Lessons unlearned, world caught off-guard by Covid-19

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Airline passengers wearing medical masks at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in early February.
Airline passengers wearing medical masks at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in early February. Photo Credit: Naufal Zaquan/Shutterstock

The global panic about traveling in the age of the Covid-19 coronavirus will likely subside once health experts figure out whether it can indeed be contained or will become another seasonal issue that, like the flu, will crop up from time to time, said Summer Johnson McGee, a public health expert.

In the meantime, the governments of the U.S. and most other countries have demonstrated in the past few weeks that, try as they might, they are clearly ill-prepared to deal with an aggressive viral outbreak.

McGee, who is the dean of the University of New Haven’s school of health sciences, said that because health officials are unsure exactly how Covid-19 is spread and whether it can be eliminated, countries are likely to continue implementing extreme measures such as quarantines and travel bans.

“I think right now we are seeing governments and other organizations really responding aggressively to try to control the spread,” McGee said. “I don’t think six months from now we are going to see [this same type of response].”

If the virus does continue to spread around the globe, she said, it won’t stop travel in the long term, but rather it will change how we travel.

“Kind of like airplane travel changed after 9/11,” McGee said, alluding to the sweeping changes to security following the attacks. “Maybe this will change our standards around hygiene when we travel and how we travel if this becomes more of a permanent-type virus.

“Hand washing, masks, hand sanitizers -- we may see that becoming more prevalent in public places,” McGee said.

The aggressive global reaction by governments, she said, underscores the vulnerabilities in our global health infrastructure.

Nearly 20 years ago, the SARS outbreak also highlighted the lack of adequate response plans within the travel industry.

Late last year, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) issued a report highlighting the need for the travel sector to assess and create partnerships for responding to global crises such as terrorist attacks, natural disasters and pandemics.

The report, prepared for the WTTC by Boston-based Global Rescue, advised, “Often, the biggest risk is not the crisis itself, but rather the preparation, management and response. In this context, it is essential for the public and private sectors to come together to ensure that smart policies and effective communication are in place to enable a more resilient travel and tourism sector.”

Yet, like much of the world, the travel industry seemed to be caught off-guard by the Covid-19 virus, with most groups and companies last week declining to comment on immediate and expected impacts or what they were doing in response to the outbreak, beyond what they said in recent earnings calls.

After the outbreak spread within Europe last week, WTTC CEO Gloria Guevara issued a statement urging governments against taking drastic actions such as closing borders and enacting travel bans.

“Past experience shows that taking such extreme action has been ineffective at best,” Guevara said. “We urge governments to explore fact-based measures that don’t affect the vast majority of people and businesses for whom travel is essential.”

Dr. William Spangler, global medical director with AIG Travel, called the quarantine and containment measures “noble, if you will, but I think we are starting to see that these are not particularly effective.”

He suggested that answers about whether or how the virus can be contained might come from Singapore and Japan, “which are somewhat isolated countries with excellent healthcare systems” that have also had very few deaths.

In Europe, Eduardo Santander, executive director of the European Travel Commission (ETC), said his group was meeting regularly with EU officials and industry stakeholders.

“We are doing that in a very transparent, coordinated way with [the U.N. World Tourism Organization] and WTTC and with the EU commission,” he said. “I am going to be very clear: We are not coming to solutions; we are trying to mitigate the impact with coordinated actions. Now our line of coordination is [focused on] how are we going to be able to recover, because the damage is done.”

To help minimize the damage, Santander said, the ETC was also advising its members to offer flexible policies that would encourage travelers who are anxious about the virus to rebook rather than cancel.

And while he said he believed the European action has been quick and coordinated, he added, “We have to think in the future about how to react.”

Brett Tollman, CEO of the Travel Corp. and a member of the WTTC’s executive committee, agreed, noting that his company began seeing a noticeable slowdown in bookings across the board even before the news of the outbreaks in Europe last week.

“The more this goes on, if this does keep getting worse, then I think we’re all in for a very long and painful year.”

Tollman added, “Hopefully this will send a powerful message to our governments to better prepare for a pandemic.”
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Correction: The European Travel Commission coordinated with the U.N. World Tourism Organization, not the World Health Organization.

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