After a year of Covid-19, are border closures really the best policy?


We all want to put the year 2020 behind us. The loss of more than 1.7 million people worldwide to Covid-19 is a deeply felt human tragedy. What should be a time of celebration and joy will for many be saddened by an empty chair at the table. At a wider societal level, all of us have suffered from the curtailment of the activities we most enjoy – gatherings of friends and family, participation in sport and cultural activities, and of course travel.

We are all hoping that 2021 brings a new start and ushers in a better future. But it is frustrating to see governments reacting in the same way to Covid-19 as they did at the start of 2020, with badly coordinated and poorly communicated border closures. Have the options in the policy toolbox evolved so little?

In the early months of the pandemic, governments and the public were facing a new and unprecedented challenge. As a result, the consequences of adopting certain policies were unclear. Lockdowns and border closures were understandable, if eventually regrettable, decisions. But from the start of the pandemic, numerous voices, of which the World Health Organization was the most credible, urged that viruses cannot be controlled by border closures.

Testing, ideally accompanied by an effective trace-and-isolate system, was advised as the best way to tackle Covid-19. This was clearly also the answer to enabling borders to safely remain open. ICAO’s Takeoff guidance, to which IATA gave expert advice, led the way in calling for a layered approach to biosafety. This approach eventually included rapid testing and use of track and trace, as alternatives to border closures and quarantine.

Unfortunately, the Takeoff guidance has not been universally implemented. And the reaction to the recent discovery of a new strain of coronavirus by the UK demonstrated how big the gap is. Governments did not coordinate to implement a flexible, balanced policy toolkit to keep borders open and control the risk to public health. Governments’ instant reaction to a spike in infections and a mutation in the virus in the UK was to simply lock down and close borders. The impact was all the more poignant as it came at the start of the holiday season – reminding millions of stranded travellers just how important the freedom to fly is.

These sledgehammer policies are not economically or humanly sustainable.

The economic cost of Covid-19 has been significant across almost every sector, but none more so than to travel and tourism. Of the 88 million people whose livelihoods are supported by aviation, more than half have already lost, or are at imminent risk of losing, their jobs. All of us will know someone who has been profoundly impacted by this crisis, whether in the industry, in another sector, a family member, a friend or colleague.

Aviation must play a key role in helping people to reconnect, and the world to reconnect. Many governments have recognised this unique role and stepped up to the tune of more than US$173 billion. But unless and until governments also adopt a more flexible – and frankly better – policy response to the pandemic that does not ground the industry at every turn, these investments will not ensure that a viable air transport network remains in place.

As the world looks to recover in 2021, it is crucial that governments set out a clear long-term strategy, not just for handling Covid-19, but for future pandemic outbreaks. Border closures have in almost every case shown to be ineffective. Attempting a “zero risk” approach to eradicating Covid-19 is proving an unrealistic aspiration. Not only is Covid-19 likely to be with us in some form for a long time to come, this approach sets a terrible precedent for any future outbreak of a virus.

We can have hope for an eventual solution through vaccines. Aviation is demonstrating the vital need for global connectivity in delivering these vaccines safely to eagerly waiting people the world-over. But a global vaccine programme will take time: time that we do not have.

The immediate risk-management solution is systematic testing. We could safely reconnect the world today, if governments would only move faster on this option. We even have a ready-made solution to enable global harmonisation. The IATA Travel Pass, now in pilot implementation with airlines such as Emirates and Etihad, is able to securely verify and transmit test data to authorities, and this function could easily be adapted to managing vaccine information. The building blocks are in place to safely re-open borders for people to re-connect, and for economies to re-build. Now we need policy decisions that enable implementation.

It has been our misfortune this year to glimpse what a world without travel looks like. It is smaller, greyer, and less optimistic. We must engage governments in a conversation about what a more effective response looks like, to prevent the risk of permanently locking in a system which profoundly restricts the basic right of us all to travel and to connect. That is the task to which IATA is dedicated in the year to come.

I wish you all a healthy 2021 and that the year brings us all the optimism that we will once again be free to gather, to smile, and to enjoy the excitement that is uniquely afforded by exploring our vibrant planet.

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