Nearly 800,000 half-price air tickets for travel to and from holiday areas will be provided under a $1.2 billion program to support aviation and tourism, to be announced by the Morrison government on Thursday.
The measures are designed to assist these industries, still hard hit by the effects of the pandemic, after JobKeeper finishes late this month.
The cheap fares will run from April 1 to July 31.
The loan guarantee scheme that operates for small and medium sized businesses is also being expanded and extended for enterprises that leave JobKeeper in the March quarter.
While this is an economy-wide measure, the government says those eligible will be especially in the tourism sector.
Thirteen regions have been designated initially for the cheap flights – the Gold Coast, Cairns, the Whitsundays and Mackay region (Proserpine and Hamilton Island), the Sunshine Coast, Lasseter and Alice Springs, Launceston, Devonport and Burnie, Broome, Avalon, Merimbula, and Kangaroo Island.
The number of tickets will be demand driven, as will the places the flights depart from, but it is estimated there will be about 46,000 discounted fares a week over 17 weeks. A return ticket counts as two discounted fares, the government said.
Under the loan initiative, the maximum size of eligible loans will be increased from the present $1 million to $5 million. The maximum eligible turnover will also be expanded, from $50 million to $250 million.
Maximum loan terms will go from five years to 10 years, and lenders will be allowed to offer borrowers a repayment holiday of up to two years.
Eligible businesses will also be able to use the scheme to refinance their existing loans, so benefitting from the program’s more concessional interest rates.
The government says more than 350,000 businesses which are on JobKeeper are expected to be eligible under the expanded scheme, for which loans will be available from the start of next month and must be approved by the end of December.
For international aviation, there will be support from April until the end of October, when international flights are expected to resumer. The assistance across both airlines will help them maintain their core international capability, keeping 8600 people in work as well as planes flight-ready.
Among the assistance for aviation, several existing support measures are being extended until the end of September, including waivers for air services fees and security charges.
There are also extensions for the business events grants program, the assistance for zoos and aquariums, and the grants to help travel agents.
More than 600,000 people are employed by the tourism sector with domestic tourism worth $100 billion to the economy.
Tourism has suffered severely from the closed international border and from the state border closures and restrictions.
Scott Morrison described the package as “our ticket to recovery … to get Australians travelling and supporting tourism operators, businesses, travel agents and airlines who continue to do it tough through COVID-19, while our international borders remain closed.
“This package will take more tourists to our hotels and cafes, taking tours and exploring our backyard”.
However, with almost no international travel in 2020, we now have the opposite problem. The pandemic caused a 70% drop in international tourist arrivals globally from January to August, compared to the same period last year.
But attempts to reboot international travel on a wider scale have so far failed due to successive waves of COVID-19.
As a more transmissible and harder-to-control coronavirus variant has emerged in the UK and South Africa in recent days, dozens of countries have announced they would close their doors to travellers from both nations. Some countries, like Japan and Israel, have gone a step farther, banning all foreign nationals from entering.
Even before this, travel bubbles and corridors between countries have been proposed, but few have managed to take root.
Travel health requirements may soon start to resemble the past. In the 1970s, having appropriate vaccinations and health clearances was essential for travel to and from many countries. Coronavirus vaccinations will likely become similarly standard for international flights.
Lengthy quarantine periods are one of the biggest obstacles to restarting international tourism — few people can afford 14 days in a quarantine hotel on top of their holiday.
There are potential alternatives being tested. Before the new COVID variant emerged, British Airways and American Airlines had piloted a voluntary testing program for some passengers as a way of avoiding the mandatory 14-day quarantine period in the UK.
However, the likely reality is that destinations will be desperate for economic recovery and will compete vigorously for tourism dollars when borders reopen.
So, if consumer behaviour trends are anything to go by, the new normal might not be too dissimilar from the old. It’s doubtful, for example, that we would tolerate flying less when travel is proven safe again. This doesn’t bode well for the planet.
If international travel is going to “build back better”, communities, governments and the global tourism industry must come up with a transformative plan that is workable and helps drive traveller behaviour change and decarbonisation.
The pandemic has given us a chance for a reset — we should make the most of the opportunity.
The United Kingdom yesterday became the first country to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for widespread use. Following a review by the country’s drug regulator, the UK government announced it will begin rolling out the vaccine next week.
Other countries are likely to follow soon, authorising the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and possibly other leading candidates too. Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration says it’s continuing to assess the Pfizer/BioNTech data.
The world has been eagerly awaiting a COVID vaccine, touted since early in the pandemic as our best hope of returning to “normal”. A big part of this is the resumption of international travel.
Certainly, an effective vaccine brings this prospect much closer. But a vaccine alone won’t ensure a safe return to international travel. There are several other things Australia and other countries will need to consider.
International travel in the age of a COVID vaccine
When people are vaccinated before boarding a flight, we can have confidence there will be significantly less COVID risk associated with international travel. However, the data we have at the moment doesn’t tell us everything we need to know.
Let’s take the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine as an example. They have reported the efficacy of their mRNA vaccine to be 95% in preventing symptomatic COVID-19, having tested it on around half of the 43,000 participants in their phase 3 trial (the other half received a placebo).
The vaccine appears to be safe with only mild side-effects in some participants. And notably, the study included people aged 65 and over and those with health conditions that put them at higher risk of more severe disease.
However, the study hasn’t officially reported the efficacy of the vaccine against becoming infected, as opposed to displaying symptoms. While it’s encouraging to know a vaccine stops people getting sick, this point is important because if people can still become infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), they may still be able to spread it.
Ugur Şahin, BioNTech’s cofounder and chief executive, believes the vaccine could reduce transmission by 50%. This puts something of a dampener on vaccination being the key to the safe resumption of international travel.
At this stage, we also don’t know how long immunity will last for those vaccinated with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. But as the trial will continue for several more months, some of this data should become available in 2021.
Not everyone will be vaccinated straight away, so we’ll still need quarantine
It’s going to take months — or, more realistically, years — to vaccinate everybody who wants to be vaccinated. It won’t be feasible to expect every single person travelling internationally to be vaccinated.
There are several countries that appear never to have had community transmission. As of November, these included many Pacific island nations such as Tonga, Kiribati, Micronesia, Palau, Samoa and Tuvalu.
Then there are countries that have COVID-19 under control with little, if any, community transmission. Examples include Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam and Singapore.
People arriving in Australia from these countries pose very little risk and should not need to quarantine, whether vaccinated or not. For other countries, it would very much depend on their epidemic situation at the time.
Some organisations have already developed COVID risk ratings for different countries or jurisdictions. For example, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) rates the COVID situation in each European country as “stable”, “of concern” or “of serious concern”.
These risk assessments are based on factors including each country’s 14-day COVID case notification rate, the proportion of tests coming back positive, and the rate of deaths.
Clearly, people from high-risk areas or countries will still need to quarantine on arrival, unless they have been vaccinated. It’s likely Australia will develop a similar rating system to the ECDC to streamline these decisions.
Many countries now require a negative COVID test certificate before entry. For example, Spain requires a negative PCR test no more than 72 hours before travelling.
Similarly, some airlines, such as Emirates and Etihad, are mandating COVID testing before travel.
It would also make sense to have rapid antigen testing available at airport arrivals or border crossings. Although not as accurate as PCR tests, these tests would provide a second check that a traveller hasn’t incubated COVID-19 on the way to their destination.
Even with vaccination, testing will still be important, as vaccination doesn’t guarantee a passenger is not infected, or infectious.
Certificates and passports
Once COVID-19 vaccines become accessible, countries and airlines may well require visitors to produce a certificate of vaccination.
Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce has suggested all Qantas international passengers from next year would be required to have a COVID vaccination certificate.
News of successful COVID-19 vaccine trials has raised hopes in the Pacific that the hard-hit tourism industry will begin to re-open in 2021.
Even before the vaccine announcements, there was excitement in the Cook Islands over a recent New Zealand government delegation to survey the country’s borders and discuss a potential travel bubble.
Cook Islands Private Sector Taskforce chairperson Fletcher Melvin spoke for many when he said:
The New Zealand officials are here, and that has been the biggest breakthrough for many, many months. We are hopeful they will get here and see we are prepared and confirm that we are COVID-free and we are ready to welcome Kiwis back to our shores.
At the same time, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern dampened hopes of a trans-Tasman bubble before Christmas due to different tolerances for community transmission in New Zealand and Australia.
Beyond the ongoing uncertainty, though, the possibility of a Cook Islands-New Zealand bubble raises further questions about how Pacific tourism can and should be revived in general.
Culture and commerce
Our research examines these questions and provides interesting insights into how Pacific peoples are re-imagining the place of tourism in their lives.
The global pandemic has effectively closed Pacific state borders to international tourists for eight months. With thousands of jobs gone and economies undermined, many people in Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, Cook Islands and beyond have had to make huge adjustments.
In many cases, they have adapted to the lack of tourism income by drawing on their natural, cultural and spiritual resources. From this we can appreciate the strengths of Pacific cultures and how they might adapt to future uncertainties, including those associated with climate change.
Those affected by the pandemic now report wanting more time for family (including caring for the vulnerable), planting food and fishing, sharing surplus harvests, attending to cultural and religious obligations, relearning traditional skills and strengthening food systems.
Old ways should change
The crisis, while difficult, has allowed people to consider a more regenerative approach to tourism based on well-being and better work-life balance. As one Fijian elder put it:
Tourism must complement our way of life, rather than taking over.
The “old” tourism model is now seen by some as compromising their family’s well-being. Working long hours while commuting daily from a village to a hotel, or spending six weeks away from home at an island resort before getting one week off, is not ideal for parents of young children.
Many are on casual contracts and earn just above the minimum wage: FJ$2.68 (NZ$1.84) per hour in Fiji and NZ$7.60 per hour in Cook Islands.
Most tourism employees want tourism to return, but they hope for better terms, wages and working conditions. While a few called for caps on numbers in heavily touristed areas, others urged governments to open up new locations and promote off-season tourism.
People would also like to see greater local ownership and control of tourism enterprises, including joint ventures, building on existing strengths such as cultural or tropical garden tours and agri-tourism.
Life beyond tourism
Despite 73% of those surveyed living in households that experienced a major decline in income due to COVID-19, 38% were unsure about staying in tourism, or would prefer to find jobs in other areas.
Those interviewed sought more opportunities to pursue higher education, training in IT and trades, and wanted greater government support for creative industries.
This need for economic diversification is acknowledged across the Pacific region. But there has been little progress or policy development by governments to diversify economies in meaningful ways during the pandemic.
Perhaps understandably, given the severe economic pressures, many governments have focused on returning to the way things were. Fiji has enthusiastically urged tourists to return, opening “blue lanes” for yachties and a “bula bubble” for wealthy travellers.
Towards a new model
In this context the pandemic is being seen as an interruption, albeit welcome in some ways, to business as usual. As one Cook Islands elder expressed it:
This time to me is about restoring and renewing things, relationships, and giving our environment time to restore and breathe again before it gets busy, because I’m optimistic we will come out of this. People want to travel.
However, the pandemic should also provide an opportunity for Pacific countries to reset and chart a new way forward. When travel bubbles do open, they should do so in a way that benefits Pacific peoples, complements their way of life, and builds resilience in the process.
If and when Pacific travel is allowed again, the clear calls for culture and well-being to play a more central role in the lives of communities must be heard. One woman, a former resort employee in Fiji, put it well:
This break has given us a new breath of life. We have since analysed and pondered on what are the most important things in life apart from money. We have strengthened our relationships with friends and family, worked together, laughed and enjoyed each other’s company. We have strengthened our spiritual life and have never felt better after moving back to the village.
But people may not realise there is also a ban on overseas travel for all Australian citizens and residents, subject to a limited number of exemptions.
Since March, about one in three requests to leave the country have been granted. This comes amid reports of Australians facing huge hurdles to see sick and dying relatives overseas.
So, what’s going on? Who can actually leave Australia at the moment?
What is the ban?
The ban on leaving Australia was put in place by Health Minister Greg Hunt on March 25, as an “emergency requirement” under the Biosecurity Act. It is the first time Australia has had such a ban, and it was made on the advice of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee.
An Australian citizen or permanent resident … must not leave Australian territory as a passenger on an outgoing aircraft or vessel.
The accompanying statement explains,
[This] is in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to represent a severe and immediate threat to human health in Australia and across the globe.
Is this legal?
The government legally made the determination under the Biosecurity Act, which gives the health minister power to put in place “any requirement” they believe is necessary to prevent or control the entry or spread of the virus into Australia.
International law recognises the right to leave any country, including your own, but there is no equivalent constitutional protection in Australia.
In other words, Australians don’t have a constitutional right to leave Australia.
Strict exit bans for citizens are generally associated with authoritarian states, like North Korea and the former USSR. But the Health Department has said the ban is needed because of the burden returning residents place on quarantine arrangements, the health system and testing regimes.
The government has also argued it is “impossible” to only ban travel to specific places, due to the fast-moving nature of the pandemic in different countries.
Who can leave Australia at the moment?
Anyone who is isn’t a citizen or resident is allowed to leave Australia.
Some Australians are also still free to leave. This includes those who are “ordinarily resident in a country other than Australia”, airline and maritime crew, outbound freight workers, and essential workers at offshore facilities.
All other citizens and residents must have an exemption if they want to leave. They need to apply online (which is free) and then bring the approved exemption to the airport.
To be granted an exemption, you must have a “compelling reason” for needing to leave Australian territory, and your travel must fall into one of the following categories:
compassionate or humanitarian grounds
part of the response to the COVID-19 outbreak
essential for the conduct of critical industries and business
to receive urgent medical treatment unavailable in Australia
urgent and unavoidable personal business
in the national interest.
Most applications to leave are not successful
Despite these exemptions, it is still difficult to get permission to leave. Only about one in three requests are being granted.
According to Border Force, between March and mid-August it received more than 104,000 requests to leave Australia. About 34,300 exemptions have been granted.
Exemption applications are assessed by Border Force and applicants are advised to apply at least two weeks but not more than three months before departure.
Border Force adds:
If you are travelling due to death or critical illness of a close family member, you can apply inside this timeframe and we will prioritise your application.
However, timeframes haven’t been guaranteed and people have reported significant delays even in emergency situations. If a request is refused, an applicant can reapply.
Failing to comply with the ban is a criminal offence, punishable by up to five years’ prison, a $63,000 fine, or both.
Are Victorians especially banned?
There is nothing to exclude Victorians, currently under Stage 3 and 4 restrictions, from applying to leave Australia.
The Victorian government directs residents to federal government advice regarding overseas trips.
However, Victorians would also need to comply with or seek exemptions from state-based restrictions (including for travel to the airport, for example) where an exemption was granted.
What are the problems with the ban?
Usually when governments pass legislation, they provide definitions of key terms. However, no definitions for any exemptions are included in the travel ban determination, which was made by Hunt and not reviewed by parliament.
What exemptions like “urgent and unavoidable personal business” cover is unclear, to say the least (luxury yacht, anyone?).
There have been repeated stories of Australians having enormous difficulties getting permission to see family and loved ones overseas. Although recent reports suggest the process is becoming easier.
One woman reported difficulty meeting the “compassionate grounds” exemption because her dying step-parent was not in hospital, due to a choice to spend his last days at home. Another received three different responses to the same request.
Applicants must provide sufficient documentation, but it is also unclear what documents are required. People whose documents are not in English must have them officially translated as part of an application. Those in distressed or bereaved states must nonetheless gather complex documentary evidence, which may include death certificates, or proof of an event or relationship.
Due to this lack of clarity, some people are seeking the advice of migration agents to help them leave Australia.
This adds to the ever-growing costs of mobility during the pandemic, while creating the extraordinary circumstance where legal advice is needed to help residents and citizens depart their own country.
When will the ban end?
Australia’s complete travel ban has not been adopted in similar countries. In New Zealand, Canada and Britain, overseas travel is strongly advised against but not banned.
Other countries to have completely prohibited travel include Kazakhstan, Lithuania and Uzbekistan.
Australia is a nation of enthusiastic travellers, it is one of our defining national characteristics.
At any given time, around a million of us are living and working overseas. In 2019, a record 11.3 million Australian residents went on short-term trips, double the figure of ten years earlier.
But COVID-19 has radically changed our capacity to go and be overseas. Will we ever travel so easily and readily again?
You don’t have the ‘rights’ you probably thought you had
Travel may be of huge importance to Australians, but it is not a right or entitlement.
When you leave Australia, you also take on an element of risk. The federal government has long-warned their help in a crisis will have “limits”. The consular services charter says,
You don’t have a legal right to consular assistance and you shouldn’t assume assistance will be provided.
Australians don’t even have the absolute right to a passport, although in practice, it is rarely denied.
International law provides for the right to freedom of movement – both in and out of Australia. As the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says,
Everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own. [This] shall not be subject to any restrictions except those which are provided by law, are necessary to protect national security, public order … public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others … No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.
As part of Australia’s COVID response, caps have also now been placed on international arrivals. In July, the number of Australian citizens and residents allowed into the country was then reduced by a third, from about 7,000 to about 4,000 a week, to ease the pressure on the hotel quarantine system. This system will be in place until at least October.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison explained he knew this made it more difficult for people to come home, but the policy was not “surprising or unreasonable”. Rather,
[it will] ensure that we could put our focus on the resources needed to do testing and tracing.
According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, more than 371,000 Australians overseas have returned since March.
But more than 18,000 are still stuck overseas, saying they want to come home. Last week, a Senate inquiry heard about 3,000 of this group were “vulnerable” for medical and financial reasons.
Internal border closures in Australia have added a further level of complexity.
On Friday, The Sydney Morning Herald reported the Morrison government was drawing up new plans to evacuate Australians stuck overseas.
It is worth noting that despite people’s understandable frustrations, the Australian government has limited options to help here – and the options they do have are not simple. They can potentially charter flights or cruise ships, but this is not straightforward because it requires agreements from host countries, available planes and ships, and can be hugely expensive.
Leaving Australia is no longer simple, either
Less visible, but very concerning from a rights perspective, is the Australians who are stuck in Australia. A state generally should allow citizens to leave their own country.
There are wide-ranging bans on people leaving Australia during the coronavirus pandemic, with a limited range of exemptions.
There are obviously compelling reasons why people will still want to travel, given Australia’s strong international connections, especially when close relatives are ill or dying overseas.
But again, we don’t actually have a “right” under domestic law to leave Australia – with the federal government able to control our movements under the Biosecurity Determination 2020.
Between March 25 and August 16, Australian Border Force received 104,785 travel exemption requests. Of these, 34,379 were granted a discretionary exemption. Some perhaps more discretionary than others – entrepreneur Jost Stollmann was granted an exemption to travel overseas to pick up his new luxury yacht.
The way we think about travel needs to change
Significant Australia’s diplomatic resources have been going into supporting Australians overseas during COVID-19. In July, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade reported 80% of its staff took part in the response effort.
Secretary Frances Adamson has also noted her department’s approach to COVID-19 had to go “well beyond what’s written in our consular charter”.
Given the range of pressing foreign policy issues at the moment, a serious question is how much of the Department of Foreign Affairs’ time and attention should be spent on consular services? What is being lost in other diplomatic efforts trying to get Australians home?
Australians need to grapple with the idea that the government doesn’t have to “get them back” if they travel overseas (even if it wants to). And under Australian law, we don’t have a “right” to leave the country.
We don’t know how long these COVID changes will last – particularly if efforts to create a vaccine are not successful. So, the way we think of travel and our risk calculations may unfortunately need to change. This might result in the biggest shift in our travel mindset since the 1950s, when international travel opened up to ordinary Australians.
With rising awareness of climate impacts of travel, this may not be a wholly negative development. But a deeper conversation is still required about the right to freedom of movement for Australian citizens.
As Victoria’s current COVID-19 spike shows, it will take Australia some time to open its borders to the world and allow residents to travel wherever they like.
But there’s no reason why it shouldn’t open its borders to some parts of the world sooner than others, especially those in which it has a special interest and in which the spread of coronavirus is slowing.
Australia and New Zealand have been talking about setting up a trans-Tasman “travel bubble” for some time.
It would allow quarantine-free travel between two geographically-isolated island nations that face little risk of outside infection.
Fiji has already expressed interest in joining, extending the bubble.
Throughout the South Pacific, youth unemployment averages over 23%. Tourism accounts for as much as half of gross domestic product and up to one in four jobs.
A bubble that extended beyond tourism to trade, education, and guest workers could help the Pacific (and holidaying Australians) in a way that the generous loans available from powers such as China could not.
Much of the architecture for a trade and tourism bubble is already in place.
The agreement encompasses Australia, New Zealand and nine Pacific island countries: the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. It has been ratified by five of the members and will come into force when it is ratified by eight.
For the Pacific Islands, a “bubble” would provide a major boost to economic development and recovery from the crisis.
It could help relieve the social pressures that come from growing youth populations and attendant unemployment and minimise the danger of future political crises and associated need for Australian interventions and financial support.
The long-term importance of continued access to quality education, vocational and tertiary, for Pacific Islander youth is essential. Hard-pressed Australian Universities and vocational education suppliers would benefit too.
For Australia (and New Zealand) it could provide relief from isolation via travel to attractive destinations. Perhaps more importantly, it could help fill gaps in Australia’s skill set by supplying tradespeople and agricultural workers to meet genuine shortages.
It would also help maintain Australia’s business and investment interests in the Pacific. PACER Plus implementation would reinforce these gains. It will facilitate more investment and trade opportunities, in goods and services.
Unfortunately, Fiji and Papua New Guinea have not yet signed PACER Plus, for various reasons.
It is unfortunate because trade and investment flows are their best long-term route to advancement. There are strong economic complementarities between Australia and Pacific nations, especially for Papua New Guinea.
A bubble, implemented when the health situation allows, would be supported by many Pacific islands nations and most likely their regional coordinating body, the Pacific Island Forum Secretariat.
Together with PACER Plus implementation, it would benefit Australia and benefit the region in a way that aid and infrastructure support from big powers can not.
Pacific nations have largely avoided the worst health effects of COVID-19, but its economic impact has been devastating. With the tourism tap turned off, unemployment has soared while GDP has plummeted.
In recent weeks, Fiji Airways laid off 775 employees and souvenir business Jack’s of Fiji laid off 500. In Vanuatu 70% of tourism workers have lost their jobs. Cook Islands is estimated to have experienced a 60% drop in GDP in the past three months.
Quarantine concerns aside, there is economic logic to this. Australians and New Zealanders make up more than 50% of travellers to the region. Some countries are massively dependent: two-thirds of visitors to Fiji and three-quarters of visitors to Cook Islands are Aussies and Kiwis.
Cook Islands has budgeted NZ$140 million for economic recovery, but this will increase the tiny nation’s debt. Prime Minister Henry Puna has argued for a limited tourism bubble as soon as New Zealand relaxes its COVID-19 restrictions to alert level 1. Cook Islands News editor Jonathan Milne estimates 75-80% of the population is “desperate to get the tourists back”.
A Pacific bubble would undoubtedly help economic recovery. But this merely highlights how vulnerable these island economies have become. Tourism accounts for between 10% and 70% of GDP and up to one in four jobs across the South Pacific.
The pressure to reopen borders is understandable. But we argue that a tourism bubble cannot be looked at in isolation. It should be part of a broader strategy to diversify economies and enhance linkages (e.g. between agriculture and tourism, to put more local food on restaurant menus), especially in those countries that are most perilously dependent on tourism.
Over-dependence on tourism is a trap
Pacific nations such as Vanuatu and Fiji have recovered quickly from past crises such as the GFC, cyclones and coups because of the continuity of tourism. COVID-19 has turned that upside down.
People are coping in the short term by reviving subsistence farming, fishing and bartering for goods and services. Many are still suffering, however, due to limited state welfare systems.
In Fiji’s case, the government has taken the drastic step of allowing laid-off or temporarily unemployed workers to withdraw from their superannuation savings in the National Provident Fund. Retirement funds have also been used to lend FJ$53.6 million to the struggling national carrier, Fiji Airways.
Fiji has taken on more debt to cope. Its debt-to-GDP ratio, which ideally should sit below 40% for developing economies, has risen from 48.9% before the pandemic to 60.9%. It’s likely to increase further.
High debt, lack of economic diversity and dependence on tourism put the Fijian economy in a very vulnerable position. Recovery will take a long time, probably requiring assistance from the country’s main trading partners. In the meantime, Fiji is pinning hopes on joining a New Zealand-Australia travel bubble.
Out of crisis comes opportunity
Supporting Pacific states to recover is an opportunity for New Zealand and Australia to put their respective Pacific Reset and Step-Up policies into practice. If building more reciprocal, equitable relationships with Pacific states is the goal, now is the time to ensure economic recovery also strengthens their socio-economic, environmental and political infrastructures.
Economic well-being within the Pacific region is already closely linked to New Zealand and Australia through seasonal workers in horticulture and viticulture, remittance payments, trade and travel. But for many years there has been a major trade imbalance in favour of New Zealand and Australia. Shifting that balance beyond the recovery phase will involve facilitating long-term resilience and sustainable development in the region.
A good place to start would be the recent United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific report on recovering from COVID-19. Its recommendations include such measures as implementing social protection programs, integrating climate action into plans to revive economies, and encouraging more socially and environmentally responsible businesses.
This is about more than altruism – enlightened self-interest should also drive the New Zealand and Australian agenda. Any longer-term economic downturn in the South Pacific, due in part to over-reliance on tourism, could lead to instability in the region. There is a clear link between serious economic crises and social unrest.
At a broader level, the pandemic is already entrenching Chinese regional influence: loans from China make up 62% of Tonga’s total foreign borrowing; for Vanuatu the figure is 43%; for Samoa 39%.
China is taking the initiative through what some call “COVID-19 diplomacy”. This involves funding pandemic stimulus packages and offering aid and investment throughout the Pacific, including drafting a free trade agreement with Fiji.
That is not to say Chinese investment in Pacific economies won’t do good. Rather, it is an argument for thinking beyond the immediate benefits of a travel bubble. By realigning their development priorities, Australia and New Zealand can help the Pacific build a better, more sustainable future.
If you’ve already recovered from the coronavirus, can you go back to the workplace carefree?
This is the question governments including in the UK, Chile, Germany and Italy are trying to answer by considering immunity passports. These would be physical or digital documents given to people who’ve recovered from COVID-19 and are immune from the disease for a period of time. This would enable them to return to the workplace or even travel.
But there are serious concerns that immunity passports could create two classes of citizen and provide a perverse incentive to contract the virus deliberately.
You’re probably safe from reinfection – for a bit
When we are exposed to a virus, our bodies rapidly respond by giving us fevers, runny noses, and coughing. This initial immune response works by raising our body temperature and activating many cellular changes that make it harder for the virus to replicate. These are signs our immune system is activating to fight off infection. These defences are not specific to the virus but merely serve to hold it at bay until a more powerful and specific immune response can be mounted, which usually takes 7-10 days.
We then start to build a targeted immune response by making antibodies (among other things) that are specific for the virus infecting us. This immunity peaks at about day 10 and will continue to work for the rest of our lives with some viruses, but sadly not coronaviruses.
Immunity to most normal coronaviruses, including those that cause some common colds, only lasts around 12 months. This is because the immune system’s response to coronaviruses wanes over time, and because these viruses slowly mutate, which is a normal part of the viral “life-cycle”. We don’t know yet how long immunity will last for COVID-19, but we might reasonably expect it to be similar, given what we know about our immune responses to coronaviruses.
Immunity passports will only work if people really are immune to reinfection. Earlier reports from South Korea and China suggested some people tested positive again after having recovered. This prompted the World Health Organisation (WHO) to declare in late April there was no evidence immunity passports would be reliable.
But more recent data suggests these tests were picking up dead lung cells which contained dead virus. Since then, experiments have also suggested animals that have recovered from SARS-CoV-2 infection could not be reinfected (although this study has not yet been peer-reviewed).
The WHO has since updated its advice to recognise that recovering from COVID-19 will likely provide some level of protection from reinfection.
Therefore, people who have recovered from COVID-19 are likely to be immune for a period. This means they could potentially be carrying SARS-CoV-2 but won’t develop the disease of COVID-19, and are therefore less likely to pass it on. But we don’t know for sure how long this immunity might last.
Of course, to issue immunity passports we must be able to reliably detect immunity. There are many tests that claim to detect SARS-CoV-2 antibodies but are not yet reliable enough. To assess the presence of antibodies, we must use more reliable tests done in pathology laboratories, called ELISA tests, rather than on-the-spot tests.
Passports might be most useful for frontline workers
We know there are a number of professions which are highly exposed to the virus. These include frontline medical workers like nurses, doctors and dentists, as well as transport workers like bus drivers and pilots. We also know there are particular situations where the virus is easily spread – large crowds of people in close contact such as in aeroplanes, buses, bars and clubs, as well as in hospitals.
Immunity passports could be used to allow people with immunity to help out on the front lines (with their consent). I have personally been contacted by people who have recovered from COVID-19 and want to volunteer to help in highly exposed roles. For example, they could take up administrative roles in ICU wards in hospitals to take pressure off nurses and doctors.
Further, hospitals might choose to roster staff with immune passports to treat COVID-19 patients, because the risk of them contracting and spreading the virus is significantly lower compared to those who haven’t had the virus.
In these instances, immunity passports might be useful for individual hospitals to allocate staff based on immunity.
Similarly, bus and taxi drivers with immunity passports could cover for colleagues who might be older or have medical conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
And of course your passport isn’t forever – it would need to be reviewed over time with another blood test to see if you are still immune.
Two classes of people
But using immunity passports in broader society, and managed by the government, would risk discrimination by creating two classes of citizens. Holding one might become a privilege if it enabled people to go about their lives in a relatively normal way. For example, if it was compulsory for certain jobs or for being able to travel overseas.
But the second class, who don’t have immunity passports, would still be subject to health restrictions and lockdowns while waiting to gain immunity via a vaccine.
Similar to a “chicken pox party”, immunity passports would then create a perverse pull factor and encourage people to deliberately become infected. This incentive might be particularly strong for those who are desperate for work. This would obviously be extremely dangerous as we know the virus has a significant mortality rate and people of all ages have died from COVID-19.
Immunity passports could be effective when used in a targeted way such as in specific hospitals or businesses facing higher exposure to COVID-19. But using them across broader society carries a great risk of discrimination.
Qantas has unveiled a range of precautions to guard passengers against COVID-19. The safety measures expected to be rolled out on June 12 include contactless check-in, hand sanitiser at departure gates, and optional masks and sanitising wipes on board.
Controversially, however, there will be no physical distancing on board, because Qantas claims it is too expensive to run half-empty flights.
The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing airlines to look closely at their hygiene practices. But aircraft cabins were havens for germs long before the coronavirus came along. The good news is there are some simple ways on-board hygiene can be improved.
Although social distancing can’t do much in a confined cabin space – as the virus is reported to be able to travel eight meters — wearing face masks (viral ones in particular) and practising hand hygiene remain crucial.
Since microorganisms are invisible, it is hard to combat such a powerful enemy. During flights, I have observed a vast array of unwitting mistakes made by flight crew and passengers.
Some crew staff would go to the bathroom to push overflowing paper towels down into the bins, exit without washing their hands and continue to serve food and drinks.
We have the technology for manufacturers to install waste bins where paper towels can be shredded, disinfected and disposed of via suction, as is used in the toilets. Moreover, all aircraft waste bins should operate with pedals to prevent hand contamination.
Also, pilots should not share bathrooms with passengers, as is often the case. Imagine the consequences if pilots became infected and severely ill during a long flight, to the point of not being able to fly. Who would land the plane?
For instance, the highly transmissible norovirus, which causes vomiting and diarrhoea, can manifest within 12 hours of exposure. So for everyone’s safety, pilots should have their own bathroom.
Food and the kitchen
Aircraft kitchen areas should be as far as possible from toilets.
Male and female toilets should be separated because, due to the way men and women use the bathroom, male bathrooms are more likely to have droplets of urine splash outside the toilet bowl. Child toilets and change rooms should be separate as well.
Food trolleys should be covered with a sterile plastic sheet during service as they come close to seated passengers who could be infected.
And to allow traffic flow in the corridor, trolleys should not be placed near toilets. At times I have seen bread rolls in a basket with a nice white napkin, with the napkin touching the toilet door.
Also, blankets should not be used if the bags have been opened, and pillows should have their own sterile bags.
Mind your luggage
In March, luggage handlers were infected with COVID-19 at Adelaide Airport.
As a passenger, you should avoid placing your hand luggage on the seats while reaching into overhead lockers. There’s a chance your luggage was placed on a contaminated surface before you entered the plane, such as on a public bathroom floor.
Be wary of using the seat pocket in front of you. Previous passengers may have placed dirty (or infected) tissues there. So keep this in mind when using one to hold items such as your passport, or glasses, which come close to your eyes (through which SARS-CoV-2 can enter the body).
Also, safety cards in seat pockets should be disposable and should be replaced after each flight.