A year and a half after the start of the global Covid-19 pandemic, countless vacations, work trips and family reunions abroad have been delayed or canceled.
And despite high vaccination rates in the UK – 64.5% of the population is now fully vaccinated – it appears that many Britons are still reluctant to fly to a foreign destination. Reservations are 83% lower than pre-pandemic levels, Reuters reported.
Much of the reluctance to travel abroad may be linked to the government’s much-maligned travel lists, but a new system based on the immunization status of travelers could be in the works, according to Sky News. The government’s red list could be scrapped and replaced with a simpler two-tier system, while day two PCR testing for the double bite could be scrapped.
But as the pandemic continues to affect vast swathes of the globe, is it possible to travel safely and ethically?
The risk of transmission
With high vaccination rates in the UK, people who are fully vaccinated may find traveling abroad relatively safe now. But just as double vaccination does not completely eliminate the risk of infection, it also does not eliminate the possibility of passing the Covid-19 virus to someone else.
“Vaccinated people have protection – but not 100% – against the development of serious disease if they are infected with SARS-CoV-2,” Amy McGuire, professor of biomedical ethics at Baylor College of Medicine of Houston, Texas.
“However, we are still generating evidence of how different vaccines protect against transmission of the virus.”
The good news is that having the vaccine appears to make transmission of the virus extremely difficult – but not impossible. Early studies show that people who received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine are “up to 78% less likely to spread the virus to household members than unvaccinated people,” Nature said.
“This is good news,” Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, told the science journal. “But it’s not good enough.”
This means that vaccinated people can still occasionally spread the infection, regardless of their vaccination status.
The rise of variants
The spread of the Delta variant also makes safe travel more difficult.
A recent British study shows that the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines both protect slightly less well against symptomatic disease caused by Delta than against that caused by Alpha.
“It could also mean a drop in their protection against transmission from Delta, but there is still a lot of uncertainty,” Dean said.
Access to vaccines
While many wealthier Western countries have high levels of immunization and access to good health care, the same cannot be said of people living in many less economically developed countries of the world.
As the Washington Post noted, only 6% of the world’s population has been fully immunized, “leaving billions waiting for doses.”
And the global immunization disparity is expected to continue for some time, according to Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Arizona and George Mason University.
“Until you have global access and adequate vaccine distribution, it will inherently create inequalities,” Popescu told the newspaper.
Travelers should therefore take into account the level of vaccination of the population at their destination and the robustness of their health care infrastructure.
Becoming ill, ill or injured abroad could “add potential burden” to already struggling or overburdened health systems, warned Henry Wu, associate professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine, in the same article.
Direction of travel
Overall, the ethics of travel “depend on where you live” and where you go, argues Kelly Hill, bioethicist and co-founder of bioethics consultancy Rogue Bioethics, in The Guardian. .
If you live and travel from a country where “80% or more of the eligible population is fully vaccinated, and there is a low overall incidence of Covid-19 both where you live and where you travel ”, so, argues Hill,“ this is not unethical ”. But many countries around the world still struggle with high infection rates.
Perhaps the best way to view travel is not as an ethical issue, but rather as a “public health question about how best to minimize risk to yourself and to others,” said the Dr Thomas Tsai, surgeon and health policy researcher at Brigham and Women’s. Hospital in the same newspaper.
This includes observing and following local rules regarding testing, masks, and social distancing, even if you are fully vaccinated.
And then there is climate change
Famous climate activist Greta Thunberg gave up air travel in 2019, crossing the Atlantic Ocean by boat to attend a United Nations summit on global warming in New York. Should we all follow his example?
“Consider the aviation industry which produces between five and eight percent of global emissions and has the greatest impact on the climate,” wrote Matt Harker, doctoral student in theory and criticism at Western University, Canada, on The Conversation. Other estimates, however, place the aviation industry’s share at just 2%, meaning that flight is certainly not the worst offender when it comes to carbon emissions.
What the disruption of global travel should allow us to do is rethink our “consumption behaviors, which include where, when, how and why we travel,” argues Harker.
But if you’re concerned about reducing your own carbon footprint, then reducing the number of flights you take – or stopping altogether – is one of the most efficient things you can do. Indeed, “over 80% of the world’s population never flies at all,” the BBC said – and therefore proportionately, flying contributes much more to the carbon footprint of travelers.