The one about Covid-19

I’m now a month in to the (first?) Covid-19 lockdown, and maybe it’s time to think a bit about the future, specifically the future of travel. So many questions, so many unknown variables… but it won’t be how it was, that’s certain.

 The most important factor is that even when we move away from lockdown, as some countries are beginning to do, this pandemic won’t be finished until we have a vaccine (or some other treatment) available to just about everybody in the world, and that is going to take a couple of years.

 And I personally feel that even when we can reliably test and treat people, it will still be asking for trouble to get on a plane – as someone who usually picks up at least a sniffle whenever I fly, I’ll be happy to confine my travels to the UK and Europe for a few years at least. At the moment it looks as if the new coronavirus is liable to mutate significantly, and that being infected does not necessarily produce antibodies and lead to immunity – we don’t yet know, but the signs are not great. And it doesn’t just kill by choking the lungs with pus, but attacks other organs too in ways we don’t yet understand. 

 The most current research, published in Science by a team of Harvard epidemiologists and immunologists, suggests we’ll still be social-distancing in some form or other until 2022, and can expect to see new outbreaks of Covid-19 for many years to come. Likewise, the WHO’s special envoy for Covid-19, Dr David Nabarro, has just said the coronavirus is not going to go away and we will have to learn to live and work with regular flare-ups of Covid-19. We will want to get out of our homes as soon as possible, but I imagine most trips will initially be to catch up with family and friends around the country.

 Even so, there are billions of dollars worth of planes on the ground doing nothing and there will be huge pressure to get them back to work. Similarly, there are billions of dollars worth of idle cruise ships, but they are even more likely to turn into seething pits of infection so it’s hard to see the cruise industry getting back to what it was. And there are billions of dollars worth of hotels standing empty. With about 10% of global employment in the travel and tourism industry, it’s vital for the world economy to find a way back.

 The era of travelling freely, with no visas required or with visas on arrival for many countries, won’t be coming back in a hurry, and we’ll doubtless need to carry medical certificates and to accept being sent home if our temperature is too high when we reach a new country. We will travel with a new awareness of our own mortality – obviously we’ll shy away from hotspots like Iran, but travel to Asia and Africa as a whole will be greatly reduced, I’m sure – heck, even London (epicentre of the pandemic in the UK) will be seeing less of me, I dare say.

A background of misgovernment

It has to be said that we always knew there would be another pandemic – I thought it would be more like the bubonic plague or Ebola fever, and this is actually perhaps less awful than it might have been. But the point is that we, that is all the countries of the world, should have been better prepared. Not just me, Bill Gates was also telling world leaders to prepare from 2015. Even when it was obvious what was coming our way from China our governments did very little – in the UK, the prime minister didn’t attend any of the first five COBRA meetings (from 24 January), and throughout February the government failed to organise supplies for testing or ventilators. They asked people not to go out, but didn’t actually close the pubs and restaurants for several days (not to mention the Cheltenham Festival and other huge sporting events). It took over three weeks from Sage, the scientific advisory group on emergencies, recommending a lockdown at the end of February to it actually happening. When the government finally had to act, after it was obvious that the Italian health system was being overwhelmed, they flirted with a ‘herd immunity’ strategy that would effectively cull the weakest and oldest part of the population, before finally buckling down to creating new intensive care wards and testing facilities – although without the follow-up contact tracing which was so crucial in allowing Taiwan and South Korea to keep their death toll so low. The UK government wasn’t even testing people coming out of hospital and going into social care until mid-February, so it’s no surprise that elderly people in care homes were soon dying like flies.

 When there was a chance to join the EU’s schemes for procuring ventilators and protective equipment the British government refused to have anything to do with it, on purely ideological anti-European grounds, choosing instead to make up stories about missed emails and to lie about ordering equipment both from British companies and countries such as Turkey and China. And when every sane voice was saying that the transition period for Britain to finally leave the EU had to be extended beyond the end of 2020, they continued to say this was inconceivable – well, we’ll see how that plays out, but a no-deal departure from the EU will be absolutely terrible for an economy already knocked sideways by Covid-19. The fact that British supermarkets are still out of flour a month after the lockdown began does not bode well for a no-deal Brexit – I know the problem is with the packaging lines, not the supermarkets themselves, but it’s all part of the much-vaunted supply chain.

 As for the USA… President Trump also missed his opportunities to act and then consistently treated the new coronavirus as an opportunity to find new countries and people to blame. Both countries have handled the pandemic particularly badly, but there’s no point my going on about it. Still, there’s a strong sense that just when the world should be acting together, the countries that should be taking the lead are undermining this, most notably Trump’s withholding funds from the World Health Organisation and the UK’s refusing to work with Europe. This applies equally to the global climate crisis, which has been put to one side for the duration of the pandemic – although of course the planet is breathing a little more easily with so few cars, planes and factories belching forth their fumes. Will we return to business as before, or will people want to keep their clean air?

 Obviously co-ordinated global action is also needed on the climate crisis, for instance to levy a worldwide tax on aviation fuel (at the moment no country will act because airlines just say we’ll buy our fuel elsewhere and you’ll lose out) – let’s be clear, air fares were, until the pandemic, at historically low levels and while this is great in terms of seeing the rellies in Australia every year it is totally unsustainable in terms of its environmental impact. Adding a major tax just when businesses are trying to recover from the lockdown is unlikely to get much support, but at least the Covid-19 crisis has shown that the world can pull together to take global action when it needs to.

As for guidebooks

The guidebook industry is perhaps in even worse straits than the airline and hospitality businesses which do, at least, have capital assets such as planes and hotels as backing; travel publishers, however, are paying to store guidebooks that are rapidly going out of date. I work for the Rough Guides and for Bradt Travel Guides, neither of which is able to pay royalties (Bradt had the decency to ask first, Rough Guides just failed to pay) and both may indeed go out of business soon. Lonely Planet has just closed two of its four offices, including its spiritual home in Melbourne, and is also in trouble. I’m working on updating guides to Wales and Georgia (and soon Transylvania), but who knows if I’ll ever be paid? Still, it’s a lockdown, so what else should I be doing? No, don’t answer that.

If you want to support Bradt, and to have some exciting reading to prepare for future travels, please click on this link and enter code DREAM50. I don’t know when this half-price offer will end, but don’t leave it too long!

PS I also meant to say something about hostels – sleeping in a dorm with unknown companions is going to seem a lot more unattractive in the future.  The big trend in independent hostels recently has been a growth in the number of private rooms (ensuite or not), but for the next few years this is probably going to be the mainstay of their business and they should probably get on with subdividing dorms as fast as they can. Even so, shared washing facilities are going to be a concern and lots of cleaning products will have to be on hand at all times.