New technologies coming online now will greatly speed up our momentum in the battle against COVID. That was one of many striking points made by Gloria Guevara, president and CEO of the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), in a webinar she conducted last week for the U.S. Tour Operators Association (USTOA).
The COVID emergency sparked a wave of innovation worldwide, and now new things are emerging that are impressive and inspiring.
Besides the record-time rollout of vaccines that we’re seeing, scientists and inventors all over the world have been focused on the problems of the COVID crisis. And one year after the pandemic hit the US, good things are beginning to materialize.
Widespread Rapid Testing
“We need to do testing,” said Guevara, “and we need to use technology. There is amazing technology that we learn about every week.”
She mentioned some examples, such as technology that can be used to detect airborne viral particles coming from an infected person.
Guevara mentioned two applications that are now awaiting FDA approval, including an app that can detect infection by analyzing your voice over the phone, and a device that passengers can blow in that will identify a COVID infection.
Guevara’s presentation to USTOA was for me the latest item in a Parade of Good News I’ve been seeing lately.
I am referring to what appears to me to be a gathering force of positive movement on the COVID front. And right now, what other front is there? Without success in this area, what else is possible?
Guevara came heavily armed with a huge arsenal of powerful information that forms a solid, empirical foundation for optimism.
But, as she made clear, it’s not just about the information; it’s about the determination to use the tools we have to take action to defeat the pandemic and restore mobility.
“We need to change the narrative,” she said. “It’s about mobility. It’s not just about travel.”
The travel industry happens to be the industry that has been most acutely affected by the issues of mobility, but it is only the canary in the coal mine. Our economic system requires mobility. It’s the circulatory system of human civilization.
It’s all about restoring mobility. That’s the sine qua non, the unified field theory of recovery. That’s what pulls all the separate interest groups into the same boat.
A key to restoring mobility is to have ways to test for COVID that are fast and widely available, that can be placed strategically to spot infected people and isolate them to stop the spread. Every airport could have testing stations based on these simple, non-intrusive technologies.
Moving from country assessments to individual assessments of risk would be a giant step toward restoring mobility. That would enable us to focus on infected individuals, and not quarantine entire countries. Using a hammer to kill flies is overkill, and has high costs.
“It’s cheaper to invest in testing than to just close borders,” she said. “The impact of that is significant.”
We made a similar mistake after 9/11, she said. Initially we assessed entire countries to be dangerous, when it was really only a few individuals in those countries.
Deploying the Entire Arsenal
Now that we have vaccines coming online we have found the Holy Grail, but that’s only one weapon in the human arsenal in the fight against COVID. The most effective tools overall are still the ones we already had, but have not used effectively.
“In the case of SARS,” said Guevara, “though we didn’t have a vaccine we were able to recover pretty fast. And why was that? Because we were able to isolate the people that were infected, which takes us to what we’ve been saying since day one of the outbreak of this virus. That’s that we have to learn to coexist with this virus. We don’t think it’s going anywhere. We have to learn to isolate the people infected so that we can resume mobility.”
Even with the vaccines as our master weapon, the most effective tools for stopping the spread are still the original tools, the public health protocols of masking, physical distancing, hand washing, avoiding enclosed spaces inhabited by groups, etc.
Then there are the actions of public health departments, which are not new, but have been successfully used to stop polio and smallpox. Those include contact tracing, rapid testing, and quarantining people who are infected.
Clear International Standards
As the voice of the global travel industry speaking to governments, Guevara’s reframing of the issue as about mobility is powerful. WTTC’s pitch to governments is not just about people taking vacations. It’s about mobility—a more fundamental, vital issue.
In its discussions with governments, WTTC is asking them to establish some universal standards, such as mask mandates that not only help keep people safe, but also make it less confusing and intimidating to try to travel internationally.
“We need consistency,” she said. “The private sector has done an amazing job of defining the protocols, which are important to offer a consistent experience and rebuild the trust of the traveler. We’ve been asking for mandatory masking in every country. Why’s that? Because there’s no consistency now. We’re asking the governments to help enforce the protocols as well.”
In its talks with governments, WTTC is stressing four points:
Coordination. Countries need to work together. “Travel is not isolated,” she said. “We need to have a clear framework for mobility. That means certainty, to have clear rules of what do you need to do.”
Individual risk assessments. As opposed to whole country risk assessments, as discussed above.
Reinforce health and hygiene protocols. Ones have been shown to be effective in slowing the spread.
A Call for Support. The travel industry is one of the most direly affected industries, through no fault of its own, and it’s an essential industry. Governments need to make sure the industry survives.
Although we are seeing great success with the vaccines, Guevara pointed out that vaccinating 7 billion people around the world may take some time.
Meanwhile, “We need to work with governments to define international mobility protocols. That includes means testing and contact tracing, and all the solutions I mentioned before. You can have this mobility and clear rules with the use of technology, while we continue the vaccination rollout at the same time. And we have to continue the protocols, the masks and social distancing and the hygiene and the things we know.
“The bottom line is we don’t believe this virus is going anywhere. We have to learn to coexist with the virus. We need to be smart, use the technology, and work together to implement these applications and solutions to allow mobility.”
As with every crisis and disaster (think World War II), COVID will bring some good in its wake. Necessity is the mother of invention, and there has never been a more pressing necessity than COVID.
“The digital agenda has been accelerated,” said Guevara. “There are some solutions that you will see implemented in airports in terms of biometrics that were planned to be implemented in three, four, or five years that you will see this year. We will see solutions in airports to check your temperature. Those are not going to go away after COVID. They will be used to prevent another situation similar to this.”
The environmental implications raised by COVID have also had a powerful effect on social preferences and priorities.
“The sustainability agenda is another one that has accelerated,” said Guevara. “We need to make sure we come back stronger, more sustainable and better. We have to learn to coexist with the virus. We believe we are moving forward, and we will have a better and stronger sector.”
David Cogswell is a freelance writer working remotely, from wherever he is at the moment. Born at the dead center of the United States during the last century, he has been incessantly moving and exploring for decades. His articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Fortune, Fox News, Luxury Travel magazine, Travel Weekly, Travel Market Report, Travel Agent Magazine, TravelPulse.com, Quirkycruise.com and other publications. He is the author of four books and a contributor to several others. He was last seen somewhere in the Northeast U.S.