The other vaccine we really need

2020-03-09

Every morning, I check the webpage titled “Updated World Health Organization [WHO] recommendations for international traffic in relation to Covid-19 outbreak.” It provides some specific recommendations and protocols for governments and individuals — wash your hands! — to contain the spread of the disease.

And in its most recent update (Feb. 29 at the time of this writing), it once again reiterated its original counsel: “WHO continues to advise against the application of travel or trade restrictions to countries experiencing Covid-19 outbreaks.”

Its rationale for this advice is straightforward: “In general, evidence shows that restricting the movement of people and goods during public health emergencies is ineffective.”

And yet …

Many large corporations, particularly but not exclusively in Europe, have imposed blanket bans on business travel for their employees.
And in a move fraught with symbolism, it was particularly unfortunate that the world’s largest travel trade exhibition, ITB, which was supposed to take place last week in Berlin, was canceled.

Travel Weekly’s parent company, Northstar Travel Group, which produces many international events, looks to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for guidance, and it has placed travel restrictions only on trips that would involve destinations labeled with a CDC “level 3 health notice,” which, as of this writing, includes China, Iran, South Korea and Italy.

I do not want to downplay the seriousness of the virus, but as scientists work on promising vaccines against Covid-19, I wish they could also develop an antidote for the human tendency that enables fear to overrule rational thought.

Sometimes there aren’t significant consequences to erring on the side of caution. But in the case of coronavirus, the degree to which behavior is being significantly altered amounts to nothing less than self-inflicted wounds to economies, businesses and households that, in sum, create threats beyond the realm of health and greatly impacts other quality-of-life aspects.

If there is a health analogy to what is going on, perhaps it would be to compare it to autoimmune reactions to some allergens. The misery that ragweed brings comes not from compounds in the plant’s pollen that might be dangerous to humans (there are none) but from the body’s perception of threat, which results in inflammation and the release of histamines, causing congestion, itchy eyes, etc.

The analogy’s not perfect. Covid-19 isn’t harmless — the full danger it presents to healthy individuals is unknown, and it’s certainly a threat to people over a certain age or who have underlying exacerbating conditions. But it’s also true that symptoms are mild in the vast majority of cases.

The irrational reaction to the virus is impacting businesses and individuals well beyond those involved in the travel industry, but perhaps the world at large could benefit from the industry’s experiences in dealing with overreaction.

From terrorism to anxiety about coincidental deaths in Dominican Republic resorts to fears of falling victim to gang feuds among Mexico’s narco cartels, traveling consumers have seen danger even when risks to them are low to nonexistent. What we in the travel industry have experienced has some inherent lessons for other industries, not least of which is that the impact of these crises is ultimately limited in term and doesn’t herald a new and permanent reality.

Sometimes, as in the case of Mexico’s narco violence, even though the situation hasn’t resolved, consumers began to understand that the threat to them is so low that it’s foolish to forego the benefit and value of a vacation in Mexico. In the case of the Dominican Republic, one could hope that the outcome based on forensic science — that there was never any reason to panic in the first place — might lead people to think twice about jumping to conclusions going forward.

No one can predict how public reaction to Covid-19 will eventually play out, but perhaps it will be most akin to patterns following terrorist attacks. Initially, the stigma of having been the site of a terrorist attack could linger over a destination for years, particularly in places perceived as remote, exotic and unfamiliar. But once terrorism (and mass gun violence) began to occur in places closer to home — London, Paris, New York, Orlando, Las Vegas — its travel-inhibiting effect lasted for a much shorter time.

Last week, the WHO raised its assessment of the risk of spread and impact of Covid-19 to “very high” at the global level. Should it prove that the virus cannot be contained — if it becomes, essentially, ubiquitous — there may be a similar uncoupling of the virus to travel specifically. In that case, there would be no greater threat in traveling than in staying home.

Our poll of travel advisors suggests that the overreactions and irrational fears I lament are widespread. But unless a vaccine against this all-too-human response comes along, advisors will continue to do what they have always done: respond to client concerns with care, compassion, empathy … and facts.

Arnie Weissmann

Courtesy of  Travel Weekly

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