Ah, to be able to hurl snowballs at somebody

Dr. Paul Tambyah, also the president-elect of the U.S.-based Society of Infectious Diseases, the first Singaporean to hold that position.
Dr. Paul Tambyah, also the president-elect of the U.S.-based Society of Infectious Diseases, the first Singaporean to hold that position.
Yeoh Siew Hoon
Yeoh Siew Hoon

As you may know, we don't have seasons here in the tropics. Here, it's either wet or dry, less humid or more humid, but always hot. I am, however, after 395 days of no travel, missing the seasonality of life.

It's one of the reasons why we travel, I guess: To escape the sameness of everyday life, the sameness of climate. We yearn for what we don't have. When that freedom is taken away, we yearn for it even more.

It is ironic that in East Asia, where most countries have controlled Covid-19, we still have not been able to fly to each other's countries.

We can't fly or drive or sail across borders, but in Singapore, things are easing up locally. At the Singapore Tourism Board industry conference earlier this month, we learned that Singapore accounts for one-third of the current global cruise market -- more than 120,000 people have taken the cruises-to-nowhere. 

"To nowhere." It really shows the pent-up demand for people to travel.

I confess I've been quite obsessed lately with the whole issue of travel passes because unlike the U.S. or China, which have huge domestic markets and can live with or without them, these passes are critical to the opening of borders in Asia. Prior to Covid, intra-regional travel easily accounted for between 70% to 80% of total travel.

I recently decided to interview a leading mind in infectious disease in Singapore, Dr. Paul Tambyah, also the president-elect of the U.S.-based Society of Infectious Diseases, the first Singaporean to hold that position. Think of him as Singapore's Dr. Fauci.

Our 45-minute podcast covered a lot of ground, but the most significant message was that the travel industry must take a more proactive approach to manage future pandemics, because even if the World Health Organization declares an end to this pandemic by the end of the third quarter, the next one is just around the corner, and the industry cannot afford for the default response from governments to be "let's shut down borders."

Unless the industry works with the medical fraternity to come up with a scientific, calibrated approach to give confidence to governments, he said, shutdowns will become the default mode, given the success seen in countries like New Zealand and Australia that implemented sharp lockdowns over isolated cases.

"The travel industry has been relatively passive. They're just taking what comes from the scientists, from the WHO, from the CDC and various other agencies. But the travel industry has been hit so bad by this.

"The WHO, to this day, on its website, says: We do not recommend any travel restrictions. And nobody believes that."

Dr. Tambyah said international agencies need to communicate with each other and suggested that IATA gets together with the WHO, which controls the yellow fever vaccination certificate, and work out a safe, digital version of the yellow book which has been around a long time and has been proven to work. 

In March, he and several colleagues published an article in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases urging for the use of the WHO International Certificate of Vaccination.

"Vaccination requirements have been in place for a long time in many countries and regions, and the most notable of those is the yellow fever vaccination requirement. It's mandatory under the International Health Regulations for travel from parts of Africa and Latin America."

He said IATA and WHO could agree to look at the different apps out there and say, "let's have an internationally recognized app, and let's get it monitored in Beijing and in Washington or Seattle, or wherever it is, then it's something that the whole world can trust, because people who don't trust China will trust the U.S., and people who don't trust the U.S. will trust China.

"It's something that you have to have international agencies get together on. The trouble is that now everybody goes private, and private is just a bit of a cowboy world."

He also said it was time for the travel industry to step up and fund research. "The industry has to come up with its own set of questions that they need answered by the scientific community. [They should] fund targeted research, and provide good solid data, to allow governments to make decisions with confidence.

"The industry depends on people moving from place A to place B," he continued, "and if this cannot be done safely, and if the knee jerk response of governments and international agencies is just to shut the borders, then then you're going to be held hostage."

I hope his message is heeded. Imagine if, after we finally get the freedom to travel again, we have to be shut down again. It's too awful to contemplate. 

For now, I will have to contemplate the changing of the seasons in my imagination. I hope that by December though, I will be able to hurl some real snowballs at somebody.  


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