How house sitters can prepare for coronavirus
The effects of COVID-19 on the house sitting community
Let me start by saying that the house sitting community is a pretty adaptable, flexible and grounded group of travelers. We regularly put ourselves on the front-line, providing home and property care through floods, extreme weather conditions, even hurricanes and cyclones. Our ability to remain level-headed as we encounter pet emergencies, travel disruption, late departures, delayed returns and even unexpected arrivals, enhances our ability to prepare for almost any eventuality that life throws at us.
So in the light of the latest challenge, the novel coronavirus or COVID-19, many have assumed a "stay calm and house sit as usual" approach, as this virus continues to spread to all corners of the world.
Up until last week, that wasn't panning out so badly for most of us, but as the number of cases increases, the world is shrinking in terms of travel. Whether we like it or not, no matter if we think the media is over-hyping the situation, there is little doubt that this global spread is starting to impact travel plans the world over.
As house sitters, it seems we are not exempt.
Cruises and air travel are particularly impacted at the moment. There's no need for me to extrapolate on that here - you can do your own research. I don't want to be the person to advise anyone about their travel plans - that's really a personal decision that you need to make based on the information available to you at any given moment.
But as we head into a new phase where cases are rising fairly dramatically in some places, I do think it's time to consider how this might impact you, your clients, the pets in your care, and your forward travel plans over the next few months.
First things first - there's no need to panic!
There aren't just two states, "complete ignorance" and "outright panic". There's a lot of space in-between. Our belief is that it's always good to be informed and to consider plan B options in case they are needed. That's what we've been doing over the last week or so. But, we all handle potential crisis moments differently, so with the exception of plain stupidity, let's be mindful and respectful of how we each deal with this.
For those contacting us to see what we'd do in any given situation, we've added in our thoughts below, but if you just want the tips for how to navigate your way through this turbulent time, you can head to the most relevant topics by clicking the sub-headings in the "table of contents" below:
What we think (personal musings)
There is some scientific hope that the summer weather will delay the spread. This happens apparently in seasonal flu epidemics, because in warmer, less humid, dryer weather the virus droplets fall more quickly to the ground. They don't remain so airborne and this reduces the chances for contamination. But, so little is known about this novel, or new virus, nothing can be guaranteed at this stage, or known for sure.
However, Ian and I are of the personal belief, through reading and researching reputable (in our view) information over the past few weeks, that this IS NOT the same as seasonal flu, and for a number of reasons. Seasonal flu is preventable through a vaccine, which limits the number of people who will contract it. There is no vaccine (as yet) for this particular strain of coronavirus.
The good news is that for the vast majority of people who contract the virus, symptoms will be mild.
However, the mortality rate for seasonal flu is 0.1% (in the USA), compared to a mortality rate currently quoted by the World Health Organization (WHO) of 2% as a worldwide average for COVID-19. There are no like-for-like statistics yet over a similar time-span.
So, simple math, this means that potentially, for an equivalent number of people infected, 20 times more people could die from this virus, than from the flu. Because of the lack of a vaccine, more people are likely to be infected by this new coronavirus. This virus is showing signs of being very infectious to those who come into contact with it.
These preliminary stats alone are enough for us to at least take it seriously in respect of taking precautions and preparing for the impact it might have on our travel and house sitting plans. We recognize this is a small “might” at the moment, but being prepared is in our nature.
More recent statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO) are showing up to 3.4% mortality (source) but this is an average and it will of course vary country to country, even area to area. And... there is a big BUT... statistics can be misleading at this early stage.
You only really know true stats when you have the seasonal lifespan of an illness - comparing the lifetime of one virus with the first few months of another, is misleading. And it depends on the country. Italy for instance, has one of the largest ageing populations in Europe so sadly, there may be more deaths than in a country with a different average age demographic. So much is speculation at this point and we think it's good to keep this in mind.
There is a ton of media hype which can overshadow the small amount of factual information, but governments around the world are taking actions. This mean we will most likely see the effects of this disease in our communities and it's not likely to stop having some effect on travel for the next few months at least.
To put it into perspective though, I've had what I call "proper flu" only once in my life after traveling back from Australia back in my 30's. Not a bad cold, but flu with a fever, where I was hallucinating and needing medical care until the high temperature subsided.
Should we just travel regardless?
Something that has become apparent over the last week is that many new cases in Europe have resulted from both our need (business based) and our love for travel. Many new cases in Europe have arisen from contact with infected people during half-term holiday travel to northern Italy. But the world can't stand still.
I wonder if a reaction to media hype won't exacerbate the issue of increased contamination as hardy travelers throw caution to the wind. Who knows? Maybe it makes no difference overall. Different approaches have already been taken to help containment and none so far have stopped the world-wide spread of COVID-19, they've simply delayed it's effects. As we said at the outset, there's a lot of space for informed decisions and that includes whether or not to travel, where to, and with what level of responsibility.
But, as mentioned earlier, choices about travel are very personal and it's your responsibility at the end of the day to make your own balanced assessment about what you do.
A more practical approach - what we are doing?
In the meantime, we are taking a more pragmatic approach, minimizing the risk of contamination, preparing for the fact that we or family members might contract this virus in some mild or more serious form. We’re also risk assessing our upcoming house sits, travel plans and insurance to mitigate the effects of this on our lifestyle.
We are keeping abreast of travel restrictions and largely this is what will influence our own travel decisions. We’re keeping an eye on the bigger picture and how it could affect travel and our ability to get to international house sits down the line. Currently, we are house sitting in our home country (United Kingdom), and haven't been affected by any cancellations. We will wait to see how things develop over the next couple of weeks before making any further travel decisions.
We do have masks for travel on airplanes if we feel it's necessary, and that's our personal choice. We have watched videos about the best way to wear, remove and dispose of as safely as possible.
As house sitters Ian and I are self-isolated by choice a lot of the time! We aren't huge socialites and we spend a lot of time just walking the dogs or working at home. Social distancing isn't such a problem for us and we are probably at much less risk than people working and carrying out the daily commute.
Taking simple cleanliness actions could help limit our risk around airports and in public spaces, but we tend to do this anyway as we try to maintain our health to enjoy our travels. Whenever I get on a plane I wipe down the area around me with bacterial wipes. We've actually been healthier since we became full-time travelers, despite flying all over the world, than when we were at home working!
Why it's important to have a Plan B
Our decisions around preparation are intensified because we aren't just thinking about ourselves. We have to think about the effects of our decisions on house sits booked throughout this year. It's important that we stay healthy, and that we don't put ourselves in risk situations that might have a knock-on effect to others. We all have a responsibility to help each other.
Plan B's are essential for house sitters and home owners at anytime, but through this time we think they are even more important.
The effects of travel disruption are far more likely over the coming months, with short-notice cancellations becoming more regular, if this virus continues to expand. Remember that transit could also be affected. Today (3/3/2020), Singapore is banning transit through their country if you have traveled to northern Italy, Korea or Iran within 14 days.
Stay informed - do your research
Travel restrictions could change at a moments notice so always check travel advisories on your home country's government website, the government website for your destination, and any announcements made by your airline - most have a page dedicated to coronavirus updates now.
Some ways we are already seeing disruption:
- Cruise ship cancellations are resulting in cancellations of holidays, particularly in Asia. There is a risk that more cruises will be impacted - the Caribbean islands have been getting tougher about docking over the past few days and there are several impacted ships around the coast of the USA.
- A large number of flights have been cancelled around the world and not just to the badly affected countries. Yesterday, British Airways announced a wide range of cancellations, including a number of flights from Heathrow to New York City, due to lack of demand. Lufthansa have grounded 150 airplanes. While this might not mean that travel plans are cancelled, travelers may have to take seats on alternative routes, and on different days to those originally planned. You or your home owners might suffer unexpected delays.
- More and more countries are implementing self-isolation or even quarantine for people traveling from impacted areas or countries. This will mean that flights passing through one of these hubs may result in you being delayed on arrival unless you change your route. This could be a problem to house sitters or home owners.
- As the problem grows we are seeing quotes from various countries that "travel restrictions might be increased". It could be that out of the blue, you won't be able to travel to your next sit, or the home owner's vacation is cancelled as a result of this. You might need to consider whether your onward flights or transits could be affected or delayed.
- With the more recent lock down situations you could find yourself stuck in the country you are house sitting in with limited options. It might be that your insurance company will repatriate you, but this could be back to your home country, not to you next planned destination.
Update March 5th - "The Dubai Health Authority also said that customers travelling to Dubai (final destination) from Beijing, Beirut, Rome, Milan, Venice, Bologna, Bangkok and Phuket will have to take a Coronavirus test at the airport. (source)"
Update March 8th - Italy has implemented strict new travel restrictions and a lock down in the Northern area - for more information for British travelers, you can find that info here at the government website.
But, there are MANY people still proceeding with their vacations and travel plans. The UK government advice has been NOT to cancel travel, except for high-risk areas and places where you feel the health care system might be compromised. They also state that soon, with every country contaminated, it will make no difference. Again we wouldn't be putting ourselves at high risk, but we will continue to travel where and when we can.
This advice is varying from country to country, so again, in the absence of coherent planning across the world, making your own decisions based on your assessment of risk has to be the best way forward.
We've added some links at the bottom of the page for accessing official information.
The biggest risks to house sitters (as we see it)
- Your house sit is cancelled because home owners decide not to go away.
- Becoming sick while home owners are away and having to self-isolate in their home. This may need some thought for what would happen if your home quarantine period overlaps their return.
- Inadvertently traveling through a country that becomes "at risk" resulting in a quarantine on arrival, or on your return home.
- Home owners are delayed or quarantined. Update 8/3/2020 we've heard of a home owner now stuck in the lock-down area of Italy. (source)
- You get sick and have to be hospitalized in a country where you have no insurance cover.
- You get repatriated to your home country which isn't part of your forward travel plan.
Communication is key
Some of these situations regarding delays and sickness could happen at any time, and again, most of us have contingencies in place. It is just more and more important at the moment that you have the difficult conversations with your home owners. Think "what if" and consider emergency back-up for pet care if needed.
Dealing with last minute cancellations
If they happen, they happen. In extreme situations there's not a lot you can do, and we are all going to have to make the best of this, if affected. We've heard that many home owners, even if they've had their holidays cancelled, have decided to take time away locally.
Remember that when booking independent travel, you can't claim on travel insurance because of a house sit cancellation. The best thing to do at the moment, if this is a concern, it to book flexible tickets that can be changed. It may save you a lot of money in the long run.
If you fly regardless, you might need to think of Plan B accommodation for the area you are booked to stay in. Once you are there, you can also look for last minute sits across a variety of house sitting platforms - house sitting won't stop, it might just become more localized in some instances.
Increase your house sitting Plan B or contingency budget
If you are full-time travelers and house sitters, it would probably be wise to increase your Plan B budget to cover periods of time where you are potentially unable to house sit. The good news at the moment is that there are many cut price vacations and hotel deals.
Our travel industry will be hit hard by this and will need as much support as possible. How practical that becomes if we progress to a full blown pandemic, remains to be seen. But right now it's still an option. Personally we'd be looking at smaller boutique properties rather than large resorts to minimize our exposure.
If your funds don't run to budgeting for longer term accommodation in the event of a cancellation, maybe have the conversation about whether it would be better to house sit in your home country for a bit. This also gets around the issues of health cover and insurance.
Self isolation at a house sit
When you arrive at a new sit, think about what you might need to get you through a couple of weeks of self isolation if it becomes necessary.
In our home countries this isn't difficult, and for most of us we can get home deliveries of food and supplies. But in a country you aren't so familiar with, you might want to check out food options, access to medications (if needed) and enquire about local health care facilities should you need to call on them. How would you get to the local hospital? What are your insurance stipulations for getting care, especially for COVID-19.
Don't forget the pets - it might be necessary to get some extra supplies in for the pets too or to top-up on meds from the vets.
Again, this is just sensible preparation, stuff that many of us do as standard when house sitting in countries without first world facilities.
How to prepare for coronavirus at upcoming house sits
- Communicate extensively with your potential or booked home owners. Find out what they think. Are they likely to change their plans if things get worse or will they remain committed to their travel unless restrictions force them to change their plans?
- Make sure you have emergency funds left by the home owner (if you aren't able to or want to cover yourself). It might be necessary to stock up on extra pet supplies in a lock-down or top-up pet meds from the vets, if you had to go into self-isolation. Check supplies of cat litter and availability of cat crates.
- Assess your own level of risk. We are all different and some of us are older and have underlying health risks. Consider whether you might decide to curb your travel and how that might affect your home owners. If you think this is you, the better thing would be to notify your home owners now so they have plenty of time to find a replacement locally. Don't cancel last minute - take responsibility for your own situation so it doesn't affect others negatively.
- Research the country's COVID-19 advice website and what the recommendations are in the event of getting this virus. It isn't the same in every country.
- Insist on an emergency contact for all sits in case of delays or sickness, resulting from you or the home-owners. Keep a notification of who you are house sitting for, and the pets involved in your wallet or handbag, together with the emergency contact, just in case you are taken sick
- Put in place a backup plan with the home owners to cover any delays, illness or quarantines.
- On arrival, wipe down with bacterial wipes, light switches, handles, and other frequent points of contact - I've done this all through the normal flu season in the UK just to avoid getting sick with colds or viral infections.
- As a matter of precaution, avoid lengthy hand-backs with home owners returning from high-risk areas, if it concerns you.
Staying healthy in a flu season
As full-time travelers we are always on top of keeping ourselves as healthy as possible. We keep exercised (long walks and cycling), and we eat as healthily as possible.
For now we've simply upped our intake of Vitamin C and Zinc, and, because of lack of sun at moment in UK, we've added Vitamin D3 and K2 - all good for helping maintain healthy immune systems. For the past 5 years we've had fresh ginger in our tea every morning. We eat a Keto influenced diet, high in fats and very low in sugars, again all good for keeping immune systems working as they should.
In the event that we get ill, our plan is to stay home, get lots of sleep, stay hydrated, remove dairy from our diet as it is mucous forming, take paracetamol for fever, and inhale eucalyptus to help clear bronchial tubes. Obviously we are hoping we will be in the category of the 80% who get only mild symptoms. But again, it doesn’t hurt to have a few items in the medical box to be able to self medicate, as we would with normal flu, if we are affected.
We are extremely fortunate not to have any underlying medical issues. But for some this isn't the case. It is reported, as with all seasonal flu, that you are more at risk if you have cardiovascular disease or diabetes. If I were in this bracket, I would be talking to my doctor to see what I could do to minimize risk and to make sure I have as many months of medications as necessary to cover my time away from home.
Educate yourself, make your own decisions
Don't abdicate responsibility to others. None of what we think should influence what you do - please be sure to carry out your own research and due diligence. We are all different, our tolerance to risk varies and what's acceptable for one person (taking into account any underlying health issues), will be different for another.
Age, gender, family, health care and insurance options will all come into play when making decisions. But common sense should prevail throughout - and that's another often seen trait of house sitters.
Reacting to information in an extreme fashion doesn't help anyone, whereas good planning and preparation is just good common sense, action in motion that will make you more prepared, and less likely to be drawn to react through panic.
Hysteria, getting angry and over-reacting all add to stress, and stress depletes our immune systems. We think it's better to just stay as healthy as possible, assess all risks and go about our lives making informed decisions where ever possible.
Think this is all crap? Well here's our new acronym for what we think is important - Communication, Resilience, Adaptability and Preparedness!
Remember, being prepared is just good common sense. Expressing some caution shouldn't be seen as a bad thing, and good communication about the topic isn't a sign of weakness. Instead, it will help you and the home owners get through this period of potential disruption without adding further last minute upheaval.
Further reading on official websites:
We will shortly be adding additional information to help with queries relating to medical insurance to cover your travels.
So what do you think? Are you making preparations or have your plans already been affected? Or is this all just over-hyped hysteria? Do you feel your government is keeping you well informed? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.
A full time international house sitter and co-publisher of House Sitting Magazine, Vanessa has been travelling the world continuously since 2013 with her partner Ian Usher. Working remotely, looking after other peoples properties and pets, they've sold their homes and most of their possessions. Instead they prefer the freedom to explore the world slowly, living as locals for extended periods in different countries, while enjoying "between sit" travel adventures in their semi-retirement.
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Last updated on March 11th, 2020