The COVID travel challenge | Daily News

The COVID travel challenge

Vaccination is going on apace in many countries including Sri Lanka. Some countries such as Israel have already vaccinated a considerable percentage of the population and seen a decline in COVID case numbers and hospitalizations. This is a welcome development which means that we might see the end of COVID in a few years if the entire world gets access to the plethora of vaccines already available on the market and those under development.

However, we cannot expect to get back to our normal lives anytime soon – it will take at least until 2025 before we return to normality per se. Until then, we will have to live a “New Normal” life, with attendant chores such as handwashing, wearing masks and social distancing.

One of the biggest adverse effects of the Coronavirus pandemic is that we have not been able to travel anywhere internationally and in most cases, even domestically due to lockdowns, border closures and other restrictions on movement. This is understandable, because travel is the number one mode of transmission for any virus. Thanks to international travel, diseases can spread fast. Someone infected with a virus in New York can spread it to another person living in Singapore in less than 24 hours, all due to international travel.

But what is equally true is that we yearn to travel and discover new places. Travel is what makes us human. It is in fact how mankind has spread to all four corners of the world. Sooner or later, in spite of the pandemic, we will want to travel near and far. But the question is, how do we do this safely and how do we ensure that others are not infected in the process.

This is where negative test and vaccination certificates come in. Many countries including Sri Lanka already demand negative PCR test results before visitors are admitted. Many who have been to various African countries do remember the Yellow Card vaccination certificate that proves that one has been vaccinated against Yellow Fever and several other tropical diseases. One still cannot enter certain African countries without producing one of these cards.

But in this digital word, paper certificates are passé. Besides, paper certificates can easily be forged. Europol recently revealed that a forgery ring in France had been selling negative test results to passengers at Charles de Gaulle Airport and fraudsters had also been apprehended in the UK for selling forged results.

The solution, most experts say, lies in virtual certificates or smartphone applications that can prove you had a negative test result and/or the Coronavirus jab. Several organizations are working on this and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) says it expects its digital smartphone Covid Travel Pass will be ready “within weeks”.

The pass is an app that verifies a passenger has had the Covid-19 tests or vaccines required to enter a country. It also verifies they were administered by an approved authority. The industry body sees the pass as essential for reopening air travel, as many countries still have strict restrictions or quarantines in place.

The key issue is one of confidence. Passengers need to be confident that the testing or vaccine they have taken is accurate and will allow them to enter the country concerned. Governments too need to have the confidence that the tests and vaccines that the passengers claim to have are accurate and meet their entry conditions. IATA says the Travel Pass is designed in a “modular” way, so that it can work with other digital solutions that are being trialled around the world. It will be available on iOS and Android platforms, and is expected to be free to passengers.

Singapore Airlines was the first airline to start trials of the travel pass in December. Etihad, Emirates, Qatar Airways and Air New Zealand are among the other airlines currently conducting trials and IATA says it is discussing the pass with airlines throughout the Asia Pacific region. It could go ‘live’ as soon as next month.

The airline industry is pinning hopes on vaccination certificates and quarantine-free travel as Covid has been a total disaster, with demand for travel plummeting nearly 70 percent in 2020 compared to 2019. But even the Travel Pass scheme comes with its own privacy and ethical concerns.

Some travellers may not like to have their travel, vaccination and test details stored in the “cloud” so to speak where it could be open to hacking or leakage. Moreover, if all airlines insist on testing and vaccination prior to travel, it will affect millions in countries that are yet to vaccinate their citizens. In fact, more than 130 countries have not even started vaccination campaigns as developed countries have ordered or hoarded at least a billion more vaccines than they really need.

Also, family travel could be affected as children are not offered the vaccinations yet in any country. There is no easy solution to the “travel during the pandemic” conundrum, but the sooner the vaccines are distributed equally around the world, the better it will be for the travel and tourism industry.