COVID-19 and travel

Thursday, 8 April 2021 00:44 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

As vaccine rollout increases, Governments, both in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, are focusing on how travel can be increased and incentivised in different parts of the world. Numerous countries, including New Zealand, Israel and Seychelles are looking at creating travel bubbles or even just encouraging their citizens to move about. But could this be premature and what are the potential pitfalls?

The World Health Organization (WHO) this week called on countries to go slow on issuing vaccine passports, contending that they may not be an effective strategy, since research has shown inoculated people can still be virus carriers. With the ever-present worry over new strains and virus variants, travel could trigger fresh infections in locales that are not prepared for them. Moreover, fresh breakouts in places like India and Brazil has shown that the pandemic battle is far from over.

Vaccine passports also run the danger of being inherently discriminatory. Many have proposed that Governments not issue new documents but rather introduce a stamp of some kind for existing passports to make it more equitable, much like how travellers needed to prove they had shots before the pandemic.

But others argue that such measures would not be far reaching enough as COVID-19 has really exposed the stark inequities in access to and coverage of health services. The WHO has pointed out that groups who already faced discrimination, poverty, social exclusion, difficult living and working conditions were the hardest hit by the pandemic and they are also the most likely to not have access to vaccine passports but struggle the hardest if a new wave reaches them.

For this year’s World Health Day, the UN agency has urged countries to build a fairer, healthier world post-COVID-19. Governments need to take action to put in place policies and allocate resources so the most vulnerable groups can see their condition improve faster. This means improving living conditions for all, tackling poverty and health inequities, building sustainable societies and strong economies.

Such a step will also include promoting a more equitable sharing of resources, ensuring food security and nutrition and turning the tide on climate change. Unfortunately for countries like Sri Lanka that depend on tourism foreign exchange, bridging these gaps will become harder unless travel returns, at least in part. So, it is essential that policy makers look at wider policy reforms to foster growth rather than piecemeal solutions.

Sri Lanka is even more dependent on tourism dollars because of its low reserve position and high debt. It has limited options as scaling up exports and investment is a long-term effort and the Government needs to repay its debt now. So, balancing these competing interests will become more and more challenging unless long-term solutions are focused on as well.

Thousands of tourists have already visited Sri Lanka and left with relative safety. This is also an opportunity for policy makers to focus on how the industry as a whole can be positioned and placed on a more sustainable footing. Improving services and its links to external aspects such as environmental concerns could revamp tourism to become an industry that puts sustainability at its core. As the world appears to turn the corner on the pandemic, it is time for new thinking for old problems.