We are quickly approaching two months since the gravity of the coronavirus situation really took hold in the U.S. I remember thinking that things didn’t seem all that bad. But then literally just a week later, multiple states issued “shelter in place” orders, where businesses were shuttered and many aspects of normal life abruptly ceased.
This cessation of “life as we knew it” wasn’t entirely universal. But for many, the changes have been profound. From loss of jobs, to watching family or friends fall sick with this virus, to the inability to enjoy normal activities such as heading to a restaurant or bar in the evening.
Travel has also been upended. The industry went from relatively healthy to utter free fall in a matter of weeks. Companies that have made billions in profits year after year were suddenly scrambling for cash. Getting refunds was ridiculously difficult. Travel hit its rock bottom in early April.
But now the writing is on the wall: travel needs to come back. Here’s why:
“Flattening The Curve” Isn’t A Long-Term Solution
When California issued its shut down order back in March, I mostly bought into the idea. I knew people who would be losing their jobs, but the effect seemed temporary. We’d be in this state for a couple weeks (remember “15 days to slow the spread“?), and there was immediately talk about tiding folks over with a stimulus check. At most, I figured some people would need to survive a month without income. Easier said than done for most of the American population, but the economic effect of the shutdown would (hopefully) be more temporary than permanent. The idea was the slow the spread of the virus as to not overwhelm the medical system.
And we did just that, as best I can tell. Yes, the statistics and news coverage coming out of New York City were intense and concerning. But, as far as I am aware, there weren’t any hospitals that were horribly overrun like we saw in Italy. New York City proved to be an outlier within the U.S. Entire temporary hospitals built to house patients haven’t even been used. Some states have only seen a handful of deaths.
What I’ve had to remind myself and others is that “flattening the curve” wasn’t about preventing total deaths from coronavirus (at least that was my interpretation looking at the less-than-precise charts through the lens of integral calculus). It was to keep things under control (if that is possible with a virus), while physicians figured out ways to better treat patients and facilities weren’t overrun.
Now that hospitals are suffering from lack of patients, the economic cost is worth considering. Unfortunately, the debate has turned into one where you’re accused of “wanting to kill grandma” by suggesting that we should begin lifting restrictions in earnest. The reality is that we simply cannot keep up the current state of things until there is a vaccine. This is a pipe dream by those who claim as much. We’ve flattened things, but we can’t continue to do so indefinitely. We have to adopt a more sustainable model.
The economic cost of shut down is going to catch up with us. Not to mention the fact that we may see just as many deaths of despair should we continue the current course.
Hawaii: A Quick Case Study
The effect of the pandemic and the resulting public policy can readily been seen in Hawaii. This is a state that is very much reliant on tourism. Direct tourism accounts for approximately 20% of Hawaii’s GDP, and much of the rest of the economy is obviously linked. You can’t just take away all the tourism dollars and expect it to survive.
Yet that is exactly what the 14-day quarantine-on-arrival policy is doing. All non-residents are essentially banned. Maybe not directly, but this is certainly the net effect. No one wants to go to the Aloha State if they must stay alone in their hotel for the first two weeks. This is longer than most people’s Hawaii vacations.
The result of this policy? Massive unemployment. Hawaii has just 17 COVID-19 deaths. Are such drastic economic effects justifiable? I get it, the disease can kill people. But what about the “side effects” on mortality that these policies will have? The overwhelming majority of Hawaiian businesses are anticipating a slump. People are speculating that there could be a rise in homelessness on the islands. Is this sustainable or wise?
Did Our Response Miss The Mark?
The proof is in the pudding with the antibody studies rolling in. The results from the two Stanford studies were a bit questionable, but the New York City antibody study was the nail in the coffin for me. When a full 20% of the population has contracted the virus, we now know it is less lethal than we all initially feared. We now know that many, many more people walk around with few to no symptoms, and antibody tests point toward a total mortality rate well under 1%. The asymptomatic cases also convinced me that thinking we can ever fully stop the spread is wishful thinking.
One epidemiological expert has warned that the social distancing and avoidance of people and life is the wrong approach and may be prolonging the outbreak. Sure, that was the point of flattening the curve, and it seems to have worked. But this may not actually be the best strategy. He argues that protecting the most vulnerable (e.g. the elderly, the immuno-compromised, those with pre-existing conditions) while letting the virus run its course through the general population as quickly as possible to achieve herd immunity will save the most lives. In other words, doing what Sweden did.
The mainstream news is finally catching on to the fact that the shut down response will have its own catastrophic effects. Take the skeptics seriously. People who warned of this potential fallout way back in March (which feels like two years ago) were quickly silenced. My own opinions swung rapidly over weeks three and four of the Caifornia shelter-in-place order.
It’s definitely difficult to get public policy right in the face of high uncertainty. This was certainly the case back in February and March. Things changed so quickly. But now that we understand the disease, have a couple promising drug treatment protocols, and know that it isn’t as deadly as feared, there needs to be discussion about balancing economic and public health concerns. Killing businesses around the world is a public health crisis in its own right.
Hindsight is always 20-20, and I hope that we as a society learn from our response to this.
We Need Travel Back
Like I said before, though, the data is in. COVID-19, while bad, isn’t as bad as initially feared. We can’t expect everyone to sit inside and put life on hold forever because of a disease. This has rarely, if ever, been the response in the past during these events. Yes, things like SARS and MERS and Ebola have deterred people from traveling in the past. But never on this sort of worldwide scale with a (mostly) coordinated approach by governments to shut travel down.
Now that we are talking about opening back up, the fear is that we will see a second wave of infections. I’m sure we will, but it likely won’t be as bad as many fear (especially in places hard hit already, like NYC). Given the example we have across the pond for a less-drastic approach (i.e. Sweden) and that fact that many people will still avoid things like group events and restaurants voluntarily, it won’t be a complete 180-degree about face. Many people will also avoid travel. They’ve said as much, and those who are flying are not enjoying packed planes.
This is why I’d advocate lifting the bulk of restrictions. People will self-manage well enough. Travel, even just domestically, won’t pick up overnight. We need to get the ball rolling before summer.
The reality is that people reliant on tourism around the world are going to suffer, especially those who live in poorer places without any sort of safety net. It will completely decimate businesses. It could even have a net negative environmental impact. Unfortunately, it’s likely that international travel is even more slow to rebound, due to varying country and airline restrictions.
My Leisure Travel Plans for May
I’m actually planning on getting out of town for the first time since February next week. Yes, it is leisure. And, no, I won’t be travel-shamed about it. This is going to be a thing for some time yet, and it is another reason people won’t take to the skies.
As far as risks go, my plans are about as low risk as you can get. Yes, it’ll include flying and staying in a hotel. But the primary activities will be hiking and getting outdoors in the desert. Heat, sunshine, and being outdoors all reduce the risk of transmission. I have few qualms visiting stores or restaurants, but if this include the need to wear a mask all the time, ordering to go will be the modus operandi (although I can also tell you I’m very much looking forward to sitting down in a mom-and-pop restaurant, should I find one that is relatively empty and is taking sufficient precautions). Risk will be as limited as I can make it.
Walking around Costco and Walmart these past weeks has just reinforced the decision to take a quick trip. Yes, flying in a metal tube with other people is a risk. But given my cost proximity to others on a weekly basis, the relative risk is a whole lot less. I’d take a different tack if we were talking about traveling from an area with a high number of cases to an area with essentially no cases. But we’ve seen coronavirus community spread nearly everywhere in the country, and our county is certainly not a hot-spot (we have 0 deaths).
Getting out this summer, especially after months of staying mostly cooped up, is going to be very much needed! It will likely still be prudent to avoid places like Disneyland or large group events. But it’s hard to argue that avoiding travel, especially with a goal of outdoor recreation, isn’t justifiable.
Travel directly or indirectly supports nearly 10% of the global population. Given what we know about the coronavirus now, it’s high time we get things back in gear for them. My fear is that it will be too little too late. Airlines may get bailed out, but many travel-dependent businesses are going to do under around the world. People’s livelihoods depend on visitors.
I know this flies in the face of the mainstream discussion on COVID-19 response. I see so many advocating for the shelter-in-place orders to remain. The argument is that people will die if we continue to spread this disease. But many are coming around to the reality that people will die if we stay this course. The economic effects and resulting additional mortality may not be immediate, but they are just as real.
The reality is that we have to grapple with risk every single day. I hop in my car, even though there is a 1 in 15,000 chance that I die in a car accident each year. Yet I have no qualms hopping in our vehicle. Embracing life means embracing a reasonable level of risk. It’s become less surprising to me that those least concerned about the coronavirus should rightly be the most concerned.
What honestly saddens me the most is seeing many call for a “new normal”. We don’t need a new normal. Societal fear of a contagion cannot become the new normal. We have weathered pandemics for centuries. Hiding away from a virus, unless you’re at critical risk from contracting it, doesn’t make any sense to me anymore. Living can’t mean we stop living.