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October 22, 2020

By Thomas Tass

COVID BC –before COVID and AC – after COVID

We are living through one of those times in history when everything around us is seemingly changing. We are living in a moment in time we may collectively come to describe in terms of ‘before’ and ‘after’ the pandemic of 2020.

In the context of border management and human mobility, that moment came when the novel coronavirus pandemic was declared.

Before COVID-19 BORDERPOL was on its way to its first forum outside of Europe and the Americas. Our 8th Global Forum was stopped in its tracks in late January as it was evident that COVID-19 was attached to human mobility and our plans needed to be suspended.

Before COVID-19 international human mobility was expansive and even easy. ‘Over tourism’ was a problem that risked ruining sites from Machu Picchu to the Louvre as 1.4 billion tourists circled the globe last year. Migration and refugee traffic volumes were growing.

After COVID-19, human mobility of all types as we knew it will be less frequent, more complicated and probably more expensive.

I have no doubt that in the short to medium term the future will in many respects reflect the post 9/11 era.  A series of jolts to the legal, economic and social systems of most countries will lead to some permanent changes, that will eventually come to feel routine.

In many respects COVID-19 has been an apocalyptic event for border management and human mobility.

Until last week air travel is down by 80 per cent, cruise ships are stuck in port, and even the ‘happiest place on earth’ — Disneyland — faces an uncertain path after reopening. COVID 2.0 - aka second wave is now an issue in parts of Europe and the Americas.

With very few travelers to service, the impact on border management has been straightforward. Borders are closed or only open for essential services. For example, the US/Canada border is closed till November 21, 2020.

There are of course tens of thousands of people directly impacted that are involved in legitimate human mobility that travel via air.  They include taxi drivers, baggage handlers, pilots, hotel cleaners, gate agents, waiters, and ticket takers, have all taken a direct hit.

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) the travel sector makes up about one in ten jobs, worldwide. To return to solvency, the industry is going to have to make serious and permanent changes, which will, in turn, see border management protocols change as well.

Lori Pennington-Gray of the University of Florida’s department of tourism, hospitality and event management said recently that she hopes people don’t think that things are going to be exactly as they were prior to COVID-19. Her department maintains a ‘travel anxiety index,’ tracking how the public feels about travel – to no one’s surprise, the fear and worry have shot   up 311 per cent at their peak.

Here in Canada a poll conducted for the Corus Radio Global News network found only 20 per cent of Canadians are likely to travel outside the country in 2020, even if it is allowed, while 50 per cent said they were not at all likely. This will make for a much quieter border in terms of volume. Interestingly that same poll found only slightly more openness to domestic travel – 37 per cent would travel outside of their home province if allowed.

In the early days of the pandemic when cruise ships became a high-profile breeding ground for the virus human mobility and health concerns faced a perception problem. Ships with names like the Diamond Princess, the Zaandam, and the Westerdam – to name a few were in the news.

Many folks ended up in quarantine that that they will not soon forget.

Today the entire travel industry and associated border management systems and security protocols from check-in, to check-out, now faces the same existential problem. How to keep travelers from infecting each other, while convincing the public that it is safe to allow people to enter the country or indeed to travel again.

It has been reported that more than 60 per cent expect of travelers feel that the industry is going to have to provide PPE for all users at touchpoints throughout their travel routings.

Will this moment in time be a defining moment in history?

Human mobility not just about tourism but also the movement of migrants and refugees. Just as airport security was dramatically and visibly stepped up after Sept. 11, 2001, health checks will now become part of every border crossing experience.

Anyone getting on to a plane, boarding a cruise ship, or checking into a hotel should expect to have their temperature taken.

They may face a health questionnaire.

They may have to register their contact information so that they can be tracked down and quarantined if they are exposed to someone who is sick.

Advances in rapid testing could make regular virus checks as routine as carry-on size containers for liquids.

Brian Kelly, founder of the travel web site The Points Guy believes that health checks are here to stay and points out some airlines have already implemented them.

Emirates is doing instant COVID tests and Etihad Airlines has temperature checks on their checking kiosks. And those are just a couple of the ways that the travel experience will be changed forever.”

Air Canada became the first airline in the Americas to require temperature checks.

Governments and airlines increasingly require that passengers and crew wear facemasks. They are now mandatory in Canada, and most airlines in the U.S. have begun to demand them.

On board, in-flight service has been scaled back to a few pre-packaged items, handed out by flight attendants in gloves and masks. The airlines have stepped up deep cleaning of seats, tray tables and luggage bins.

Commercial airlines play a direct role in the way diseases spread around the globe. Airplanes have the unique ability to carry germs across continents and oceans. Routine, effective treatment of commercial aircraft is difficult and inconvenient. Airlines are not bound by regulations or standards for hygiene onboard.

A company called Germ Falcon has developed equipment that looks like an airplane drink cart with glowing wings of ultraviolet light, that can be pushed down the aisle to disinfect the entire cabin between flights.

Behind the scenes, airports are grappling with everything from baggage disinfection to touchless check-ins to minimize points of contact and potential infection.

Facial recognition, which is facing new legal technical hurdles in the United States is a system that may be introduced at airports.  It could become the norm, replacing manual ID checks.

More basic changes to hygiene are likely. Hilton Hotels has announced a partnership with Reckitt Benckiser, which makes Lysol and other cleaning products, to set new standards for hotel cleaning in conjunction with the Mayo clinic.

Rental car companies have stepped up cleaning and are moving to contactless service. Some of the like Hertz have simply gone out of business.

Cruise ships may face the most complex situation of all, even as they prepare to return to the sea but not sure when.

As for the ubiquitous border crossing experience for travelers, the likelihood is that border guards will become health care screeners. Systems that are already taking root in the air and sea travel sectors will be replicated at land border crossing points. Expect long examination waits for the immediate future.

Finally, how does it impact our organization?

Obviously, the introduction of webinars as opposed to workshops and forums is taking the place of our traditional operations. Until it is safe to host groups of over 100 persons in a traditional conference setting, we will little choice but to maintain our presence and deliver our programs virtually.

The first of our webinars that we hosted did will most meet the expectations of our community but clearly fell well short of the traditional versions with real not virtual human contact.

BORDERPOL has been invited to attend the virtual meetings of like minded NPO/IGO's.  We appreciate these and will support them in the hope that these will become unnecessary sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, stay well stay safe!


Thomas Tass