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How to talk to others about not traveling during the coronavirus pandemic

(Illustrations by Margaret Flatley for The Washington Post)

As the coronavirus spreads, people around the world are being told by health and government officials to stay at home to curb the problem.

But not everyone is following that advice. You may see the evidence on social media, watching friends, acquaintances or loved ones posting real-time photos from airplanes or hotels. Or maybe you know someone who’s about to go on a trip, despite the blatant warnings.

We spoke with travel, health and relationship experts about the best way to persuade people to stay home.

Why it’s dangerous to travel right now

The person traveling or about to travel may not understand the gravity of the pandemic. While there have been more than 500,000 confirmed cases of covid-19 worldwide as of Thursday, they may believe it’s not a problem in their community or the place they plan to visit.

Special pathogens expert Syra Madad, who was recently featured in Netflix docuseries “Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak,” has advice on how to suggest otherwise.

“Everybody should operate under the pretense that there is coronavirus disease in their community, even in areas that may not be reporting widespread transmission,” she says. “You don’t know who’s sick and who’s not.”

Madad says those more at risk in the pandemic — the elderly and people with compromised immune systems — should not be traveling at all, and everyone else should stay home unless a trip is absolutely essential.

“You’re at risk of spreading the disease,” she says. “At this point, everybody should avoid all nonessential travel."

Remind the potential traveler that many states are under stay-at-home orders; that the White House has said citizens should avoid discretionary travel; and that the State Department has asked that everyone avoid all international travel until further notice.

What is nonessential travel?

Experts are warning people to avoid nonessential travel. Perhaps people considering it are unclear on what the term means.

There’s no strict definition, because the concept is subjective. What’s essential is different from person to person. Work or family responsibilities may feel essential to people even during a pandemic.

“It depends on the context,” Madad says. “But at the same time, we want to also make sure that people realize it is their own personal responsibility.”

Is your friend or family member’s travel essential? Ask them. If their trip is not necessary, remind the person that it doesn’t matter what destination they’re considering; any travel is a bad idea.

“We’re getting to a point where any kind of unnecessary movement from your household should be avoided,” says Adrian Hyzler, chief medical officer for Healix International, a company that specializes in security, international medical and travel-assistance services. “Everyone needs to do everything they can to stop [coronavirus] transmission.”

Explain the additional risks of travel

If the potential of contracting or spreading coronavirus isn’t enough of a deterrent, there are other potential issues that may persuade them to stay at home.

“No one should be taking vacations for a number of reasons,” Hyzler says. “One is that the lockdown is becoming the norm now in many countries around the world and states in the U.S. You may find yourself trapped in places.”

A traveler could become stuck on their way back as countries shut borders and airlines cancel flights. If they do make it home, they are likely to be asked to quarantine for two weeks afterward.

How to have the conversation

It’s not easy to change someone’s mind, during a global pandemic or otherwise.

“You really can’t control another person,” says Paulette Sherman, a psychologist and relationship expert.

Instead, what you can strive for with constructive conversation is to understand what the other person is feeling, explain how you’re feeling, and find a middle ground.

Sherman recommends explaining your point of view to the potential traveler by using “I statements,” such as “This is what I feel, this is what I need, or this is what I hear.”

“What we don’t want to do is the ‘yous,’ because you’ll start getting very upset, especially if you believe this is a life-and-death issue,” she says.

Sherman also recommends avoiding the destructive communication pattern called the four horsemen of the apocalypse: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.

Afraid of confrontation? While Sherman normally coaches clients to be more comfortable with confrontation over time, talking to a loved one or acquaintance about canceling travel plans is urgent.

“At this point, it’s a life matter,” says Sherman.

Finally, Sherman says, it’s important to remind the potential traveler that the pandemic will end eventually, and there will be future opportunities for travel.

“This, hopefully, won’t be forever,” she says. “Try to see the bigger picture."

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