FOR A LUCKY few in number, the mid-twentieth century was the golden age of air transport: there was plenty of room and the cabin crew were attentive. Back then, foreign travel was glamorous and mass tourism was unknown. Seems familiar?
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Due to covid-19, foreign travel is once again the preserve of the lucky few. International tourist arrivals are down 85% from the days before the pandemic. Almost a third of the world’s borders remain closed. Most of the rest are only open to those who have been vaccinated or can afford testing. For those who dream of a return to the good old days, this may sound appealing. For the rest of humanity, it is a scourge.
Before the pandemic, travel accounted for 4.4% of GDP and nearly 7% of employment in rich countries. In tourist hotspots like Thailand and the Caribbean, the share was much higher. Business travelers have helped their employers enter new markets, while simultaneously creating jobs for janitors and taxi drivers. Foreign students subsidized their native-born classmates, brought a different perspective to campus, and brought new ideas back to their home countries. Last year, some 280 million people lived outside their country of birth. Closed borders often prevented them from visiting relatives. Some said goodbye to dying parents on WhatsApp.
Today’s travel restrictions are supposed to protect natives from imported covid. Yet they do it wrong. A few countries, mostly islands and dictatorships, have managed to keep the virus out with really draconian restrictions. Even that came at a cost in terms of reducing the pressure to get vaccinated quickly. For example, only 21% of New Zealanders over 12 are fully vaccinated, compared to 68% of Britons. Countries that trust isolation therefore find it difficult to reopen.
Most countries have land borders and voters. For them, isolation has never been possible. Instead, they adopted a confusing and illogical jumble of rules. America bans travelers from Britain and the European Union, its closest allies and trading partners, as well as two of the world’s most vaccinated large places, while admitting those from Southeast Asia, where the Delta variant is rampant. Thailand prohibits entry from certain countries and requires all other travelers to submit to a two-week quarantine. However, out of 21,038 cases recorded on August 10, only 19 were imported. Once a variant of the virus begins to spread among the local population, infections double every two weeks. Entry bans make very little difference in the total number of cases.
Many countries are starting to facilitate entry for vaccinated travelers. It’s a good idea, but it was executed incompetently. Some countries are needlessly picky about the jabs they recognize. Britain, which has injected its citizens with some 5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine made in India, refuses to exempt from quarantine Indians inoculated with the same potion. He has donated doses to other countries but will not exempt those who stung them. For a while, China only allowed entry to those who had received Chinese-made shots.
There is a better way to regulate global travel. The first principle is to open the borders by default. That doesn’t mean a free-for-all, but all restrictions should be limited, temporary, and meant to slow the import of new variants, rather than the mission impossible to stop it altogether. Once such variations are established in the destination country, as Delta is pretty much everywhere, the restrictions are redundant and should be removed.
The second is that all countries accept vaccines approved by the World Health Organization. Few people have a choice of which vaccine they receive; banning only Filipinos who received the Russian Sputnik V jab while accepting those with Pfizer in their arms turns the trip into a lottery. To discriminate against people on the basis of something over which they have no choice is unfair. It also undermines the global immunization effort by making some vaccines look second-class.
The third is to ensure that the rules are transparent and universal. Too often, political opportunity trumps science. If Western countries seem to favor each other while keeping the rest of the world out, the rest of the world will notice and remember it.
The right to move is one of the most precious of all freedoms. It should only be reduced when the limits will clearly save lives. It must be restored as soon as it is safe. In most cases, that means now. ■
All of our pandemic and vaccine related stories can be found on our coronavirus hub. You can also find trackers showing the global vaccine rollout, excess deaths by country, and the spread of the virus in Europe and America.
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the title “Open up”