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Saturday 27 February 2021

The mutating COVID-19 situation and its impact on travel

A perspective on new Coronavirus infections, variants and strains, and their impact on travel.

Travel, especially international travel, may not be the same for some time to come, perhaps for another year at least.

The mutating Covid-19 situation and its impact on travel - A perspective
Waiting at the airport. (Representative image). Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels.

The coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic scenario keeps changing regularly with new travel restrictions or lockdowns either being imposed or eased out, depending on the situations in particular places or areas, across the world. Here's some perspectives on recent events, the current situation, and what may lie ahead for travel.

Uncertainty certainly prevails these days in early 2021, when it comes to travel restrictions. Newer restrictions may be imposed due to a rise in the number of infection cases in a particular area, region, or a country. You have to monitor the news and keep track about the place you plan to travel to, to see whether there are any new outbreaks or any new restrictions or lockdowns are upcoming for that place.

We all know how the novel coronavirus "Covid-19" messed up lives and economies across the world and also disrupted travel. Now, even though some vaccines have been quickly developed in record time and people are increasingly being vaccinated, new variants of the virus caused new outbreaks in some countries, which led to newer travel restrictions and panic across the world.

And not only that, but an increase in number of cases irrespective of the variant might potentially be a cause for newer travel restrictions or rules, or in a worse-case scenario, a lockdown of some magnitude if not a full-fledged one, depending on how bad the situation is at that place or region.

Viruses mutate. That's what they do

It is a common thing for viruses to mutate over a span of time, and SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2), the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, is also doing so. The fact that viruses mutate is the reason why the common flu vaccines have to be adjusted for new mutations.

Ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses - CDC
This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. Note the spikes that adorn the outer surface of the virus, which impart the look of a corona surrounding the virion. A novel coronavirus, named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China in 2019. The illness caused by this virus has been named coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Different strains of SARS-CoV-2 was already known to exist before last September in 2020, but none of them had a major impact yet on the pandemic situation. However, it was feared that they might do so in the future, as per a report on Nature, on the 8th of September 2020. These fears did come true not too long after that. Towards the end of September 2020, a new variant was first discovered in UK, which was later found to be spreading rapidly in December 2020 within UK.

GEAR-19 is the Genome Evolution Analysis Resource for COVID-19, maintained by the Bioinformatics Centre, CSIR-CCMBA (Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology, under Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, an autonomous body under the Ministry of Science & Technology, Govt. of India). As per the GEAR-19 data, over 7,000 variants have been catalogued in India, with over 6,000 genomes sequenced in 22 states.

Given the potential of a virus to mutate, it is going to keep mutating. But at the same time, it is not necessary that such mutations is going to make the virus more deadlier, and existing vaccines should still work against new coronavirus variants, for now. Also, even though the UK variant has been found in India, the existing COVID-19 precautions such as using masks and social distancing, should work fine against it.

What happened in the world in recent times

Just after the news of the making of the successful vaccines came out, on 20th of December came the news of an "out of control" Covid strain in the United Kingdom (UK), causing lockdowns in that country and forcing others to temporarily suspend flights from UK. Although some flights resumed between some countries and the UK, several countries imposed either mandatory testing, quarantine, or certain restrictions on all people arriving from outside of their countries, with most travel being discouraged.

The mutating Covid-19 situation and its impact on travel - A perspective
The world travel scenario. (Representative image) Photo by yousef alfuhigi on Unsplash

This new and more transmissible variant of COVID-19 (B.1.1.7) which appears to have increased transmissibility compared to the original strain, grew quickly to become the dominant variant across the UK. As per the recent reports by the UK government, the number of cases, hospitalisations and deaths in England have been reducing after peaking around late December 2020 to January 2021. Currently, a 4-step plan to ease lockdown in England has been announced by the government of UK, with international travel still being restricted.

Apart from this new variant first found in UK, countries are also concerned about the other mutant Covid-19 variants found in South Africa and Brazil, as they appear to spread more easily and quickly than other variants and hence they may lead to more cases of COVID-19. UK (United Kingdom) and USA (United States of America) imposed mandatory Covid tests for all international travellers, who will have to show proof of a negative Covid-19 test before boarding flights to those countries.

India also issued new guidelines for international travellers on 17th of February, as the cases of the foreign mutant coronavirus variants began to increase. The Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for international passengers arriving in India was updated to reduce the risk of the mutant strains of SARS-CoV-2. They also put out a handy algorithm for international passengers to make things clearer.

As per the aforementioned guidelines, for people arriving in India from other countries, from 22nd February onwards until further notice, it is mandatory to visit the Air Suvidha portal on the New Delhi Airport's website and submit a self declaration form and upload negative COVID-19 RT PCR certificate. More information about this can be found on the New Delhi Airport's website.

Countries in the European Union, like for example, Germany, France, etc., have also imposed their own restrictions on travel, resulting in Europe's most-visited countries being under travel restrictions. Other countries, like Australia, New Zealand, etc., for example, have also imposed travel restrictions for almost all international travellers.

As all such travel restrictions and rules are subject to change from time to time, travellers will need to update themselves about what rules are currently applicable.

In general, travelling is not recommended by most countries and is being discouraged unless it is really necessary. World travel is majorly under restrictions across the world, as of now, towards the end of February 2021. There are some websites, like Kayak, for example, which provides a worldwide view of travel restrictions by country.

Domestic situation in India

A lot of places here in India appear to be moving back towards business as usual, with people are wondering whether we've achieved herd immunity. Of course, things aren't the same for everyone or they haven't affected in the same magnitude for everyone, but things have certainly begun moving towards the pre-covid scenario.

The mutating Covid-19 situation and its impact on travel - A perspective
A foggy afternoon in INA Market, New Delhi, India. (Representative image) Photo by Hans Vivek on Unsplash

Anyway, it's certainly evident that we're at a better position than the countries which are still struggling with Covid and its variants. As per a Times of India report, the infection cases have been consistently decreasing since mid September, and this report further states that experts attribute this fall in the number of cases to localised herd immunity. However, at the same time, there has been a surge in the detected number of cases of COVID-19 in some states, which we shall glance at in the following section.

In between all this, as per the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India, MOHFW's data for today, the 27th of February 2021, 97.14% have recovered and been discharged so far, out of the total known cases of infection. As for the Covid-19 Vaccination, a total vaccination of above 1 crore and 42 lakhs has been achieved so far till today, the 27th of February 2021.

But this doesn't mean that one should go off-guard, for if newer variants prove to be resistant to the vaccine, it would have the potential of causing trouble in the future. So far, it has been assured that the Covid-19 vaccines currently in development will be effective against the variant strains of the virus that were first detected in UK as well as the one in South Africa.

A sort of an attitude among people these days appears to be as if it's just one of the common flu that keeps cycling around. Whoever can afford to, are off travelling around to places wherever possible, and folks in the cities and towns are back to eating out at places of refreshments like restaurants etc., which are seeing crowds again. (Of course, this scenario may vary from place to place and region to region). Have we reached what's called the herd immunity phase? I don't know, for I'm no expert. But there's indeed a decrease in new infection counts in recent times.

While people appear to be less cautious with wearing masks and social distancing these days when compared to the earlier days, the coronavirus is said to be transmitted predominantly through the air, that is, by people talking and breathing out large droplets and small particles called aerosols, which is why wearing masks and maintaining social distancing is still recommended.

As per the Ministry of Civil Aviation's figures, the number of domestic airline passengers in India is growing steadily towards pre-COVID figures. After more than eight months since domestic flight operations resumed in India, over 3.91 Crore (that is, 39.1 million) passengers have already travelled by air in India.

Despite Covid challenges, Indian Railways began running 65% of Mail Express Trains as compared to pre Covid time. Local train services in Mumbai suburbs were resumed for all from the 1st of February 2021, with specific time slots allotted for commuters, but with experts attributing the rise in Covid-19 cases to the resumption of the local train services, strict curbs may be reimposed to break the chain of the infection. Public transport such as the bus services, were slowly restarted within the states in Karnataka and in some other states such as in Uttar Pradesh, with seating restrictions, sometime after the end of the nationwide lockdowns last year in May.

As for the travel enthusiasts who could afford it, had begun road-tripping, especially within their own states, and in some cases to neighbouring states if possible. Not to mention those of us who had to travel due to some commitment or work related reasons.

Although domestic flights and other forms of travel in India have taken off, international travel seems to be still a big question and it may not be the same as before anytime soon.

The scenarios of rules and restrictions

Countries can have specific travel restrictions or rules for travelling between the states or to particular places or areas, depending on the situation in those regions. Similarly, other countries may also have restrictions or rules specific to a region within, depending on their ongoing situations, if any.

The mutating Covid-19 situation and its impact on travel - A perspective
COVID-19. Representative image. Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash

From what we've seen so far, as some restrictions and rules get eased out in some places or regions in a country, some new ones may get imposed, like for example, the latest week-long lockdown announcement in Auckland, New Zealand, announced today on the 27th of February.

The fact is that travelling has become more difficult these days, even within one's own country. Travelling within one's own state is easier in comparison, but long distance travelling may come with certain restrictions and requirements to carry certain negative Covid test reports. For example, the Maha Kumbh Mela scheduled at Haridwar in Uttar Pradesh, requires pilgrims to compulsorily carry negative RT-PCR test reports. Although many destinations across India are opened to tourists, some may still require negative test reports.

Recently, states in India, like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, for example, have imposed travel restrictions on people arriving from Kerala and Maharashtra due to their high or increasing numbers of corona-positive cases. And West Bengal made negative Covid-19 test report mandatory for air passengers from 4 states- Maharashtra, Telangana, Kerala and Karnataka, citing the increasing trend of Covid cases in those states. And before that, just last week on February 18th, several places in Maharashtra came under stricter regulations due to the Covid surge, with buildings in Mumbai with more than 5 patients mandated to be sealed and stamps to be put on back of the hands for patients staying in home quarantine.

Although two new variants of the virus, N440 K and E484Q, were detected in Maharashtra and Kerala, the recent surge in those states is reported as not linked to the new strains. The states Kerala and Maharashtra contribute 75% of active cases in India, with Kerala having 38% and Maharashtra 37% of the total active cases in India, reports a tweet dated 23 February 2021, quoting the Secretary of the Health Ministry of India. It also mentions that and Karnataka has 4% and Tamil Nadu has 2.78% of active cases, as on that date.

As per the recent informantion on Condé Nast Traveller (for February 2021), 8 states in India require you to quarantine on arrival, and 12 states in India require you to present a negative RT-PCR test for entering them. Also, the rules aren't similar for all the states. For example, some states require you to quarantine irrespective of a negative RT-PCR test, but others may exempt a quarantine if a negative report is provided. Also, each state can mandate different requirements for air, rail, or roadways passengers, or they may apply to all arrivals irrespective of your mode of transport.

Also, as the rules and restrictions keep changing from time to time, you will have to look for the most recently updated information for the same, for the specific state that you wish to travel to.

In the international scenario, this only gets more complicated. Some countries may not only require mandatory tests for all travellers arriving there, but if something like "immunity passports" or "vaccine passports" get implemented, it could cause further complications. However, Airports Council International, which represents airports worldwide, joined most airlines in opposing mandatory Covid-19 vaccination for passengers, and called for a choice between testing or vaccination.

From a traveller's perspective, restrictions and rules complicates travel and increases the hasssle, both for international as well as domestic. In case of international travel, the newer mutations have so far caused new lockdowns and suspension of air travel along with closing of borders. In the future, as per some media speculations, it may also possibly impose a mandate to get tested or re-tested, despite being vaccinated, in case the efficacy of a vaccine is unknown for any future variants.

As aforementioned, a virus keeps mutating, and it is going to keep mutating in the future. But at the same time, it is not necessary that such mutations is going to make the virus more deadlier. While there is no cause for panic, there may be a continued discourage or a potential of newer restrictions on travel or lockdowns that may get imposed due to newly developing situations. And if things get worse domestically, even domestic travel may take a bad hit. Anyway, this is just a worst-case speculation, so let's not dwell on that more and let's hope for the best.

What this means for travel

While we wait and see the outcome of the current Covid-19 mutated variant situations, this may still discourage world travel for some more time to come, at least in the near future; And during this time, depending on the situation inside a country, domestic travel may improve while international travel takes a backseat.

The mutating COVID-19 situation and its impact on travel
Opinion : Depending on the situation inside a country, domestic travel may improve while international travel takes a backseat.
(Representative image). Photo by JJ Jordan from Pexels.

If you're still looking for world travel, you can always do a little online search for "which countries are open to international travellers", on Google or on any other search engine that you may prefer. There are some places that welcome international travellers from some countries.

Even with travel restrictions and restrictions on travel and hospitality industry (the transport, aviation, and hotels) will be lifted in due time, there are many factors due to which the travel scene isn't going to be the same as before, for at least for a year or so, especially due to the losses and setbacks caused by this pandemic and the restrictions caused by it.

Many people may face diminished incomes, salary cuts, longer working hours, lesser holidays and vacations, for at least a year or two, or more, depending on their field of work and how badly they were hit. It's certainly going to take a negative effect on travel and tourism, and the lesser number of travellers and tourists may hit an already hit travel and hospitality industry.

What lies ahead for us travel enthusiasts

We can only speculate what lies ahead for travel enthusiasts and people who love going on tours, but it's not going to be the same as before in the near future. Pay cuts, longer hours, holiday and vacation cuts will all be a big downer for those travel enthusiasts who would face such things in their work scenario.

It also depends on how all this is going to impact the costs and ease of travelling in the future. We can only hope that things will come back to normal sooner than later, and the sooner the better. But at the same time, this coronavirus situation may not simply go away soon and situations may arise which may have a potential to throw travel into a tailspin. Apart from the suffering caused by the virus itself, it also depends on how individual governments handle the overall situation.

Covid-19. Be cautious. Do not panic!
Being cautious and following guidelines while avoiding unnecessary panic, is a wise thing to do. Photo by Tonik on Unsplash

All in all, ending this long monologue on a positive note, as newer mutations of a virus need not necessarily be more dangerous, and by being vaccinated or if a natural immunity to the virus is improved, things aren't really very gloomy or bleak, and avoiding unnecessary panic is a wise thing to do.

But for people facing decreased income and increased work hours with less chances of getting an off time anytime soon, and for those who've faced a job loss or employment or business setbacks, such people may not be in a mood or a position for a trip or a tour anytime soon. That said, from a positive outlook, we're already moving back to normalcy; perhaps slowly, but steadily. But this doesn't mean one should drop all caution and go back to one's unhygienic habits.

Ultimately, we have to live with it by improving our immunity as much as possible, which is true for any virus or infectious disease. In case you haven't already, a healthier lifestyle with good hygiene (both personal hygiene and ensuring your surroundings are hygienic) is the best thing to do while going forward.

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