The iniquities of vaccination and the impact on air travel


India is ablaze. Not with forest fires, but funeral pyres as the COVID-19 pandemic is undergoing a vicious second-wave in the region. With over 1.8 million confirmed cases and more than 200,000 deaths India is now surging towards breaking all records in this pandemic. Even these numbers are ‘grossly understated’ with the ‘. . . true number of deaths is two to five times what is being reported’ in the words of Dr Mukherjee of the University of Michogan as quoted in the New York Times April 24, 2021.

Three months ago this column was optimistically titled ‘The end of the beginning?’. At the time it seemed that newly developed vaccines would end the scourge of COVID-19 within a few months. Unfortunately, a combination of factors, which have been discussed exhaustively elsewhere, has shown that this optimism was misplaced.

Despite the impressive efficacy of most varieties of the vaccines, the huge logistical hurdles combined with some rare side effects have resulted in only a small proportion of the world being vaccinated. World Health Organization (WHO) data indicates that the UAE and Israel have administered at least one dose (most vaccines require two doses for immunity) to almost their entire populations. The tiny country of Bhutan is the next best achiever with more than 60% of its population receiving the vaccine. Britain and the USA have also made substantial progress. But the rest of the world is lagging, and COVID-19 is surging again, with India particularly badly hit.

The perils of ignoring history

The 1918 ‘Spanish Flu’ took a terrible death toll in Asia. As reported in this column on March 17, 2020 (Unknown Unknowns), an estimated 40 million people died worldwide. The mortality rate varied greatly too, with India losing 16.7 million people to the pandemic – around 5.2% of its population. Kenya was also badly hit with the deaths of 5.8% of its people. According to a US National Institute of Health report[1] Ceylon (Sri Lanka) recorded the loss of more than 307,000 lives from the 1918 pandemic, representing 6.7% of its population (Sarathchandra; Times). This report, first published in 2014, shows that the pandemic occurred in three distinct cycles on the island. A first relatively mild wave occurred in early 1918, followed by severe recurrence around six months later. A third wave also took place in 1919.

Sadly, today’s leaders in the Sub-continental region did not pay attention to history and ignored the possible ramifications of COVID-19. Last year, a manageable infection rate plus a relatively low death toll led to optimism, nonchalance, and an early easing of restrictions. In a promising start to its vaccination program, India administered in excess of 127 million doses of vaccines to its citizens and exported millions more to the rest of the world. However, the vaccination drive has since gone adrift and the virus seems to be gaining the upper hand.

It seems that India, and perhaps the entire South Asian region, has lost the initiative. New variants of the virus are spreading rapidly. Hospital beds are hard to find, and critical medical supplies are diminishing. A catastrophe is looming in South Asia, more than a year after the pandemic began. In a move typical of government overreaction throughout the pandemic, many countries are now imposing travel bans on travelers from the region.

Implications for regional travel

India’s airlines coped better than many during the last year’s downturn. Air India kept flying to many long-haul destinations and the domestic network, though reduced, was reasonably healthy.

India has long been seen as a strong challenger to become the world’s third biggest regional air travel market within this decade. The USA is the largest travel area, with China recently moving to second place, followed by the pre-Brexit European Union. However, the global slowdown in air travel consequent to the pandemic has thrown those statistics into disarray. Currently, China is the world’s busiest domestic market, but still at only a fraction of 2019 capacity. US domestic traffic has been building steadily as vaccinations progress, and airlines there are forecasting ‘near normal’ summer flight schedules. The effect on India’s domestic network is not clear, but as panic grips the country it is sure to suffer.

Should infection rates and accompanying death tolls in the subcontinent continue spiraling out of control though, the consequences are likely to be catastrophic. There is an obvious causal link between GDP and air travel, as a population’s incomes increase it means people travel in much larger numbers, for both business and leisure . A further setback in the fight against COVID-19 will have serious implications for both the region’s economies and airline industry, already on their collective knees after a year of travel restrictions.

How will Asia’s national airlines be affected?

Asia coped well with the pandemic for the most part, until recently. While countries such as Thailand saw a dramatic drop in tourism, containment of the virus showed that the human toll was manageable. The first green shoots were appearing at some airlines; Indigo of India and Bamboo Airways of Vietnam commenced more flying while seeking to employ crews. Air India, one of Asia’s many perennially money-losing flag carriers, has been eligible for privatization since 2001. Recently, over twenty years after the idea was first touted, it looked like the deal may finally be concluded with the Tata Group being the favored bidder. But a resurgence of the pandemic and new travel restrictions, have forced the process to be postponed once again.

A two-speed recovery involving nations that have successfully curtailed COVID-19 doing business with one another, while ignoring the laggards, seems to be the way of the immediate future. Already, New Zealand and Australia have recently opened a ‘bubble’ allowing citizens to travel between the countries without need for quarantine. With no community transmission of the virus in either country, it has been deemed safe to do so. No doubt there will be similar initiatives, strictly policed, between other countries in like situations.

Does this herald a paradigm change in air travel?

The great fear though is that the after-effects of the pandemic will completely rewrite travel patterns for the near future. Already the Maldives, with their isolated and luxurious resort islands, is seeing a surge in high-end tourism. Obtaining landing slots is now difficult at Male’s over-crowded international airport. This is in stark contrast to many other former tourism hot spots that are facing empty airports and deserted hotels. We could be witnessing a historic re-alignment of travel patterns, which will have a huge impact on countries dependent on foreign tourism.

The pandemic is far from over and dreams of a rapid recovery are fading for much of Asia. New variants of the COVID-19 virus keep emerging as new populations are infected. The economic consequences of a continued pandemic will be far-reaching. A government’s first duty must be to protect its people. All ‘vanity projects’ must take second place to procuring sufficient doses of vaccines to ensure ‘herd immunity’ before the human toll becomes even steeper. The Director General of the WHO has starkly outlined the dangers the world faces should the current situation worsen (Ghebreyesus). This writer hopes and prays that governments take heed and act promptly.


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