Amid the islands of southern Thailand, though, perpetual sun made the pandemic seem distant. The headlines belonged to crowded cities, not the gulf’s ivory-
colored beaches and vivid coral. But three days after Ziegler reached Koh Tao, the State Department raised the global threat level to 4, its most serious travel advisory.
“Things just started to shut down,” she said. So Ziegler decided to spend the pandemic on the eight-square-mile, reef-wrapped island with a single, 10-bed hospital. “I wouldn’t say I was trapped here,” said Ziegler, a remote worker in e-commerce and digital marketing who rented a house on Koh Tao with a friend. “I could probably still get back to the United States. But it just seems safer to be here, kind of isolated and away from all the things that are going on, than to actually brave four different international airports to try to make my way home.”
When Ziegler left Ann Arbor, Mich., last fall, she joined a surge of “digital nomads,” workers who thanks to technology can earn a living by working remotely from the road. “It’s probably been the most incredible six months of my life,” said Ziegler, who planned her time abroad with Remote Year, a company that caters to digital nomads. In South Africa, Ziegler walked alongside an elephant; a continent away, she hiked through the jade-colored rice paddies of Sapa, Vietnam. But for Ziegler and some other digital nomads, coronavirus is exposing the enviable lifestyle’s precariousness.
“In times of crisis, people go back to family and friends and places where they have a high comfort level,” said Steve King, a founding partner at Emergent Research, which has tracked the rise of the remote workforce since 2005. Citing increased health risks and the difficulty of crossing borders, King predicted that the free-ranging digital-nomad lifestyle would be on hold until a vaccine is available. King said that while quantitative data is not yet available, anecdotal evidences suggests that “the majority of digital nomads, in one way or another, have returned to their home country.”
Ziegler’s decision to stay on Koh Tao, even as many digital nomads headed home, wasn’t easy. “If something were to go wrong, it could be very bad, very quickly,” she acknowledged. Ziegler and her housemate pored over island Facebook groups, wondering if they had made the right call. At first, Ziegler said Remote Year promised ongoing logistical support. But in mid-March, the company laid off half its staff, postponed programming indefinitely and told participants to go somewhere they felt safe, according to an article in TechCrunch. Remote Year did not respond to several requests for comment from The Washington Post.
Riana Ang-Canning and Colin Marriott, who faced the same sudden choice as Ziegler, took a different route. The Canadian couple had moved to Prague in June, intending to make the city, which they had never visited, a year-long home base for trips with Ellie, their 7-year-old Chihuahua rescue.
“We showed up with our four suitcases and our dog,” said Ang-Canning, 27, a travel planner from Vancouver. “Luckily, we loved it.” They took Ellie on trains to Vienna, Budapest and Munich. Both of their mothers came for a September trip to Tuscany, Italy, where they sipped wine in a rented villa.
The couple heard news of the coronavirus as early as January but weren’t too concerned. “We were like, ‘Oh, they’ll never shut the borders within the E.U. — that would be crazy,’ ” Ang-Canning said. The two had enjoyed months of freely crossing borders within the Schengen Area of 26 European countries; that ease has made the region popular with country-hopping digital nomads.
So, in the second week of March, the couple took a road trip to celebrate Marriott’s birthday, driving south from Prague into the jigsaw peaks of Austria, Slovenia and Croatia. But on the morning of March 12, they woke up in Zagreb, Croatia, to word that the Czech Republic was restricting some foreigners. A rumor flew that the borders would close to outsiders within 24 hours.
“As soon as [Colin] turned 27,” said Ang-Canning, “the world really fell apart.” They left that morning on a frenetic, eight-hour drive to reach Prague before the borders closed. At crossings that had been wide open a few days before, guards took their temperatures and asked pointed questions about the trip.
“This virus does not respect borders,” World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in February. Historically, in fact, pandemics helped create modern borders, as Charles Kenny wrote in a March 25 article for Politico. “The Black Death is the first time in history that we’ve seen what I think you could call border controls,” said Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development.
The long-term impact of the coronavirus remains to be seen, but Kenny says pandemic border controls have often lingered beyond the diseases themselves, frozen in place by apprehension of strangers. “Fear does drive a sort of instinctive reaction to keep outsiders away,” he explained. “That’s particularly true of a fear of infection.”
Pandemics have affected U.S. border and immigration policies, as well, Kenny said, citing then-candidate Donald Trump’s insistence that the U.S.-Mexico border be closed during an Ebola outbreak in West Africa. “Tremendous infectious disease is pouring across the border,” Trump claimed in 2015. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act limiting Chinese immigration into the United States was extended in 1904 amid racist depictions of Chinese people as a source of epidemics, including the plague. The law stayed on the books until 1943.
And as the world grapples with a novel, 21st-century virus, old impulses to keep outsiders away remain. After their frantic drive to the Czech Republic, Ang-Canning and Marriott scrambled to fly back to Vancouver, tripping repeatedly over border restrictions inside and outside the European Union.
They arrived home March 20, cutting their trip short by three months, and entered a self-
imposed quarantine. Since then, more countries have closed their doors. In addition to policies limiting travel, xenophobia has flared, with ugly incidents in Australia, China and beyond. Kenny hopes for a quick return to global cooperation, which he and other experts say is more helpful than border controls for quelling pandemics.
There’s no sign those border controls will lift anytime soon. But some digital nomads are itching to book when the frontiers loosen. As they follow the coronavirus pandemic in a borrowed Vancouver apartment, Ang-Canning and Marriott are already eyeing a trip to Asia next fall.
On Koh Tao, Dree Ziegler is ready to travel, as well.
Before the coronavirus hit, she had planned to continue on to Japan and Malaysia, countries she said she would still like to see. “We’re under no illusions that this is going to happen quickly,” she said. However long it takes, she’s willing to wait it out in the island sunshine.
“As long as I have my laptop,” said Ziegler, “I’m home.”
Smith is a writer based in Vermont. Her website is www.jenrosesmith.com . Find her on Twitter and Instagram @jenrosesmithvt.