In a year that’s seen most people unable to travel for leisure, the question on many people’s minds, including those whose livelihoods depend on the travel industry is: ‘When can we travel again?’ Will the vaccine determine that? And do we have the ‘right’ to travel during a global pandemic?
I may not have traveled much in the past year, but I’ve talked about it a lot. And it was during a panel discussion about the future of travel that I was struck by two comments from my fellow panelists.
One was that vaccines should not be mandatory for air travel because it would privilege the vaccinated. The other was that British travelers want to visit countries like New Zealand, because they are seen as safe.
Both remarks struck me as misunderstanding the situation: what we want is irrelevant; what we need is responsibility.
Don’t get me wrong, I can’t wait to travel again—my income depends on it. I also have close family in Holland, Australia and India who I want to see. But I believe it unlikely that other nations will prioritize my wanderlust over their own health and economies and believe that if we want a full return to international travel, I expect COVID-19 vaccinations to become effectively mandatory.
Last year, as the pandemic took hold, countries like New Zealand and Australia followed a “Zero-COVID-19 policy.” They locked down before community transmission was widespread, and kept the lockdown in place for a long time. The result, right now, for the most part, has been open offices, full sports stadiums, and live music in bars.
But this social and economic recovery depends on containing the virus, through institutional quarantine for visitors, and circuit-breaker lockdowns upon outbreaks. The tiny number of arrivals from overseas have been the main source of new outbreaks. As a result, I can’t see these countries opening up at all until their populations are vaccinated.
Some countries, such as Britain, the USA and Brazil, resigned themselves to endemic, circulating COVID-19—at the cost of months of devastating lockdowns, rising social inequality, and millions of deaths.
Then you have countries like Iceland, who seem to be on top of community transmission and, understandably, do not want arrivals from overseas to push them back into lockdown. As a result, Iceland has made certification of vaccination or previous-infection-and-
Put bluntly, I feel we can’t trust people or the infrastructure around testing. Which means the only way to contain the spread is to ban travel, or reduce transmission of the virus…
Of course, vaccines don’t stop you contracting a virus, but they do give your body the antibodies to fight it. That makes you less sick—which also makes you less likely to pass the virus on. Vaccination certificates as a concept are hardly unusual—over 100 countries still require them for yellow fever, polio and cholera for some countries of origin.
But the debate over vaccines and other aspects of the pandemic have highlighted many aspects of human nature. And not all of it good. Tests before flying are helpful, but currently, they are not robust. Even worse, some travelers ignore guidelines and refuse to self-isolate if they develop symptoms. They will crack on regardless, blithely putting others at risk.
We’ve all heard stories during the course of the last year, that go against our ethics. In my case, I know of someone who flew back to the UK after testing positive for COVID-19—because they did not want to self-isolate or undergo treatment abroad. While I empathize with their fears of being hospitalised away home, I also feel it was disgustingly reckless and put everyone else on the plane, and therefore those passengers’ wider contacts, at risk.
Put bluntly, I feel we can’t trust people or the infrastructure around testing. Which means the only way to contain the spread is to ban travel, or reduce transmission of the virus—which is why many countries insist, or will insist, on vaccinations for visitors.
Of course, each person and nation faces their own particular dilemma. Australia and New Zealand are willing to sacrifice international tourism in the short-term—which amounts to 1 to 2 per cent of their GDP—in order to protect their public health and domestic economy. But for countries like Nepal, where international tourism accounts for up to 9 per cent of GDP, the decision is much harder.
For example, hikers could easily carry the virus to the Annapurna Trail, where locals have limited access to healthcare. On the other hand, those families depend entirely on the income from seasonal tourism—there is no state support when income from travelers dries up. The risk of poverty and economic collapse is as real as the risk of COVID-19, so a government may deem it worthwhile to open up without making vaccination mandatory.
Of course, tourists should not abuse such opportunities, if they appear. Early results indicate that vaccination significantly reduces transmission, so the only moral way to travel would be after vaccination, whatever the requirements of the destination country. True morality would be equal vaccine access for all, which is why the World Health Organization’s COVAX international vaccine distribution programme is so important as it aims to ensure 2 billion doses can be fairly distributed by the end of 2021. As they say, “Nobody wins the race until everyone wins”.
At present, vaccine privilege is evident. In countries like the UK, vaccination of the population is well underway. By the end of July 2021, every British adult will have been offered their first dose of the vaccine, according to projections. This also means that, in this interim period, there will be some people who can travel to countries that mandate vaccination, and some people who cannot. There will be travel ‘inequality’, yes.
To those who complain that this privileges the vaccinated, hasn’t travel always required privilege? Many people cannot afford to holiday overseas, and the vast majority of the world’s population never even leave their home district.
A far bigger problem is vaccine hesitancy: People choosing to not have the vaccine because of misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories.
Others claim that a vaccine certificate limits their right to travel. But while you might have a right to leave your own country, you don’t have the right to go anywhere. A British passport, for example, already gets you into 185 countries without a formal visa application. But a Nepalese passport can access just 38 countries in the same way. The vaccine rules will only limit where you can travel to, and even that, temporarily. They don’t limit your right to travel.
Of course, nothing is black and white. There is, for example, a small number of people who are medically unable to receive the vaccine. In those cases, I propose their situations are dealt with individually, and given a waiver. Their travel safety depends on the rest of us being vaccinated, and that is a responsible solution.
A far bigger problem is vaccine hesitancy: People choosing to not have the vaccine because of misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories. If people choose to refuse a vaccine, of course that is their right to do so. But they will have to give up some privileges, such as unmitigated international travel.
The market might resolve this problem. Some providers, like hotels or cruise ships, might make vaccine certificates a condition of service. And insurance might become prohibitively expensive for businesses and travelers who don’t reduce the risk themselves.
For those who love to travel, or who have family and friends overseas, the next few months will be frustrating, as these complications are worked through. It seems inevitable that, for a while at least, some of us will be unable to visit the places that we want to.
But it’s worth remembering what’s at stake here: The health of millions of people, and the economic recovery of entire nations. All we are losing is the temporary privilege of frictionless travel abroad.