Unmasking the problems – border measures are not effective global strategy to control a pandemic

22 June, 2022

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has used its annual AGM, this year in Doha, Qatar, to call for governments to apply the lessons learned from the dismantling of global connectivity in response to COVID-19 to ensure that future global health threats can be effectively managed without closing borders.  

The World Health Organization (WHO) has long advised that border closures are not an effective means of managing a global pandemic. Evidence observed during the pandemic proved the point, says IATA.

Most governments ignored this advice, acted in isolation from the industry and other governments, and put in place measures to restrict travel.  “This collapsed global air connectivity with massive negative economic and human consequences,” explains IATA.

Governments continue to favour local solutions over global standards

Moreover, the restart of global connectivity has been made more challenging because governments “continue to favour local solutions over global standards,” notes IATA. Constant policy changes by governments left most of the industry little time to prepare for the ramp-up.

“International travellers can only see the global effort to manage the pandemic as illogical and poorly coordinated in the face of vastly different policy responses to a common problem,” says IATA.

IATA’s deputy director general Conrad Clifford, speaking in Doha at the IATA AGM 

Speaking in Doha, Conrad Clifford, IATA’s deputy director general highlighted that it has become increasingly essential to restore public confidence in government handling of health crises and border restrictions.

“Much of the damage was caused not by fear of the virus, but fear of sudden and arbitrary border restrictions imposed by authorities. Understanding the significant lessons from the pandemic will be crucial to managing future health crises in a way that ensures borders should not have to close again,” he said.

Border measures are not effective global strategy to control a pandemic

With air traffic now rebuilding after more than two years of crisis, IATA identifies three key lessons that have emerged for governments, most notably that border measures are not an effective global strategy to control a pandemic.

The WHO have long held that closing borders is not a solution to health crises. Research undertaken by OXERA/Edge Health has revealed that even if a new COVID variant was discovered and travel restrictions were introduced immediately, this would only delay the peak of infections by a maximum of four days.

Governments are still making travel unnecessarily difficult

Although most major restrictions, such as total border closures and quarantines, have been removed and the world is increasingly open, governments are still making travel unnecessarily difficult, notes IATA.

 Restrictions such as complicated health paperwork, COVID testing, and mask wearing are still required for travel in some jurisdictions despite these requirements having been lifted in domestic life.

The WHO director general is on record stating, “There is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade.”

Governments need to balance health measures with economic and social impacts

Though the evidence for restrictions is unproven, the impacts of reduced air connectivity are clear. Politicians therefore must “balance the economic and social benefits of air connectivity against the need for health-related travel restrictions,” says IATA.

In 2019, aviation supported nearly 40 million jobs worldwide and underpinned USD3.5 trillion of global GDP. And public understanding of the economic importance of air connectivity is high, according to IATA with nine in ten (92%) travellers agreeing that air connectivity is “critical” for the economy.

During the pandemic, 87% of passengers surveyed in Sep-2021 by IATA agreed that the right balance between managing COVID risks and getting the economy moving needed to be found. Social impacts were also significant. The erosion of travel freedoms meant countless lost opportunities to connect.

In the latest IATA passenger survey, two-thirds of people agree that “quality of life suffered due to COVID air travel restrictions.”

Traveller confidence requires logical rules and clear communication

Public confidence is adversely affected by arbitrary rule-making and poor or contradictory information. But throughout the pandemic, the rules and messaging around border restrictions “were confusing and illogical,” says IATA. For example, it says, in Jan-2022 some 100,000 different measures affecting international travel were in place.

Navigating this fragmented system of measures has been confusing for travellers and caused major operational complexities for operators. The IATA passenger survey shows why it is important that governments adopt a consistent approach to travel rules. More than half (59%) of people still report that ‘understanding the rules was a real challenge’, that ‘paperwork was a challenge to arrange’ (57%), and that ‘the travel experience was much less convenient’ (56%).

Rules on mask wearing on board are now increasingly seen as unnecessary

Rules on mask wearing on board are increasingly seen as unnecessary, according to IATA’s survey with a majority of passengers now believing that masking should be stopped altogether, or should not be required if it has been lifted for other environments such as offices.

IATA says that to give the public greater confidence in the predictability of travel, governments should: adopt guidance for how public health measures, once introduced, will be removed; simplify and digitise travel bureaucracy and paperwork with common standards and mutual recognition of digital health credentials.

Completing the return to ‘normal’ or embracing the ‘new normal’

“Already, 71% of travellers believe that they should be traveling as they did before the pandemic,” said Mr Clifford in Doha. As the return to normal accelerates, we will increasingly return back to a world where our biggest concerns focus on the sustainable growth of aviation. But that does not mean that governments and industry should forget the lessons from this pandemic.

There will be more global health threats in the future and applying the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic to future health crises “is the best way to ensure that the sacrifices made by millions of people were not made in vain,” said Mr Clifford.

Will be ready to react differently when the time comes?