An article this week in EuroNews reported that Belgrade, Serbia is seeing an influx of travelers from India who are arriving for a two-week pit-stop–a sort of ‘quarantine holiday’–in order to be allowed entry to the U.S.

Whilst travelers from India are banned in many countries around the world at the moment, due to recent spirals in Covid-19 infection rates (India has registered more cases than any other country, except the U.S.) they are allowed into America–if they spend 14 days in another ‘safe’ country first.

Crucially, Serbia is not part of the EU (nor the accompanying Schengen area allowing free movement across the bloc), so whilst EU residents cannot go to the U.S. on its current travel ban, Serbians can–as can Indian residents who spend two weeks there (the first week must be in quarantine). The irony is that vaccination rates are lower there than across the EU or the U.K.

Loopholes such as this one have been a recurring theme during the pandemic, with The Economist arguing this week that “most covid-19 travel restrictions should be scrapped” and The Atlantic making a case to rethink current international travel restrictions, which currently “make little sense.”

Many people think that Covid-19 will impact upon travel for a long time to come. Indeed, Bloomberg has launched its Travel Reopening Tracker which will now track 1,538 travel combinations between 40 major business and tourism destinations so that travelers can try to keep up–at present, incidentally, only 20% of those destinations are currently considered “more accessible.”

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Does that mean, therefore, that travel bans will be with us for some time, or should they be scrapped altogether?

A new report from the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) called Future Scenarios for Global Mobility in the Shadow of Pandemic has identified possible scenarios for how the world might travel, post pandemic. (The MPI is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, D.C. dedicated to the analysis of the movement of people worldwide).

The report states that countries make decisions based upon their risk tolerance, vaccination rollouts, as well as the progression and mutation of the virus but crucially, without working together, countries will find themselves creating exclusive tiers of people with different rights regarding travel.

Meghan Benton, the Director for International Research at MPI states that whatever scenario happens to occur, “international mobility will have to navigate a seismic shift in approaches to border management under all plausible scenarios.” Benton adds that “many countries are looking inwards, focused on reducing the threat of the latest troubling variant, but they need to look ahead and work together to safely get the world moving again.”

International travel has always been a function of wealth–which passport someone owns dictates how many countries someone is allowed to enter (and how easily). Note the increase in applications for second passports by the wealthy during Covid-19, particularly from the U.S. or how travel bans altered the nature of people smuggling routes in Europe.

There is a fear, therefore, that travel restrictions will exacerbate the inequalities in the world–note the additional cost of almost £500 (almost $700) for a family of four when arriving into the U.K. from an amber list country during July because of testing requirements. The Economist believes that “international travel could come to feel exclusive, much as it used to in the middle of the 20th century.”

Arguments for rolling back travel restrictions

Many arguments are given for rolling back travel restrictions by advocates who believe they don’t ultimately work and because they increase global inequalities:

  • World Health Organization experts were always loathe to recommend the introduction of travel restrictions during a pandemic pre-Covid-19, as reported by Axios, because of discriminatory impacts and because diseases continue to spread underground rather than in plain sight.
  • Research conducted at the end of 2020, reported in Nature, showed that travel restrictions worked when they were first introduced during the pandemic, but then lost their effectiveness over time.
  • Travel restrictions are difficult to understand, an issue compounded by the fact they change constantly (in response to the virus and internal, political decisions) and are updated every one or two weeks, making it hard to keep up. New research by the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics found that almost 50% of British arrivals into the U.K.–when questioned at the beginning of 2021–said that they found it “difficult” to understand international travel rules (foreign travelers incidentally said they found it much easier when polled).
  • Decisions can often feel capricious or badly managed–such as the U.K. reimposing quarantine on fully vaccinated arrivals from 12 August onwards, if they have had two different doses of vaccine, which was originally not the rule when it was changed on 2 August. (It has been common to use two different vaccines across several EU countries, particularly those who started with the AstraZeneca vaccine and then changed to another upon the advice of health regulators).
  • The Economist argues that travel restrictions are only valid with new variants of Covid-19, such as the Delta variant, to slow the speed at which it inevitably arrives in a new country. These restrictions should be temporary and then be lifted once the new variant is established (as is the case with the Delta variant now in the U.S.).
  • The Economist also makes the case for universal travel rules, which don’t favor political friends over established scientific facts and knowledge–such as accepting all vaccines approved by the WHO. The Economist states, “the right to move around is one of the most precious of all freedoms. It should be curtailed only when limits will clearly save lives. It should be restored as soon as it is safe. In most cases that means now.”

Ultimately, it is extremely difficult to seek international cooperation on the free movement of people during a global pandemic (global climate change accords give an indication of the difficulty and offer an interesting parallel) and it’s politically challenging to reform existing policies, which have already been rolled out and marketed.

There is also a line of thought that believes that when faced with a resurgence of Covid-19 and new variants (and a possible rise over winter 2021), confusing travel rules and regulations might just deter people from traveling, which might be best in the short term, if not the longer term.

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