Covid-19 is, for now, the new normal. And we don’t know how long now is.
In an age of rolling 24hr news, we are deluged with information; but information is not knowledge. The Covid-19 R rate, whatever that is, comes and goes – I wrote last week about the consequences of “quarantine roulette” which bedevils decision making about where to travel. It is hard too, to determine risk, Covid-19 is new, we still understand relatively little about its spread or why some are more vulnerable than others. The latest “evidence” hits the headlines before it has been peer-reviewed. Uncertainty and confusion make it challenging to understand the risks of exposure and infection, and if I do get it, how serious will it be for me?
The confusion is compounded by the plethora of social media which enables me, mostly unconsciously, to construct my own echo chamber, vulnerable to fake news and the latest headline on the front pages of the newspapers. Parmet and Rothstein writing in 2018, prompted by the centenary of the 1918 influenza pandemic which killed at least 50 million people.
They pointed to three dangers: hubris, isolationism, and distrust. Closing borders and lockdown has been effective, but as Parmet and Rothstein point out “Airplane travel facilitates the rapid spread of pathogens, and even faster communication technology enables the spread of fear and misinformation.” Distrust they argue could be catastrophic “In our era of political polarization, “fake news,” and tribal politics, trust in the media, government officials, and even science is fading. The public’s failure to trust the guidance offered by public health officials may well make a bad situation worse.” It has.
Chris Witty, the UK’s chief medical adviser, warned on Saturday that Covid-19 would be a ‘serious challenge for at least the next nine months”. He warned that going into winter there will be “real problems” with coronavirus and said that the UK should plan on the basis of no vaccine being available. “Planning for the next winter, it would be foolish to plan on the basis we will have a vaccine,” he said. “We should plan on the basis we will not have a vaccine and then if one does prove to be effective and safe and available then we’re in a strong position to be able to use it and that will be great, but we should be planning on the basis of what we currently have.”
Now that is not what we want to hear – and we can hope that Professor Whitty is wrong, he hopes he is too. He said on Saturday “I would obviously be delighted if it came earlier rather than later, but I’d be quite surprised if we had a highly effective vaccine ready for mass use in a large percentage of the population before the end of winter, certainly before this side of Christmas.” He went on, “We should plan on the basis we will not have a vaccine and then if one does prove to be effective and safe and available then we’re in a strong position to be able to use it and that will be great but we should be planning on the basis of what we currently have.”
There is not going to be a rapid return to a pre-Covid world and we cannot escape the fact that the travel and tourism sector played a very significant role in spreading the virus. The World Bank points out that this pandemic is far greater than the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s. There are now twice as many international arrivals – and domestic tourism has grown too. Second, “the emergence of social media as a means of sharing information is compounding uncertainty and has led to heightened anxiety in relation to travel.” And third, for the first time in history, the number of people over the age of 64 is higher than the number of children under the age of five. The authors of the World Bank report foresee:
- Tourism recovery will be uneven.
- Demand for particular tourism products/segments may be reshaped leading to new forms.
- Consolidation of major operators in varied segments is likely, starting with airlines and hotels.
- More liquid and agile players who can withstand the severity of the downturn could have a significant impact on how countries emerge.
- Governments will be conflicted. (As businesses struggle to recover governments will be looking to tax them)
- Many businesses that were directly or indirectly connected to tourism will need assistance to survive.
- As the effects of the pandemic continue, it will be increasingly difficult to support all firms.
- Governments will need to be aware of the trade-offs they face in determining policy responses.
As the authors point out “while the timing of reopening borders will have a large impact on the survival of the sector, it can also damage destination credibility if done too early and infections increase.” There is perhaps nothing very surprising here – but it is sobering to see the challenges listed out. The report goes on to give much detailed practical advice to World Bank clients – it is valuable for governments and destinations. But of course foresight is difficult in the middle of a crisis which is still spreading and deepening. Perhaps I should find myself a more optimistic echo chamber to inhabit, perhaps by Christmas everything will be back to normal.
“World Bank. 2020. Rebuilding Tourism Competitiveness: Tourism Response, Recovery and Resilience to the COVID-19 Crisis. World Bank, Washington, DC. © World Bank