Traveling In The Time Of Coronavirus - Some Hits, Some Misses

Coronavirus is raging through the world, in part because of intercontinental flights with stopovers in one or two countries before the final destination.

"In the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see the number of cases, deaths and number of affected countries climb even higher," said World Health Organisation (WHO) Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus, declaring COVID-19 a pandemic.

He added that WHO was deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the "alarming levels of inaction".

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Coronavirus has spread to 123 countries and infected about 125,000 people

While India has shut down its borders, put in mandatory screening at ports of entry and curtailed non-essential travel, countries like the US with over 1,000 positive cases appear to be taking things lightly. 

A 20-year-old woman from Missouri tested positive after she flew into Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on March 3 on a return trip from Italy. After staying the night in Chicago with a friend, the woman then took an Amtrak train to St. Louis the next day. Despite the history of her travel to Italy, she was not tested at Chicago airport and took a six-hour train journey. Coronavirus established itself in America without anybody realising it.

Malik Shah travelled from Mumbai to Chicago via Doha on March 6. He had heard about the screening of all international visitors at Indian airports but to his surprise, there was no COVID-19 screening at Doha and Chicago's O'Hare International airport. Qatar notified a 1,000% rise in Coronavirus cases in just one day . The number of confirmed cases in Qatar jumped from 24 to 262 but their airports lack key checks and balances. While Qatar announced a slew of measures to counter the spread of COVID-19 that includes closure of play areas, postponing workshops and training sessions and sterilisation campaigns at markets but their airports which are key areas of virus transit, remain unchecked.

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The World Health Organisation has declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic

 "I had heard so much through media in India but neither were there any placards, nor any checks at Qatar or upon landing in the US. There was no more than the usual defogging that happens before take-off," he says.

Shah added that the airports at Doha and Chicago were underequipped, barring some announcements advising people to take precautions. Considering that one cannot travel with more than 100 ml liquid, carrying hand sanitisers is not an option. Boarding gates at Doha and Chicago didn't even have hand sanitisers for passengers. In a 24-hour journey through two airports, one can come in contact with passengers with varied travel histories.

Robert Redfield, Director of the Centre for Disease Control, told lawmakers that the lack of funding has hampered the US federal government's response to the coronavirus outbreak. 'There's not enough equipment, not enough people, not enough internal capacity, there's no search capacity,' he added.

In the past two weeks, the number of cases of Covid-19 outside China increased 13-fold, while the number of affected countries has tripled. The WHO said 123 countries are now affected and over 4947 people are dead.

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The novel Coronavirus is highly contagious; it was first detected in China's Wuhan

On Wednesday, India took serious steps to combat the spread of coronavirus by suspending all tourist and business visas till April 15. Visa-free travel has been suspended for Overseas Citizenship of India card holders too. In an effort to find, isolate, test and treat every COVID-19 case, the government has advised incoming travelers, including Indian nationals, to avoid non-essential travel and be quarantined for 14 days upon arrival in India.

From deserted hotels to emptier flights, the coronavirus outbreak is slamming the tourism industry. Lisa Cowie, an entrepreneur who travels from South Africa to India twice a year, cancelled her upcoming trip. "My hotel in Delhi and Jaipur were understanding and rescheduled my stay for September without any fee. But Qatar charged a cancellation fee given that it was initiated from the passenger's end," she said. 

(Snigdha Basu is a journalist who writes on health and environment in India and has a keen interest in the African region.)

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