I have a love affair, it’s with the potential of my passport, one that began in my early 20’s. That little dark blue book was my magic key, one that opened a door to the world. My first door opened into the “Land down under” for over four years and in turn a door to the equally magical island off its northern shoulder, Papua New Guinea. While my passport was the obvious initial travel key, what I soon discovered was the second key, tucked unassumingly into the space between page 54 and back cover — my yellow vaccination card. The two have been siblings ever since.
One of the biggest lessons of the coronavirus pandemic has been the success of travel restrictions at reducing its spread. And this is a moment when they have the potential to be particularly effective in the U.S., given the emergence of even more dangerous coronavirus variants from other countries.
Many of the places that have contained the virus have relied on travel restrictions. The list includes Australia, Ghana, New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Canada’s four Atlantic provinces. At key points, they imposed severe restrictions on who could enter. New Zealand for example has been so proactive, and their citizens so engaged, that they have reopened internally, entirely. Ah, don’t we all long for that!
There is a crucial word in that last paragraph, however: severe. Travel bans work only when countries don’t allow a lot of exceptions.
Barring citizens of other countries while freely allowing your own citizens to return, for example, is ineffectual. “Viruses don’t care what passport you carry,” disease journalist Donald G. McNeil Jr., told the New York Times, he’s been covering infectious diseases since the 1990s.
Variants halt travel worldwide
Currently, countries across the world are tightening or locking their borders as they attempt to seal themselves off from the threat of more resilient and contagious variants of the coronavirus.
In Europe, France is moving to impose strict border measures, Britain is considering a mandatory hotel quarantine for some travelers, and Germany is considering shutting down nearly all flights to the country. The European Union is asking for more coordinated action among member states to limit travel from high-risk areas.
Australia recently suspended its travel bubble with New Zealand for three days after a case of the South African variant slipped past New Zealand’s strict quarantine system. New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said last week that the country’s borders would remain closed until New Zealanders are “vaccinated and protected.”
What do we really care about?
According to research science, a vaccine is typically considered effective only if it prevents people from coming down with any degree of illness. With a disease that’s always or usually horrible, like Ebola or rabies, that definition is also the most meaningful one. But there is perhaps a more valuable definition for coronavirus infections.
Most of us are only in this last year reaching some understanding of viruses and how they work — don’t we all wish we had now paid a bit more attention in science class? Unless you have been living in a bubble all your life, you have almost certainly had a coronavirus. As any virologist will tell you, coronaviruses have been circulating for decades, if not centuries maybe longer. The trick is they are generally mild, and relatively benign. The common cold, for example, can be a coronavirus. So to quote a New York Times article, “The world isn’t going to eliminate coronaviruses — or this particular one, known as SARS-CoV-2 — anytime soon.”
Yet we don’t need to eliminate it for our lives to return to something we all would call ‘normal.’ We instead need to downgrade it from a deadly pandemic to a normal virus. Once that happens, we can all start traveling again, as well as go back to work, send children back to school, and meet our friends at a pub.
“I don’t actually care about infections. I care about hospitalizations and deaths and long-term complications.” As Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health told the New York Times.
Thinking of others
In a few days it will be a year, 365 days since I was on a plane, and well over a year since on a plane where my passport and yellow card were required. The first time in 32 years, so I am struggling to hold off travel-craziness, but I’ll make it. Just as important is holding-off for the health and safety of others, especially those who can’t defend themselves against this or other human-delivered viruses — like apes like us. (For more about how viruses like Covid-19 can impact great apes read our ongoing blogpost Coronavirus and Our Fellow Great Apes) We know gorillas, chimps, bonobos, and orangutans, as well as other primates, are vulnerable to transmitted disease, especially bronchial infections – and they have little defense. All of our decisions about restarting Travel with GLOBIO will be based on the protection of the apes we want to see as much as those, like you, that want to see them.
Author’s Note: In addition to WHO and John Hopkins University, this post has drawn from several sources and multiple articles, including recent NYTimes, Washington Post, and National Geographic articles.