Someday, we’ll fly again, but it won’t be the same. Instead of a passport regime based on wealth and power, only the healthy will be able to move. And it may not be who you think.
The world will open up again, the only questions are how, how much and — most importantly — for whom?
The world is rapidly dividing into countries that suppress their outbreaks and countries that don’t. Over time, the countries that succeed will connect. The countries that fail will be left out. So what would that look like?
Let’s say you’re from a clear country, with close to zero daily cases. Before you travel, you apply for a visa, and submit a certified COVID-19 test. This gets you permission to go to the airport. Then, at the airport, you take another quick test and wait. That gives you permission to board the flight. When you get off, you take another test at your destination. If you pass that you’re still not free to go. You then install an app on your phone and consent to being tracked across your stay.
I guess this sounds dystopian, but what else can you do? Countries that get clear are at constant risk of importing more and shutting down again. At least until a vaccine, airports will have to form a clear channel, with rigorous checks.
This is all possible with current technology. We have quick tests, just not nearly enough of them. Asian countries at least have the bureaucratic ability, and we have the technology to trace. It won’t be fun, which gets us to the next point. Travel just won’t happen as much.
Airline travel sucked before, but this is obviously worse. Never mind what travel is ultimately allowed, under these conditions people would simply travel less. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
A person flying London-New York emits more carbon in that flight than most Africans do in a year. Before coronavirus, flights were ‘just’ 2.5% of global emissions, but projected to take up to 25% of the world’s carbon budget by 2050. Planes are also currently impossible to decarbonize, and their use was growing every year.
Plane travel is also deeply unequal. Rich people emit the carbon, but everyone has to deal with the damage. In America, just 12% of flyers take 68% of the flights, and less than half of Americans even have a passport. There’s a small minority of people doing a huge amount of travel, and you have to wonder if it’s worth it.
After events like 9/11, flights quickly rebounded, but this isn’t an event like that. For at least a year, our entire global culture is going to change and some of those changes may stick. Some business travel may be replaced digitally. Some of those businesses may not exist. A lot of the disposable income may not be there. And, getting to the next point, some formerly high-flying nations may be find themselves shunned.
For years, the ability to travel has been restricted to people with rich, usually white passports. With COVID-19, countries were slow to close their borders to the US and UK because it was so unusual, they’re usually closing their borders to everyone else.
Now in many ways, the tables have turned. Having lived under effective travel bans for decades, sub-Saharan Africa and the Global South simply have fewer cases. And third world countries are handling their response better than the United States. These countries may enter the new clear travel channels while Americans, Brits and Europeans remain radioactive for months, if not years.
The entire world of travel may reorient around places that have functioning testing and health systems and away from a western world that has now been revealed as crumbling and incompetent. I don’t know and regression to the mean is strong, but we may be moving into an eastern century, where health is wealth.
The Vaccine, The End
Then at some point, God-willing this will end. We will hopefully have a vaccine, and everyone will get it, and over years things will return to ‘normal’. To travel, you’ll just need your vaccinations to be up to date, and maybe the hazmat suits and nasal swabs will go away. But I don’t think things will ever be the same.
Travel has been a privilege reserved for colonisers and the wealthy. You may not think about it, but my Sri Lankan passport gives me visa-free access to 22% of the world compared to 94% with my Canadian (I’m dual). This has been based on decades of power and wealth and class, but that’s all in flux right now.
Like a phoenix, global travel will rise from the ashes, but it may be a dragon and not a bird. Or it may be a VR simulation. And maybe it’ll be more fair. Right now a lot of travel is grounded, but at some point, it’ll start again. What form that will take, however, is still up in the air.
Indi Samarajiva is a writer based in Colombo, Sri Lanka