When will international travel normalise, if at all?

Sanjay Mehta | Updated on April 15, 2020 Published on April 15, 2020

File Photo   -  Reuters

In the residential complex where I live, the gates are closed at all times. With the exception of very specific outsiders, no one else is allowed to come into the complex. Not even guests of residents, not even domestic help or drivers.

The theory simply is that we as a residential complex, under these lockdown conditions, have managed to keep Covid-19 out so far, and we would not like to take the risk of an outsider coming in and infecting even one person with the virus, further resulting in a wider spread of the outbreak in our complex.

So fundamentally, we are talking of borders that remain closed!

While at some point in time, these restrictions in our complex will relax, perhaps when the government feels that nearly everyone in the region has taken adequate precautions and not allowed themselves to be infected with the virus, and hence there could be some amount of intermingling of people across different complexes, in the region.

Since the overall management of social distancing, lockdown, contact tracing and other measures related to flattening the virus curve, are in the hands of the same establishment, they have reason to feel confident about the measures, at some stage, and allow this kind of people passage.

However, when it comes to people across the country’s borders, such confidence would not be there!

Challenges posed by international travel

And which is where the challenge of international travel comes in! And which leads to the question that I ask, “when will international travel normalise?”

I am afraid that my prognosis on this is that international travel will NOT normalise for a long time. Forget normalising, I am not even sure when it will RESUME!!

And the reasons for this conjecture are very clear.

Let’s think about India. We have taken stringent lockdown measures over several weeks, and so far, have been reasonably successful in curbing the spread of infected persons. We have sacrificed a lot to achieve this state, with a lot of suffering for daily wage earners, with a lot of hardship for businesses.

If after doing this, even as we reach a seemingly acceptable situation on Covid-19 patients, we go ahead and open our borders, who is to say how many Covid-19 infected patients or virus carriers, walk in through that border? They could be asymptomatic, so it would not be easy to detect if they are carriers, or not.

One cannot risk losing all the hard work of flattening the curve, by simply getting few international virus carriers come in, and mess up the situation all over again!

And such is the reality not only for India, but across the world.

The fundamental reality is that not all countries are approaching the problem with an equal sense of urgency. There are many countries, even today, where there is no lockdown, a large number of people are out in the streets, in malls, in offices, going on their domestic flights, risking a sudden large outbreak of Covid-19 in these countries.

And even if countries are equally diligent in their processes to curb the spread, can one country trust a traveller from another country to NOT be a carrier of the virus, just on the basis of where he/ she is travelling from? In the early days of travel curbs, there was differential treatment of passengers coming in from different countries, basis where the virus had already spread. But today, recognising the impact of the virus, recognising that it could have spread everywhere, how could one country be sure that an incoming traveller will not mess up the hard-achieved status of curbing the spread in your country?

Due to these reasons, I believe that it will be a long time before countries open up their borders again, and allow resumption of travel as usual.

So, does that mean that people are stuck in the country that they are in, at this time? What about people who want to return home from their jobs, or where they are students at this time? What about emergency travel? Will that even be possible? And if so, how can that be managed?

What is the way out?

Until the time that vaccines or other treatments are found, the only way that travel may get enabled is to either test every incoming traveller for Covid-19, or to quarantine the incoming traveller for 14 days, after landing!

Neither of these are good solutions, but is there a choice at all?

Think about the first option, viz. testing every incoming traveller. Undoubtedly at this time, there is a shortage of tests in most countries, and these are being prioritised for patients with some symptoms. So, can there be a situation where all incoming travellers get tested?

I believe this will happen: a) beyond the current heightened state of exposure, and when things normalise inside the country, to an extent, and the requirement of testing goes down, b) while a the vaccine and treatment for Covid-19 may be far away, I am hoping to see speedier and cheaper methods of testing emerge in the near future, and c) note that this will be applicable not at a time when flights resume as they used to be in pre-Covid times; rather, these are for special flights run periodically, to bring in specific emergency cases. So, the volume requirement of such testing will not be enormous.

There will be costs attached to such inbound testing. Also, such special flights for emergency cases will be expensive. So only those who really have to travel, will travel, and this will not be the regular flow of travel, as we used to see earlier. The traveller who must travel in such conditions will have to be prepared to pay a little extra, and also be prepared to either be tested on arrival or be quarantined for some days.

Finally, it may be appreciated that the risk associated with travel is not just about the passengers. There is the crew on an aircraft. Plus, there are cleaners and baggage handlers at both ends, all of whom would have touched many portions of the aircraft, or your bags, and could be transmitting the virus, through any of such connects.

Hence administering flights, even these special ones, will require a very detailed process of cleaning, every nook and corner inside the aircraft, perhaps getting sealing done for all check-in bags, and the seals being opened with gloved and secure hands at the arrival point, before being handed over to the passengers.

Also, right through the airport ecosystem, through the various duty-free stores, and the cafes, lounges and the toilets, there needs to be extreme care to ensure against the spread of the virus.

It is clear from these details that resumption of international travel will be hugely challenging, which is also the reason why I don’t see it happening anytime soon. While there will have to be some provisions created for urgent travel, it will also come at a high cost and effort, accompanied by special measures for testing or quarantine.

Yes, the travel industry will unfortunately, remain is deep trouble. And we need to learn managing work remotely, and taking domestic holidays for the near future!

(Sanjay Mehta is joint CEO, Mirum India, a global digital agency, and a frequent traveller. He is on Twitter @sm63)

Published on April 15, 2020

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