Thursday, July 25, 2024

Aviation Is Not The COVID Culprit But A Victim Of Shortsightedness

By Bikram Vohra

Bikram Vohra, Consulting Editor

Never have we been so made captive by disinformation and confusion than during the fight against Covid. The latest data indicating that it dies in the air five to twenty minutes in the air after exposure and becomes 90% ineffective only underscores the threshing around in the dark that marks the scientific research into this virus and its many not so wondrous avatars.

 We can now access a dozen different interpretations that vary from grim to cheerful. We are told it is mild, not mild, dangerously deadly, not deadly, can combine with another strain for a double attack, cannot do that, the Omicron is actually a vaccination, no it is not, don’t be fooled, it infects five times faster than Delta, is weak and feeble but can bypass inoculation, just to list a clutch of hardcore ‘facts’. I say fact because the one thing in common is that they are supposedly the distilled outcome of studies based on deep research.

Which brings us to the singular premise that we have no idea as scientists, governments, the medical fraternity and the pharma lobby feed us endless data, about what is going on. The human race is now held at gunpoint and we are being herded like lemmings to the edge of the cliff of the ‘new normal.’ The stifling claustrophobic choke on our lives is becoming detrimental and destructive. There is no virtue left in the masked-social distancing-work from home-sanitise-don’t travel formula that now controls our lives.

The agony of this unreal zombie-like existence is now becoming heavy and it will get heavier. The human race is not built for the long haul numbing of its natural gregarious nature. The Novak Jokovics and Eric Claptons are going to increase in number and people start saying enough already, if the risk is now muted we need to stop running scared. Yes, there is a difference between recklessness and irresponsible behaviour. When you allow weariness and exhaustion to jell into bravado and thereby endanger others that has to be guarded against.  However, that said, there comes a time we begin to believe the risk to life is diminishing and the stress factor becomes unbearable. As this mindset manifests itself, more protests against authority will be seen.

It is already happening and there are many intelligent, credible people asking questions of world governments if it is not time to bring Covid to the level of another flu to live with as we have with everything from Ebola to bird flu to the rat plague to the HIV epidemic. That there will be deaths and no one takes that aspect lightly but death is integral to life and as that becomes a lower possibility, the price we are paying for this unnatural state of funk seems to have become prohibitive.

Living in fear and trepidation, changing the course of the river of our lives so drastically has an emotional price that is very heavy. Lost childhoods, crumpled golden years, the spectre of unemployment and the open-ended agony of rules and regulations imposed on us have become unbearable.

On this brutal but honest canvas, we see that one of the worst hit is the aviation industry. This sector offered itself some tangible hope at the end of 2021. The global aviation industry losses are estimated to aggregate around $201 billion for the period 2020-2022 due to the suspension of international travel. The industry might have to see off another tough year before it could recover from the Covid-19 impact and turn profitable in 2023. Right then, we would hang in there through 2022 as the clouds dissipated until the sun shone brightly in the year ahead. The euphoria was also fed by the holiday season spike, which was tangible and through November and December 2021 offered a semblance of normality. People were flying again. In addition, truth be told, they were.

For a brief, shining moment, it looked like the worst was over. Even gouging fares and fluid schedules, delays and hassles in Covid protocols were being stoically faced. Nevertheless, even before the vacation mood was over Omicron hit and hit hard. Today, the slump is again in our faces. The overkill by governments and the clampdown slammed into aviation and the industry has been put on the back foot again. As severe restrictions, upto seven day compulsory quarantines, fear of being stranded, multiple testing at expensive costs, different strokes at different airports and nations combine to create agony there is a growing concern that the test results were arbitrary and contradictory. These elements have all added to the chaos.

The sun has gone behind the clouds again. An IATA report released mid January says the positive demand trends seen in newly released November 2021 data are under threat, despite reports of some resilience in visiting friends and relatives (VFR) traffic during December which can be attributed to the holiday window.

The ICAO is even bleaker. The COVID-19 impact on world scheduled passenger traffic for the year 2021 (preliminary estimates), compared to 2019 levels; overall reduction of 40% of seats offered by airlines– Overall reduction of 2,203 million passengers (-49%) – Approx. USD 324 billion loss of gross passenger operating revenues of airlines.

History will record whether Omicron, seen as a relatively milder version, was given far too much importance and could have been handled without pressing the panic button prematurely. However, even as the industry scrambles for comfort in tendrils like the UK easing up its restrictions and Indian states eliminating quarantine, we cannot escape the fact that the damage has been done. Normality has receded once again but what if…

For Indian carriers on the milk and honey routes of the Gulf and home even the steep fall in prices is not enough incentive to fly into the uncertainty…that being a given destination.

Are we overreacting? Has the defence against Covid turned from virtue into a vice that is tightening us into a chokehold? Perhaps it is time to pull back and get a little more practical. Aviation is the global arterial network and having clogged up like this is now counterproductive. There is enough knowhow now as compared to 2020 to tackle Covid in its many avatars and manage it. As things stand, people on flights often have a positive result when they disembark. That is already factored in. If all restrictions are lifted and testing prior to flying limited to one test on departure and none at arrival how much of a catastrophe can it be. We have already seen that multiple tests and the nightmare it has turned into is not failsafe. So many cases of people getting on board with 48/72 hour negatives and rapids at airports are horrified to discover that after landing a few hours later they are suddenly positive. No one quite explains why this happens so frequently as to have become commonplace.

The inconvenience factor has largely replaced the fear factor that rode supreme in 2020/21. IATA’s President Willie Walsh says it succinctly; quite honestly, the impact of travel restrictions and cases is unclear. In addition, I would go a bit further than that, I would say there is no correlation between the introduction of these restrictions and the effect that it is having on the transmission of the virus.

More experts are echoing this fact.

Aviation has short-sightedly been made into a scapegoat.

Walsh goes on to say: What the WHO is saying is that blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread. In addition, they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.

But it’s clear to us that the travel industry, and airlines in particular are being used as the poster child to transmit fear, to transmit the messages that governments want to force people to continue to restrict their movements, to comply with all of the COVID requirements. It is not because there’s a threat caused by aviation, but it has merely to be able to demonstrate that there is a threat out there. Moreover, by hammering the airline industry, they think they are sending a strong, powerful message to the general population to get them to comply with the restrictions. However, it is doing huge damage to the airline industry and the tourism industry and to global economies; and it is doing huge damage to people who have been unable to travel, to connect with their family, connect with friends, and travel for business.

The cruel irony is that by hitting at aviation governments are actually hurting themselves.

Walsh brings up another point. The time is well past when governments can look at the risk associated with international travel and look at the general risk to the population and start focusing on the areas that need to be focused on, because the risk is definitely not coming from aviation, the risk is in the community. The sooner governments actually start targeting that and recognizing that we are going to have more of these variants. We cannot keep shutting down aviation and shutting down economies, when in reality, it is not providing any measures to restrict the transmission of the virus and more importantly, it is doing huge damage to the industry.

He has a valid point. There is another dimension to this freeze on aviation. That is the discounting of individual responsibility and the empowerment of the public. People are not stupid. Instead of harassing them in this endless fashion let, them be their own vigilantes and their own police. Wearing masks, reducing the risk of their own volition and taking precautions for themselves and fellow passengers will be far more effective than dehumanising the traveller.

Walsh is right when he says that  there was a global overreaction. That people are not into death wish territory and would be a lot more responsible in their behaviour.

There is also a huge credibility gap between the numbers of afflicted on the ground, their freedom to congregate in large numbers, take trains and buses  and suffer none of the draconian impositions placed on the air traveller.

This is especially so when there is a mountain of evidence to show that aviation is not the culprit for the spread. Time to end the undeserved pressure. 


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