The novel coronavirus (also known as COVID 19 or 2019 nCoV) that originated in Wuhan China is one of the biggest public health emergencies that has emerged in recent years, and has had a significant impact on the travel industry and traveller confidence in the early months of 2020. But what is the truth about the coronavirus outbreak? What are the facts and what is just media scaremongering? Are travellers really at risk from coronavirus or is it just media hysteria?
The novel coronavirus has had a profound economic impact on the travel industry that is likely to be felt for many months if not years after the outbreak has been contained. In just a month since a host of countries including the UK’s Foreign Commonwealth Office declared the whole of mainland China off limits to travel, the world has seen airlines cancelling routes to the country, cruise lines cancelling some routes and itineraries, entire cruise ships have been quarantined with passengers stranded on board, major tourist attractions have been closed and Chinese New Year celebrations and other major events cancelled, all of which are having a significant impact on the global economy. Everything from the tourism industry to the luxury product market and corporate world and everything in between is feeling the impact.
The Coronavirus outbreak is serious and does demand a serious response from the worlds governments, but media headlines and scaremongering about worst case scenarios does not help anyone.
But far more insidious than the economic impact, the coronavirus outbreak is also having a profoundly negative impact on the psyche of travellers themselves, with fear of travel running at extreme highs, trips being cancelled entirely and many travellers holding off on their plans until things have settled down. A report for the American Society of Travel Advisors suggests that up to 25% of travellers have changed their plans to travel or had cancelled plans altogether. That number rose to 71% of those who had future plans to travel to China.
Since this article was written many countries are closing off their borders to travellers for a set period, and airlines have all but cancelled most of their flights, essentially grounding a lot of travellers.
Any major outbreak or emergency will of course worry travellers, that is only natural, but how much of this is unnecessary hysteria? How much misinformation and scaremongering has been listened to as opposed to the genuine information from official professional sources? How much should travellers really be worried about being at risk of contracting the disease?
The truth about the risk Coronovirus poses to travellers.
COVID19 is the disease caused by SARS COV 2, a new strain of a variety of respiratory diseases including influenza, more commonly known as the common variety flu, and the common cold. It is a serious new strain of a disease we are all very used to on a daily basis and should be taken seriously but is not something that most should be overly scared of.
On 11th March 2020 the World Health Organisation officially declared the COVID 19 outbreak as a Pandemic. A pandemic is classed as a worldwide spread of a new disease or strain of disease.
The general risk to most travellers is still relatively low to moderate and thorough infection control measures are recommended.
Most Western countries around the world including the NHS in the UK are very well equipped to deal with the virus and so far the people most at risk are those who are already vulnerable to virus’ like the flu such as the elderly or the immunocompromised.
Despite this the 24 hour constant news cycle often misrepresent the facts – or in many cases get them completely wrong – to present a headline that will sell or get them clicks.
Keeping things in perspective.
Just to keep things in perspective let’s look at the official numbers.
COVID 19 Statistics.
As of 14th March 2020, almost 4 months after the first case of COVID 19 in Wuhan China, there have been over 145,455 cases worldwide, with over 70,956 of those fully recovered and only 5418 deaths.
The majority of those cases are in mainland China, with over 80, 824 confirmed cases, 64,176 fully recovered and 3177 deaths.
Most of these deaths worldwide involve those already in at risk groups, such as the very elderly, and often involve other co morbidities – or other illnesses – running side by side.
Larger outbreaks in south Korea, Italy and Iran have the highest rates outside of mainland China.
As of 13th March 2020 there had been 32,771 people tested in the UK with only 798 found to have a positive Coronavirus strain of the virus. There have been 10 confirmed COVID 19 positive deaths in the UK.
Updates are published daily by Public Health England.
Compare that to another type of Coronavirus, Influenza, or ‘the flu’.
In comparison the CDC estimates that influenza, the common variety flu in layman’s terms, results in approximately 12,000 deaths a year in the USA alone, and according to Public Health England over 29,000 people a year in the UK die from respiratory diseases including influenza (the flu), pneumonia, bronchitis and asthma.
That is on average 290,000 to 650,000 deaths every year worldwide to influenza related respiratory illnesses.
And again most of those deaths will be those at risk, the elderly, the very young and the immunocompromised, and will likely have other comorbidities leading to death.
It is right to be aware of the risks of the coronavirus outbreak and take reasonable precautions, but not to be worried or scared. The numbers really do put it in perspective.
Debunking the myths of Coronavirus.
Honestly the biggest threat to public health has been the mass spread of misinformation, myth and downright conspiracy theories that have been spreading over the internet and social media faster than the outbreak itself. The truth is this:
- The coronavirus is not a man made, end of the world supervirus.
- Unfortunately – as cool as it would be – this is not the start of the zombie apocalypse. Put your modified baseball bat away. For now at least.
- Eating meat will not give you Coronavirus, despite moronic propaganda from PETA.
- Hand dryers, UV lamps or hairdryers do not kill ‘coronavirus germs’.
- Washing your hands or face in saline, alcohol or bleach does not protect you from the coronavirus but may actually cause you harm. And yes, these are genuine questions people have asked. Put the bleach down!
- Thermal scanners at airports do not and cannot detect the disease, they detect your body temperature which will be raised if you are symptomatic of a number of diseases.
- You can’t get the disease from a package, so that cheap knock off branded bag you bought from the internet will be perfectly safe.
- Vaccines for other diseases, such as influenza or the pneumococcal vaccine, do not protect against COVID 19 coronavirus, this is a different strain.
- Cocaine nor any other controlled substance is not a cure nor a preventative medicine.
- Antibiotics will not, and I repeat will not in any way, shape or form and will absolutely never protect you from coronavirus. Coronavirus is a virus, the clue is in the name, and antibiotics do not work against virus’.
- Face masks will not protect you from the coronavirus.
- And contrary to popular belief, ‘user37487’ on that random social media thread is not the sole expert and source of all knowledge on the coronavirus or any other medical issue for that matter. Get your knowledge from up to date professional and more importantly qualified sources.
There are a lot more weird and wonderful ones I have heard but they appear to be the main ones.
Is it safe to travel with the threat of Coronavirus?
Please note that as of March 2020 the UK FCO issued an exceptional travel warning which meant that essentially most travellers were in absolute lockdown. This was due primarily to the risk of any country or area instituting travel restrictions without warning. This is not a nationally imposed travel ban because of COVID19 itself, which is something the WHO deems futile. This advice is still relevant once those international travel bans have been lifted.
In very general terms and from a medical point of view, for the majority of travellers in the majority of destinations (with some obvious exceptions) yes it is. Risk assessment on a governmental level for worldwide COVID 19 transmission is conducted daily and is extremely robust.
The WHO has now declared COVID 19 a pandemic. This describes a virus that has quickly spread person to person across multiple countries, and this has been declared a pandemic now because of the amount of countries it has been found in, and allows governments to take specific actions to deal with it.
Taking into account advisories for individual countries the personal risk level for the average traveller in the absolute majority of places is still low to moderate.
On a personal level however every traveller obviously has different personal risk factors they have to take into account and only you can judge for yourself whether you personally consider travel too risky. If you have a compromised immune system or are at higher than average risk, or your travel plans place you directly in an at risk zone, then those are factors that you have to consider as part of your own personal risk assessment. I’m not telling you to cancel a trip or not one way or the other, all I am saying is be fully informed before you make that decision.
Personal risk factors to consider:
- General health and immunisation status.
- Age. The very young and old are at increased risk of most respiratory diseases due to a decreased immune system.
- Pregnancy. Being pregnant can lower your body’s immune system and ability to fight off infection.
- Any pre existing conditions that have compromised or lowered your immune system or ability to fight infections.
- Lack of sleep, dehydration or a general lack of care for your body can lower your immune system.
- Previous visits to areas that have a high risk of infection (such as China before the travel ban).
- Close personal contact with any person who has likely visited an at risk area, especially if they are symptomatic.
- Potential visits to areas where the risk of COVID 19 is higher than average.
- Plans to visit any festival, event, conference or anywhere where there will be a large gathering of people. Any large crowds in small places always runs a slightly higher infection risk of any type of bug or virus.
- Working, staying or even being in any facility where there is a large concentration of people in close contact, including hostels, hotels, airports, planes, ferries or cruise ships, hospitals, schools, office buildings among many others.
This list is not comprehensive and it is important to remember that on their own each risk factor should not generally be enough to put you off travelling, but should be considered a part of a holistic personal risk assessment. The more factors you have, the more risk you have, the more the risk goes over your own personal risk comfort threshold (because everyone is different), then the more you should perhaps consider changing plans. If the risk is minimal or manageable, then that is something you can take into account too.
The largest risk factor for many now is the risk of being a carrier to those who are in a much higher risk category than they are. If you can travel in relative isolation to a country that still does not have lockdowns in place, can maintain a high level of personal hygiene and do not have any other risk factors such as elderly parents at home who you will need to visit on return then you can take that as part of your personal risk assessment.
If you can’t afford to follow official guidelines on self isolation after travel, then you should reconsider too.
Which countries have advisories against travel?
Please note that as of March 2020 the UK FCO issued an exceptional travel warning against all but essential travel, and most countries have instituted travel bans, which meant that essentially most travellers were in absolute lockdown. This was due primarily to the risk of any country or area instituting travel restrictions without warning. This is not a nationally imposed travel ban because of COVID19 itself, which is something the WHO deems futile.
What travel delays can I expect?
Airlines are cancelling routes daily as countries close borders so travellers can expect to be severely impacted by this. Many travellers have had plans and bookings decimated for the next 6 months. If you are still travelling make sure that your flights are still going ahead and that you have taken into account the fact you may be stuck or quarantined in that country for weeks.
Some countries that are still allowing travellers are imposing various levels of quarantine for travellers arriving from specific countries. This ranges from two weeks of self isolation to full forced quarantine. Each country has different rules so please check before you travel.
Flight changes, cancellations and insurance.
The biggest disruption apart from border closures for travellers to the majority of destinations face at the moment is the risk of cancellations and flight changes. The only advice I can give on that unfortunately (because things can change daily) is if you are travelling to a country that is relatively at risk of such sudden changes, such as Italy or south Korea, is don’t change your plans automatically but keep an eye on the news and any changes, be aware of your rights with the airlines, have good travel insurance and remain flexible with a good back up plan.
As a general rule of thumb unless your government has issued an ‘all but essential travel’ (or its equivalent), then airlines will generally continue to fly and you will not be able to claim from the airline or insurance if you decide not to travel.
If you do change your mind without that specific government warning or grounding of flights, then this will be considered a disinclination to travel, not a disruption to your plans, and insurers are unlikely to pay out and you will most likely lose most, if not all of your money.
Unless that warning is in place and flights are cancelled, there should be no reason for you to want to do so anyway as the risk factor is generally low.
If flights have been cancelled without warning either just before you fly or while you are in destination, and the government advisory has not changed, then make sure you are aware of your passenger rights and have good, solid insurance.
If warnings change whilst you are travelling and in country, then it is a good idea to have a back up plan ready to get to an alternative destination.
If an outbreak occurs where you are whilst you are travelling then be aware that there may be a chance that you may be quarantined and held for up to two weeks or more. This has happened to some passengers on cruise ships and in a resort in Tenerife. The risk of this happening is very low, but a little flexibility in your timetable and your plans plus robust travel insurance is a must. If the possibility of this happening is intolerable to your plans, if you need to be somewhere on a specific date after your trip for example, then that is something you should consider as part of your risk assessment too.
Obviously stay up to date with the changing news (and remember to use qualified, authoritative sources) as the situation may change on a day to day basis.
How do I protect myself from the coronavirus if I do travel?
It really isn’t as difficult as it may seem from the media. You don’t need to wear a mask all of the time or walk around in a full on Hazmat suit. The WHO and the NHS advise simple, easy, everyday guidelines.
The Coronavirus, like most respiratory diseases, are spread primarily through droplets of saliva or mucus, either through direct contact, someone coughing or sneezing on you, or from handling surfaces or foods were these droplets have settled.
- Wash your hands regularly and thoroughly in warm soapy water.
- In between proper hand washes use alcohol hand gel frequently.
- Wipe down any public surfaces you may have prolonged contact with such as aeroplane trays with a disinfectant wipe.
- Maintain at least 3 feet from other people on average and more if they are actively coughing or sneezing, so you can avoid inhaling the virus.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. This is how all those droplets from all the surfaces you touch get transferred to you!
- Use respiratory hygiene. What that means is if you do cough or sneeze make sure you use a tissue, dispose of it properly and immediately and then wash your hands thoroughly. Remember that old saying, catch it, bin it, kill it! It’s an old saying for good reason!
And in case this didn’t get through, the most important thing you can do to protect yourself is wash your hands! This is so important we actually had a practical exam on this technique during my nursing degree!
Do I need to wear a mask?
No. I know you’ve seen all the media reports of everyone wearing them, and heard of the ridiculous panic buying that is happening leading to worldwide mask shortages, but just forget all that and stop it.
Surgical masks are clinical PPE, designed for clinical staff during specific clinical tasks. They work very well in those specific circumstances when used correctly but are not recommended by medical professionals, the WHO, the CDC or Public Health England for mass public use. In fact because people don’t use them properly they may end up actually harbouring more germs and doing more harm than good.
The only people who should be wearing surgical masks are clinical staff, or civilians who are attending to those who are sick. In some cases those people displaying mild symptoms can wear them too to avoid spreading germs.
Do I need to self isolate?
There is a lot of misinformation about this at the moment, especially with so many countries shutting borders, and Public Health England probably has the simplest and most robust advice on this. The very simple and short answer is not everyone does, and forced isolation is not the correct or most responsible action outside of specific cases such as China and Italy.
Basically speaking those in certain risk groups only should self isolate for approximately two weeks. That includes:
- Travellers who have come from a country or area where COVID 19 is present. Even if they have no symptoms.
- People who have been ordered by health professionals to self isolate (such as travellers) and/or are awaiting a test result.
- Anyone who is in a natural at risk group such as the elderly or pregnant women.
- Anyone who has comorbidities or illnesses that leave them immunocompromised or at greater risk if they catch any infection.
- Anyone who is or has been in contact with those who are tested positive for Coronavirus or who may potentially have it. These people should self isolate and inform the NHS 111 service to help with contact tracing.
- Anyone who shows symptoms of a mild cold or flu, including coughing, difficulty breathing and a higher temperature than normal among others.
I would personally advise not being too paranoid about this. If you can isolate yourself and work from home, then great. If you can’t you should not be overly concerned but you should take extra precautions.
Hand washing, disinfecting surfaces, and maintaining a social distance from people reduces your personal risk exponentially. The fact that most people do not practice these measures on a daily basis anyway is the reason we have viruses spread so readily and have an influenza season every year, so make sure you use these methods religiously.
On top of that people need to be more socially aware too. Avoid visiting at risk places such as nursing homes or hospitals unless you are staff if you can (and if you do have to then at least follow infection control procedures religiously), avoid gathering in large groups if possible, if you have friends or family who are in an at risk group then maybe postpone visits or use other methods such as simply calling them. If you are caring for or live with individuals who are at risk (ie immunocompromised patients) and you can’t isolate from them then make sure your infection control procedures are perfect.
If you do this and aren’t in or around anyone in an at risk group then there is currently no need to self isolate completely and this will be true for the vast majority of people. You can still go to work, you can still go to the shops if you need to (if there is anything left after the idiots have panic bought everything), just take reasonable precautions and isolate when and where you can. There is currently a lot of misinformation on this and a lot of shaming and panic on social media which is completely unnecessary.
This crisis will end. Travel will be possible again. The best thing to do for now is to postpone travel plans, but still plan for later when this is all over. In most cases there is no need to cancel travel plans out of fear.
And that’s it, protecting yourself from COVID19 really nothing more than you would do to protect yourself from the flu or diarrhoea or any other basic, common illness. Yes the coronavirus outbreak is serious, and yes you should be aware of any potential risks to make an informed decision on travel, but you shouldn’t let that turn into fear or paranoia either.
For the vast majority of healthy travellers in most destinations, there is no reason to worry, The biggest problems are coming from the practicalities of airlines cancelling flights and governments being too heavy handed with travel warnings.
Calm head, rational mind, safe travels.
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