Credit: John Garrison

When I boarded a plane bound for Chicago in Rome earlier this week, I didn’t expect to make it back to the United States. My passport had stamps from travel through Germany, France, Ireland, England, and Italy over the last few weeks, countries from which travel is now banned to the United States. 

As an Italian resident working for the UN’s World Food Programme with a soon-to-expire work visa, I had bought tickets to return to the United States in advance of the presidential announcement that travel to America from nearly every European country would be banned for 30 days, effective Friday at midnight. After the speech, I watched online as ticket prices for travel from Rome to Chicago jumped from the mid-$300 and $400 range into the thousands. Soon, the cheapest tickets were going for amounts exceeding $2,000 mere hours after the announcement.

Reports of Americans paying up to $20,000 for flights back to the United States have come out of cities like Paris, but these steep prices didn’t seem to be a deterrent for travelers trying to leave Italy as a national lockdown was enforced in the country. When I arrived at Fiumicino Airport at 4 AM, lines of travelers looking to buy tickets for flights out of the country had already snaked across the entire terminal. Students on study abroad programs that had been canceled hours before were shelling out hundreds of dollars in last-minute baggage fees, being forced to evacuate with no time to sort and select belongings to take. Families on vacation wrangling bleary-eyed children stretched across benches napping in the ticketing area, having rushed to the airport to claim seats on flights as borders across the world closed.

A rainbow of surgical masks greeted me everywhere I turned, from hospital-issue blue and made of paper to more durable cloth styles tie-dyed and panda-printed. Despite the fact that the World Health Organization has issued guidelines stating that mask use is unnecessary for anyone other than those “taking care of a person with suspected 2019-nCoV infection,” and the surgeon general’s instruction that face masks do little to prevent acquisition of the disease, I felt unprepared and vulnerable compared to my fellow travelers. 

On the departures board, over half of the flights out of the country were flashing “canceled” notices, including flights to India, England, Japan, Russia, and New York among others. As I waited to check in, other passengers sat on the windowsills in the terminal, on hold with airlines overwhelmed with calls from stranded travelers. But that wasn’t why I was worried I wouldn’t be allowed to board. I was still nursing a persistent cough and occasional fever from a bout of pneumonia earlier in the month (my doctor assured me that I was noncontagious and cleared to travel) and was sure that authorities would take one glance at my Italian long-term residence permesso, see the temperature reading on the thermal scanners, and notice my eyes water as I tried not to let a cough escape and send me back to lockdown in my Roman apartment. 

It was only a few weeks prior, on a drive from Chicago to Iowa, that I couldn’t shake bone-deep chills despite the fact that the heater was running on full blast and I was wearing a thick winter coat. I had thought I was just exhausted from an intercontinental flight and adjusting to cold Chicago coming from balmy Rome. But I also knew I didn’t have health insurance in America, dissuading me from making what felt at the time like a frivolous visit to the doctor. The next day, my throat was on fire and my entire body ached. I went to see my physician, who informed me that I had a 103 degree fever and immediately put a mask over my mouth and nose as I was subjected to a battery of tests. The results of a blood test, a mucus test, and a throat swab showed that I had pneumonia, not the coronavirus. 

The total cost was $330.77: $141 for a quick evaluation, $176.22 for three labs, and $13.55 for six antibiotic pills with avail of an online coupon I looked up on my phone while waiting in line at Walgreens. 

I was incredibly lucky. Had the tests come up inconclusive, there would likely have been no coronavirus test for me to take, as the United States declined the coronavirus test developed by the World Health Organization, which has helped over 60 countries mount an aggressive response to the spread of the virus. If I had somehow been fortunate enough to be at a hospital in America that offered the domestically developed test a few weeks ago, I probably wouldn’t have been granted access to it, or it would have been prohibitively expensive. Or would it have been?

Despite hours spent online trying to nail down an estimate and numerous calls to a variety of hospitals, I have yet to see an actual dollar figure for the cost of a coronavirus test. The Hill reported that it was stated broadly that “how much each patient pays will ultimately depend on whether they have insurance, what kind of plan they have and whether it requires cost-sharing, like deductibles and co-pays.” 

One of the traits that has marked the American experience during this pandemic has been a lack of reliable information from a centralized source about the virus and government response as well as a plethora of misinformation spread anecdotally. Lack of clarity from the president about travel restrictions and right to entry into the U.S. beyond Friday for American citizens played into the huge crowds I witnessed at the airports I traversed on my way home, like the six-hour waits at O’Hare this weekend. Lack of clarity about preventative measures led to those same travelers donning face masks as we waited for our flights, leading to a national shortage of masks for those who need them most. Lack of clarity about the actual cost of coronavirus testing leaves everyone in the country reliant on rumors of bills upwards of $3,000 as a benchmark for testing cost and hesitant to avail of such a test, prompting additional undetected spread of the virus.

But even if the cost of testing was widely known, what use would it be to the 40 percent of Americans who can’t afford an unexpected expense of $400 or more? Even if it was clear what exactly insurance would cover, what use would it be to the 28,554,000 Americans who are uninsured? Even for those like myself, who have had access to the best and most comprehensive health care available on the market for most of our lives, going to the doctor for anything short of a life-and-death situation often feels out of the question due to the high deductibles that characterize the private health-care market. Contrast this with Italy, where costs are free and easily available, making it possible for the country to aggressively test its population and use the results to try to geographically contain the spread of the virus. 

In the few days after I received my diagnosis, I kept working because I am also part of the 36 percent of Americans who work at least partially freelance in an era of decreased labor protections, whose income in part depends on working even when sick. I wasn’t contagious, but a lack of national paid sick leave will make it impossible for many other Americans to practice social distancing even when displaying symptoms of illness lest they be left without an income, further worsening the spread of the virus. Italy, on the other hand, has guaranteed paid leave and has frozen mortgage payments and many other expenses during the outbreak.

As I called my mom from my boarding gate in Rome, she explained that word had come from the White House that not only were all passengers being tested upon landing on American soil, they were also being screened upon departure from any destination with a flight headed to the United States. For me that was Portugal. She instructed me to show my empty box of antibiotics from my pneumonia treatment if I was denied boarding or entry, to prove that I was no longer contagious and that I didn’t have the coronavirus when I was inevitably hassled by immigration, customs, or ministry of health officials.

I never had to, because I was never screened. (Which is good, because I’d actually thrown away the empty box.)

I boarded my plane in Rome without a single thermal scan, test, or question and did the same in Lisbon. When I deplaned a packed flight at O’Hare, the first question I received from officials was about whether I was bringing in any imported wine. “If only,” I joked while anxiously hoping they didn’t ask any questions about the foreign cheeses in my carry-on. The second was a question about what it was like being on lockdown in Italy. I told the lady at the immigration counter that my coworkers were taking advantage of the silent streets to snap pictures of the deserted St. Peter’s Square, Piazza Navona, and Colosseum without hordes of tourists in the background. She laughed. There seemed to be little concern that additional coronavirus cases may be entering the country on my flight. There wasn’t a single question about my health history, not a single thermal scan. There was not a single query about whether I’d traveled to northern Italy during the last few weeks, which has some of the highest infection rates in the world (I hadn’t, but my roommate had just traveled to Venice for Carnevale). 

It was probably the fastest I’d gone through immigration and customs ever.

To contrast, when arriving at both Ciampino and Fiumicino airports in Rome, I had been individually thermally scanned and mass temperature scanners tested all travelers leaving the airport in several of the European cities I had visited in the few weeks prior.

As I switched my phone off of airplane mode, I fielded messages from friends and e-mails from my work’s HR alike that warned that I’d probably have to self-quarantine for weeks as a traveler arriving from Italy. If this was the policy, it was never communicated to any of us arriving from Rome. My coworkers who had been slated to travel to countries like Egypt and Israel were facing mandatory two-week quarantines, as workers coming from Italy. 

I walked right out of Terminal 5 and into the city. 

A few days later, the strange combination of nonchalance and heightening tension I saw in O’Hare airport was on display when my mom and I went to Sam’s Club to buy rice to prepare nonperishable dal chawal in case of a lockdown (after dark, as to increase ease of social distancing). I had only experienced a day of lockdown in Rome, but my roommates had kept me updated that long lines and hours-long waits to get basics as stores tried to enforce social distancing made trips to get groceries more difficult as each day of the lockdown progressed. 

There was no rice to be found. As we walked the aisles I FaceTimed a friend who regaled me with stories of people he had seen in Chicago scaling the shelves at Costco to shake out empty boxes and even lift things from other shopping carts. “If it comes down to it, will you climb the shelves for antibacterial wipes or will auntie?” my friend jokingly asked me, using the term we Indian children use to respectfully address elders. 

Another shopper approached us to ask whether my friend was a relative in India I was checking in on as the disease spread through the subcontinent. No, I told him, my friend was sitting in his Chicago apartment. As my mother and I walked away, passing shoppers whose carts were piled high with cases of bottled water or essentials like diapers and Gatorade, we discussed the unexpected sense of camaraderie and mutual concern as we all prepare for an uncertain future.  v