Commentary

Vaccine passports and the freedom to travel

October 18, 2021 8:00 am

Not only face masks but plastic hats, coats and booties were required to tour a Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese factory near Parma, Italy. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

I have traveled internationally numerous times in my adult life, and I always experience something new.

My husband and I just got back from 12 days in Italy and Poland, with a wealth of “first times.” We attended a friend’s ordination in St. Peter’s Basilica, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Although we have visited the Vatican and Rome before, it was novel to be there as part of this meaningful celebration in the life of the church instead of as tourists seeking a Sistine selfie.

We caught the end of fashion week in Milan (window shopping only), and then grazed our way through the Emilia-Romagna, a region in Italy famous for its Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Parma ham and balsamic vinegar. Because of our flight connections, we took an extended stopover in Warsaw, our first trip to Poland. We learned how to make pierogi, the iconic Polish dumplings. We toured a vodka museum and one devoted to life under communism. We caught rides with Uber drivers in tiny Skoda cars.

Making pierogi, iconic Polish dumplings, in Warsaw. (Photo courtesy of Jim Obradovich)

None of those experiences would have been open to us without our CDC vaccine cards, which showed we’d been vaccinated against COVID-19. We needed them for the international flights, most ground transportation and for admission to many museums, tourism sites and even some restaurants. We had to show our cards to enter Vatican City.

We were prepared for this. We even made laminated photocopies of our vaccination cards to reduce the wear and tear on the originals. (Don’t laminate your original cards, travelers. You’ll probably need to update them.)

Needing vaccinations to travel wasn’t new for us. Before attending a friend’s wedding in India in 2005, my husband and I took at least a half-dozen jabs. They were all recorded on a yellow World Health Organization card, which I don’t recall ever having to show to anyone. Even so, we appreciated the protection against hepatitis, typhoid and a bunch of other diseases I don’t even remember.

This time, I’d already been vaccinated against COVID-19 well before the trip, but I got my flu shot, updated my tetanus immunization and took a first shingles jab in the weeks leading up our departure. Nobody required this of me; I would have done it without any travel plans because my doctor recommended it and because I want to avoid getting sick.

Masks were required in the busy train station in Rome. (Photo courtesy of Jim Obradovich)

We also weren’t novices at wearing face masks, although not usually for such extended periods of time. We had to wear them even on our overnight flight, through all the airports, on the train, and in most of the indoor locales we visited. We had to do this even though we had tested negative within 72 hours before our first flight and immediately before our return home.

It was an inconvenience at times. We walked a lot, so putting on a mask to go inside could be hot and uncomfortable. (It was also an incentive to eat and drink as often as possible, which was the only time masks were removed in indoor public spaces — except for an occasional quick photo.)

But everyone was wearing masks, even the uniformed kids we saw near our hotel in Rome, which was close to a primary school. We never saw anyone complain, protest, or throw a fit. People just got on with it. They didn’t mistake an occasional inconvenience for a violation of their rights.

So it’s been jarring to return to Iowa to hear all the same political claptrap about needing freedom from vaccine mandates and mask requirements. Last week, Gov. Kim Reynolds was at it again, saying to a conservative radio audience that she’s talking to legislative leaders about trying to negate federal vaccine and testing regulations for workers at large businesses.

“(Iowans) have said enough is enough,” Reynolds said during a WHO Radio interview Wednesday. “They are tired of the overreach, they are tired of the mandates.”

You’d think Iowans would be even more tired of the suffering, deaths and business disruptions caused by unchecked COVID-19 infections.

Italy was hit hard by COVID-19 in 2020. Today, 70% of its residents are fully vaccinated, compared to 55% of Iowans. During the entire pandemic, Iowa has recorded 14,893 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people, according to New York Times data. Italy, home to 60 million people, has recorded 7,811 cases per 100,000, just over half of Iowa’s tally.

Even in Iowa, where GOP leaders have tried to outlaw mitigation efforts such as school mask requirements and government vaccine mandates, COVID-19 cases are finally waning again. But with continued vaccine resistance, new disease variants and zero mitigation requirements, there’s nothing to stop another winter surge.

Be smart, Iowans. Get vaccinated now. Get a booster if you qualify for one. Wear a mask indoors if you can’t observe social distancing. It’s not that difficult, and it could save your life or a loved one’s.

I’ve learned a lot from traveling over the years, including how to pack light and to collect memories instead of a bunch of souvenir dust-collectors. What I’ll always remember from this trip was the blessing of our friend’s ordination and time spent with wonderful people in Rome, the sharing of delicious pasta dishes with fellow travelers near Parma, the joy on the faces of Polish dancers in Warsaw’s Old Town.

Masks and vaccine mandates won’t define this trip and they didn’t impose on our freedom. They gave us the security to have these life-enhancing  experiences without worry about bringing home a life-threatening disease.

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Kathie Obradovich
Kathie Obradovich

Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine. She is a leading voice on Iowa politics and makes regular appearances on state, national and international news programs. She has led national-award-winning coverage of the Iowa Caucuses and the Register’s Iowa Poll.

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