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Covid Lessons—Traveling Safe

In mid-March this year, there was a window of about seven days when international travel began to grind to a halt. Nations around the world started to grapple seriously with the threat posed by the spread of Covid-19 and began closing borders. It was a chaotic time, to say the least. Governments and their aviation authorities were issuing directives that changed not just daily, but sometimes by the hour. Commercial air carriers and border authorities faced the daunting challenge of both interpreting and implementing what were often hastily drafted and confusing new rules.

In the process, hundreds of thousands of international travelers found themselves stranded far from home. Among them, inevitably, were a number of Seventh-day Adventist Church members. Some belonged to mission groups that had been engaged in short-term projects. Others were student volunteers. Still others were simply lay people who, because of circumstances, found themselves with no easy way home.

A number of these cases were referred to the General Conference Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL) department. As PARL’s liaison in Washington, D.C., I worked with these individuals and organizations, helping link them with the US Department of State and members of Congress. In the process, I learned a number of simple but important lessons that perhaps may be helpful when, once again, we’re able to contemplate international travel.

1. Notify your country’s foreign service before you leave home.

In the United States, the US Department of State has a program called the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). Using this online system, you provide the State Department with all the details of your intended travel, along with your personal information and contact information while you are abroad.

By enrolling in STEP, you will be automatically connected with the local US embassy or US mission in the country or countries where you will be traveling. You’ll receive real-time alerts and warning about potential trouble spots for US citizens. If there is a major event—such as the outbreak of war, terrorism, other localized violence or even a pandemic—you will receive timely notice and advice for how you can best secure your safety.

There are more than 175 US embassies, consulates, and missions worldwide, and so the breadth of coverage for US citizens is wide. Other nations also have similar programs. Even if your country does not have such a comprehensive program as STEP, at the very least you can alert individual embassies when you enter a country and request that they add you to any communications they send out to locally based expatriates from your country.

For church members and employees traveling for mission or work, this should be a standard practice when planning overseas trips.

2. Take embassy warnings seriously.

It’s human nature to be reluctant to make hasty changes to a carefully planned, expensive travel itinerary. But when a local embassy sends an alert advising its citizens to leave a particular area or to take other protective actions, take these very seriously.

There is a temptation to hope for the best or to assume that, one way or another, we’ll manage to avoid trouble. And for those of us who travel with a religious or humanitarian purpose in mind, there’s an additional reason we may not want to make the hard decision to cut our travel short. “Surely, God would prefer me to finish this mission,” we may think. “It’s His work and so He’ll care for me.”

Yet faithful stewardship of God’s resources, I would suggest, also means making rational and informed decisions about our own safety. Acting on embassy alerts or warnings will, many times, help us avoid trouble altogether.

3. When in difficulty, make immediate, personal contact with your closest embassy.

When large-scale disasters, such as a pandemic, strike, embassies abroad often find themselves overwhelmed with requests for assistance. Embassy staff must try to help their fellow citizens find bookings on scarce commercial flights or secure seats on special repatriation flights. It is important to immediately alert the embassy to your location and your needs and let them know whether you are in any immediate danger. You can do this by email or phone or, if possible, by visiting the embassy in person. Be prepared for long waits but this step is crucial. Waiting too long to reach out to your embassy may place you further down the list of those they need to help.

4. Reach out for assistance back in your home country.

If you find that the local embassy cannot help you, or the embassy staff are too overwhelmed to provide meaningful assistance, it may be time to seek outside help. The General Conference PARL department is happy to be a liaison for US-based entities and individuals. But every world church division also has a PARL department and a PARL director who can also assist.

It would also be worthwhile reaching out to contacts back in your home country who may have relationships with public officials or elected leaders. They, too, can help mobilize assistance on your behalf.

5. Remember that you belong to a worldwide family of believers.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church operates in some 200 countries around the world, and this wonderful fact means that you are probably never too far from an Adventist church or company, or even a local church headquarters. They are your spiritual family and they will help you.

I was incredibly moved by the response of a church union leader in Africa when I reached out to him recently through the local division. During the Covid panic, there was a group of Adventist short-term mission volunteers from the US traveling through his country, trying to return home. They were scheduled for a short layover in his country before continuing on to the US on a different flight. But we had been alerted by immigration authorities that this group would probably be pulled off their flight during the layover—the ever-changing travel regulations meant this group could no longer enter the US via the airport where they were scheduled to land.

When their plight was made known to this local Adventist church leader, he immediately made provisional arrangements to pick up them up from the airport and care for their accommodation and meals. It was all to be done with the help of local church members. In the end, their wonderful service wasn’t necessary, but they were ready and willing to step in, at short notice, to care for their brothers and sisters in the faith.

This simple list of precautions is neither new nor comprehensive, but in a crisis these steps can be profoundly helpful. I hope, as restrictions begin to lift and we once again resume travel, that we will do so with a renewed appreciation for the importance of being proactive in caring for our safety abroad.

Bettina Krause is an associate director of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL) department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. She represents the world church in Washington, D.C., engaging with United States institutions as well as with diplomatic, international, and non-governmental organizations headquartered in Washington.