Dublin Airport was only running repatriation flights or those with vital supplies and saw a 95% reduction in flights. Cork Airport was reduced to three return flights to London each day.

While repatriation efforts took up all incoming flights to Ireland, outgoing flights saw many people trying to return to their home countries amidst the pandemic.

In particular, many young people who would have travelled solo for the first time faced hardships, uncertainty and huge risks making their way across the globe in the midst of a pandemic. As the most international university in Ireland, Trinity in particular has seen students face all levels of travel restrictions in efforts to reach family abroad.

Second year student Oliwia Borek travelled to Wrocław, Poland, during the summer of 2021 to visit family and friends, having not seen them in nearly two years. At this stage of the pandemic, EU citizens with Covid vaccination certificates could freely travel, while those without the vaccination continued to provide negative PCR tests. Borek and her family were also required to provide two locator passenger forms leaving Ireland and a further locator form to return to Ireland.

“I never had anything checked at Dublin Airport. Not once… I could have not been vaccinated, never having filled out a locator form and no one would know.”

While Borek praised airlines like Ryanair for their “easy to access” information on requirement, she was struck when she arrived at Dublin Airport to find that the forms she filled out were essentially unnecessary: “I never had anything checked at Dublin Airport. Not once. Not before departure, not after landing. I could have not been vaccinated, never having filled out a locator form and no one would know.”

In contrast, Borek was regularly checked for her certificates in Wrocław Airport: “I actually couldn’t even go through security without having everything checked.” Borek noted the low level of cases and lighter restrictions in Poland compared to Ireland in July 2021.

Despite the lack of security checks In Dublin Airport, Borek still felt “very safe” travelling abroad once she received her vaccine. Throughout the pandemic, unvaccinated individuals faced two week quarantines and PCR tests to travel abroad.

PCR tests quickly became one of the biggest obstacles to travelling abroad. Borek noted that this requirement placed the most pressure on her family’s travel preparations to Poland. As her younger brother was not yet eligible for vaccination, he was required to take a PCR test before travelling abroad. This, according to Borek, proved to be “inconvenient” in their home county of Mayo where test centres were few and difficult to access.

“Recently when I was travelling home this past Christmas I had to wait over three hours in the freezing cold line because they were having issues and people missed their flights due to it.”

McGreevy pointed out that, while information was readily available, PCR tests were “costly and logistically difficult” during the height of the pandemic, before the vaccines were made available. Initially, McGreevy explains, one of the most accessible testing centres in Dublin was in a travel health centre that charged over one hundred euro for a test. The Randox Centre has since opened in Dublin Airport for testing, but McGreevy believes there are still issues preventing people from accessing PCR tests: “Recently when I was travelling home this past Christmas I had to wait over three hours in the freezing cold line because they were having issues and people missed their flights due to it.”

McGreevy also emphasised the differences between travelling from Ireland versus travelling to Ireland. She found that arriving in Chicago was relatively stress-free due to the thorough health screenings at US Customs in Dublin. However, she also noted the varying level of restrictions between America and Ireland: “Throughout the pandemic it appeared that restrictions were volleying between the two countries in that, during the summer after March 2020 the US was strictly locked down and Ireland was beginning to ease some restrictions related to outdoor events. But when Ireland was in the long level 5 lockdown last year, the US was much more relaxed with restrictions.”

Beyond those travelling out of necessity, students eager to see the world also faced struggles despite frameworks for safety put in place. Catherine Grogan, a second year politics student, also faced the realities of travelling on PCR tests alone in the summer of 2021. Grogan’s age group began receiving their first dose of the vaccine over this summer, but she had not been called in for an appointment before she was scheduled to go abroad. Grogan was travelling to London to see relatives until the day of, when restrictions suddenly tightened. Effective immediately, travellers were required to provide a negative PCR. Having no chance to take her test and receive the results in time, Grogan was forced to book another flight. When Grogan arrived at Dublin Airport, she was not checked for a negative PCR test.

“Grogan pointed out that this requirement was not mentioned in any forms shown to her and that other passengers were permitted aboard the ferry without documentation.”

Later, Grogan was in Greece with her family members with the intention of travelling to Italy to stay with friends. Grogan explained that while it was not “essential” travel, she was taking all necessary precautions as they were explained to her. Grogan was on the island of Corfu and planned to take a ferry back to mainland Greece to travel to Italy when complications first arose.

Grogan was stopped before boarding the ferry and asked to provide a new PCR test.  Grogan pointed out that this requirement was not mentioned in any forms shown to her and that other passengers were permitted aboard the ferry without documentation. She was told to go to a test centre “five minutes away, but was really five kilometres away”, which was consequently closed that day. Stuck in Corfu and fast approaching her scheduled flight to Italy, Grogan had no choice but to remain on the island for another night.

When Grogan did acquire a negative PCR test, complications rose even further when she realised she could not attach this PCR test to her passenger locator form as the Greek government only allowed one PCR test per form and the form had already been attached to a spot-check PCR test taken at the airport.

Despite these complications, Grogan eventually reached Italy with her friends, where she was consequently hospitalised due to sickness. In order to leave the country earlier than planned, she was required to provide another negative PCR result, though the hospital had only provided her with an antigen test. Upon returning to Ireland, Grogan’s key insight was that she “would never travel without a vaccine again.”

Grogan noted that while her experiences travelling during Covid-19 was not the most extreme of situations during the pandemic, they still highlighted the frustration many people have felt in the face of ever-changing travel restrictions: “It was so stressful, they were changing all the time, constantly.”

On March 5, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly announced that the requirement for vaccination certificates and passenger locator forms from those arriving into Ireland would end from midnight. Other countries such as France and Australia still require a negative PCR test, while other countries like Spain still hold health screenings upon arrival.

Despite the varied experiences across students travelling abroad, most agreed that the end of travel restrictions came at the right time. Grogan was happy to see “cohesion across policies” in Ireland’s lifting of restrictions, as she found a level of hypocrisy in previous rules during the pandemic that had allowed tourists to enter the country while still keeping parts of the country and economy on lockdown. Trinity, for example, allowed tourists to enter campus and visit the Long Library and Book of Kells while lectures were still kept online last semester. Grogan, relieved to see consistency now, asks, “Why couldn’t we do things in our own country but we were allowing tourists to come in?”

Borek, noting that changes in Ireland’s travel restrictions fall in line with the lowering of all Covid-19 restrictions in the past few months, thought this final change “doesn’t really change anything” for Irish people.

Another student, who recently travelled to Prague this semester, had not thought that the restrictions at the time were necessary, and is glad to see the end of travel restrictions into Ireland. They do not think these restrictions should ever need to be reinstated: “I’ve come to think that Covid restrictions aren’t really the way forward in general, unless we have some goal in mind. It’s a good idea to put in restrictions until we’ve administered vaccines or have expanded hospital capacity, but once we’ve done all those things, we’re going to have to open up eventually. There’s no point prolonging it.”

Looking forward, the student believes that travel restrictions across the world can be a thing of the past once the proper health policies are implemented globally: “The main thing we need to do now is invest in vaccinating the developing world, and after that Covid will probably just be like any other disease.”

Ellen Kenny

Ellen Kenny is the current Deputy Editor of Trinity News and a Senior Sophister student of Politics and Sociology. She previously served as Assistant Editor and Features Editor