Fixing safe bubbles is harder than it seems

As travel stirs across countries around the globe, the UN must be the guarantor of sane new Covid-19 travel protocols.

AS THE COVID clouds teasingly pass and suddenly gather again, states and national governments are considering how best to restart services without uncorking more zoonotic misery from Pandora's box. This leaves airlines grinding their teeth as funds dry up and leaves a huge question mark for travellers, many trying to reconnect with parents, children, ailing relatives, and of course, work.

The fundamental issue is how to open travel corridors that are deemed safe.

Whether it's a bold play like a sanitised New Zealand-Australia corridor, or limited routes like say Beijing-Shanghai, Singapore-Bali, Bangkok-Phuket, or Delhi-Mumbai, there is an elephant in the room that needs to be addressed.

Bipartisan deals and agreements are based on the assumption of common criteria, standards and protocols. I trust you, you trust me, okay, enter my house. Travel from the UK to the US would be predicated on this as would travel intra-Europe and in much of the world. Yet as a few big birds take to the skies these protocols are now in tatters, or hopelessly asymmetric, to phrase it politely. So who calls the shots?

With the relentless barrage of innuendo fired at the WHO by Donald Trump and friends (the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention largely sidelined) and the disinvestment of an august apex body that has steered the world through numerous pandemics and regional outbreaks with heart, finesse, and the occasional misstep, the world has lost its liturgical harmony. We are no longer singing from the same sheet. This discordance has huge consequences for airlines, hotels and travellers.

Whose protocol to follow?

Crises need leaders who lead from the top, leaders who have trust, a track record, moral integrity, or all of the above. The world today has none and Covid-19's mysterious mutations and aggressive leaps have hastened the unpacking of the global world order into feuding and jostling breakaways, all with their own protocols for tackling this infernal new plague.

Now as airlines attempt to re-stitch key travel routes across the globe and oxygenate once-busy corridors, the question asked is: "Whose protocol do you follow?" For a traveller this may mean a 14-day quarantine in India for example, followed by a 14-day quarantine back in Hong Kong. In Thailand you might need a whopping US$100,000 medical insurance and a Covid-free certificate.

Being quarantined at Delhi's Aerocity hotel complex (at the mid-range RedFox, IBIS or Lemon Tree) next to Terminal 3 is at the traveller's own cost, albeit at lower rates (3,100 rupees or S$58 per day). Still, you take a hotel room and multiply it by 14 days (or seven days plus a seven-day home incarceration) and add this to an expensive airfare. Then look forward to more of the same for the return journey. It does not make for happy campers.

In a fortnight this would add up to the cost of one luxury hotel for a couple of nights, which may appear trifling for business travellers, but you will have also racked up 14 days of waiting (talking on the phone, which you were already doing from Hong Kong, Dubai, Shanghai, London, or Singapore), and a fortnight of food, drink, and laundry. It all adds up. At the end of this, your clients or relatives may themselves have ended up in quarantine while you await the endless journey back. These are steamship speeds in a world where aircraft fly over 600mph and commerce is executed in nanoseconds.

The challenge for governments attempting to set up city pairs and bubble corridors is the uncertainty of Covid presentation with a great many asymptomatic carriers. This will not be resolved until testing reaches mass proportions. There are fake positives, false negatives, and a Covid-free certificate given today will be irrelevant tomorrow as each person goes through random daily encounters. Vaccines could clear this speedily but they are still some time away and by no means a guarantee.

China uses Tencent-sponsored QR scanning codes to log everyone's details and health (red, green, yellow status indicators - visible to vendors from grocery stores to airports and hotels) but some states have their own QR codes resulting in data conflicts. QR codes are stock in trade with popular social apps like WeChat and the AliPay wallet, opening up access to geo-location information and more. Where applicable, international passengers require Covid-free test results (within 72 hours of travel from designated providers). What happens on the return and who is to dispense these tests? That's China, where the state has the ability to take sweeping decisions and society is accepting of QR code ingress.

The European Union has set up common protocols for its member states including "voluntary" contact tracing apps that are valid cross-border, and a raft of other items including easier refund of cancelled tickets through cash refunds or vouchers.

India's seemingly well intentioned but highly intrusive contact tracing tool "Aarogya Setu" invites imprisonment and fines in some cases if not downloaded on a smartphone. But how many Indians have expensive smartphones? Riven with cryptic backdoors and vague non-explanations about who has access to this data, the app has all the makings of a mass Big Brother state surveillance tool that will be a huge deterrent to travel to or within India.

For domestic travellers, downloading the Aarogya Setu app is a must. But what happens with international travellers when flights resume by August? The government says it will make a request. Will it enforce this? Multinational companies do not permit the download of unknown snooping technology on corporate phones. It will be anathema too for individuals unused to the WeChat QR code ethos. And if not everyone is using the app it will simply undercut its merits for domestic travel as well. Clearly, much needs to be thought out.

Masks, hand washing, Covid-free certificates, medical insurance levels, prior quarantine and travel history, underlying conditions, age, and so on need to conform to a basic script, a universal Ten Commandments. The World Health Organization has been rudely defenestrated, so who is to sit atop Mount Sinai pronouncing socio-medical formulae that can apply to universal travel? This is the crux of the matter.

As India commenced domestic flights on May 25, it immediately ran into heavy weather with several states saying an emphatic "No". They would like quarantine periods (for interstate domestic travel). Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and his stalwart Health Minister KK Shailaja, who have won international plaudits for their handling of Covid cases in this South Indian state, are belittled and pooh-poohed for being CPI-M communists. This is the sort of unscientific and hysterical political point-scoring response that trips progress and can cost lives.

It is the same problem faced by a blustery US (where several states simply do not believe in masks and tout a Covid "conspiracy"), and fragmented Europe. America has a welter of state-level protocols drawn from or driven by gubernatorial diktat, CDC guidelines, red-blue politics, local state health body notices and zigzagging public sentiment. Many states favour quarantines for domestic travellers but some are making an exception for business travellers, seeing this category as a key to restarting the economy. Again, much needs to be addressed.

Plucky corporate travellers heading off on this new crusade may well be the pathfinders of future travel markers yet they have the most to lose from quarantine speed-breakers and other impediments.

Way forward

One way forward is for the United Nations to empanel a widely representative international committee tasked with establishing universal travel protocols.

The UN is in the best position to offer a sane global overview, preferably sans politics, and the WHO will need to play a big part in advising any such panel drawing upon the reams of data that flows into its system daily from all over the world. Taiwan, as an early frontline Covid region, must be part of this information mix too for the science to work. Other organisations like UNWTO, UNCTAD and IATA could be co-opted to broaden the view and examine implications.

The CDC could play a renewed and vigorous role on such a committee, as could Asian and African apex health bodies. With a solid UN-sponsored global travel protocol in place - identifying must-have items and adaptable items - countries can then proceed to talk a common language. Without a well signposted road and a global buy-in, travel is going to hit some serious potholes and break an axle before even getting started.

  • Vijay Verghese is a Hongkong-based journalist, columnist and the editor of and


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