I was seated on a bus next to a Singaporean journalist and, making conversation, asked her about a few often-mocked restrictions that her government imposes on its citizens. For instance, the sale of chewing gum is banned. And leaving a public toilet unflushed can result in a $150 fine.
Did she feel these impingements on her personal behavior, while trivial in the grand scheme of things, were in some way reflective of government overreach? Were there other areas where she may have felt the government set unreasonable limits on her personal freedom?
She rolled her eyes. "You know what freedom is to me? I can walk anywhere in my city at 3 in the morning without the least concern for my safety. That, too, is the result of government policies. If the trade-off is that I can't chew gum and must flush the toilet after I use it, I'm not overly concerned about restrictions on my freedom."
Of course, there's no direct correlation between lower crime rates and the absence of chewing gum on the sidewalks in Singapore, but there's a link: Its citizens accept that, sometimes, one has to modify one's behavior and desires for the greater good.
I recalled the conversation recently when thinking about how we as a country, travel as an industry and individual travelers are handling the Covid-19 crisis.
As a country, we've been hobbled by binary viewpoints: Wearing a mask has been positioned as freedom versus tyranny; opening businesses and schools has been reduced to health versus economy; the formulation of a national policy on mask-wearing and prohibiting large gatherings has been characterized as an assault on states' rights and religious freedom.
These perspectives get in the way of adopting measures that could shorten the pandemic's impact. The intense focus on individual rights that has fueled American growth over the centuries can, if uncoupled from civic obligation, flip from a strength to a weakness. Our history is filled with instances when personal behaviors have been curbed during times of crisis; as the Supreme Court has pointed out, the Constitution is not a suicide pact.
Messaging from the industry has been somewhat mixed. Professional associations have drawn up guidelines for their members that incorporate the fundamentals needed to contain the virus: masks, social distancing, hand-washing. Individual companies have gone to considerable lengths to figure out how to open and operate safely, but they often find themselves constrained by regulatory or financial hurdles.
The need for some businesses to open is, in many cases, existential, and impatience sometimes is clouding reason. When Europe announced it was closed to the U.S. a few weeks ago, some of those same associations reacted with harsh criticism.
The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) recently issued a more nuanced call for corridors to open between certain cities and regions where infection rates are low. Underpinning the success of safe travel corridors or bubbles is an assumption that travelers will behave responsibly. It sounds reasonable that flights between low-infection cities such as New York, Frankfurt and London could, as WTTC suggests, be opened. That is, until you remember that there's nothing to stop someone from Phoenix, a hot spot, from flying to New York and then connecting on to London.
Which brings us to the final piece of the puzzle: the traveler. So many of the proposals I've seen for reopening countries and companies depend on travelers behaving responsibly. What we've seen so far is not particularly encouraging. Depending upon the source, it's estimated that 40% to 60% of Americans are still not even wearing masks.
And we already know that travelers are not necessarily following a host country's local rules. Ireland, for instance, allows visitors from the U.S. to enter as long as they commit to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival. But newspapers there have cited tour operators reporting that Americans are showing up for group tours despite having just been in the country for a few days; an infectious disease specialist there has suggested offenders be jailed, to send a stronger message.
Similarly, as was reported in Travel Weekly, New Mexico is actively discouraging out-of-staters from visiting, and residents there are wary of anyone getting out of a car with Arizona or Texas license plates. It seems likely that anyone who is not directly benefiting financially from receiving travelers won't be keen to welcome them. And it'll be hard to convince them otherwise simply by talking about the knock-on economic benefits of the travel industry.
Underlying all these issues is the real binary split that has me concerned: short-term self-interest versus long-term self-interest. Is it even possible for the country, the industry and individuals to examine their positions through the lens of long-term interest?
The only way out is through. And by looking at countries that have succeeded in bringing the virus under even temporary control, the shortest way through appears to be by listening to experts and following the evidence.