E.g., 02/29/2024
E.g., 02/29/2024
The Rocky Road to a Mobile World after COVID-19
Covid Mobility Commentary Flickr JensOlafWalter
Jens-Olaf Walter

COVID-19 has wiped out many forms of human movement. More than 200 countries have imposed restrictions on incoming migrants and visitors; many are even preventing nationals and long-term residents from returning. Most flights are grounded. And the whole migration system—from visa processing to refugee resettlement and returns—is on ice in most countries.

Safely restarting travel is the precondition for tourists to arrive anew, migrants to unite with loved ones or take up jobs, and refugees to reach a safe haven. But the path is uncertain and brings tough choices. Some countries—including Australia and New Zealand—have created exceptions for certain groups of migrants, but made clear that general restrictions for international travelers could remain indefinitely. Others, such as Greece, have put tourism high atop their priorities, and are looking to immunity passports and regional “travel bubbles” as a way to get tourists back onto beaches.

With countries at differing points in their coronavirus trajectory, their reasons for maintaining border restrictions vary widely. Those that have contained the virus and that can keep people out by virtue of their geography, such as Australia, are using border closures and quarantine rules as an epidemiological barrier. By contrast, deeply afflicted countries such as Italy have enacted mobility restrictions well beyond border closures—including highly policed intraregional travel. And the United Kingdom, which has experienced high rates of infection, long argued that arriving travelers posed negligible risk at a time of sustained local transmission but later announced a quarantine to “prevent the risk of reinfection.” While all governments face the challenge of restarting mobility, their incentives may diverge even more as the pandemic blights new regions.

Hard Choices in a Period of Low Mobility

Restarting mobility will not be like flicking a switch, particularly amid disagreements over the costs societies can and should absorb in the name of protecting public health. The first phase of loosening travel restrictions similarly could place countries’ fundamental values under the microscope as they are forced to rank different forms of movement. In a phase where mobility should be kept to a minimum, should countries reopen economies with business travelers or tourists, or allow citizens to reunite with relatives? Should they prioritize humanitarian obligations or expedite workers critical to food supply chains?

Many countries have already introduced exceptions to meet vital labor needs, for instance by airlifting seasonal farm workers or welcoming medical professionals. Australia permits entry to those offering critical medical services or holding specialist medical skills. In Canada, students approved for a study permit before March 18, 2020 can now enter; so can all temporary foreign workers (notably, without their family members). In Germany and the United Kingdom, agricultural workers have been brought in to help sustain farming and food production. As the closures drag on, the degree to which certain employers rely on foreign workers may become apparent. Yet even if political pressure mounts to make more exceptions, sky-high unemployment may draw native workers into previously undesirable jobs and make the politics of this trickier than ever.

Nonessential movements, such as business travel or tourism, raise more difficult questions. Right now, many countries require incoming arrivals to quarantine for 14 days, which rules out most short-term visitors. Some European countries are exploring whether quarantine-free mobility within small groupings of countries with similar approaches and infection rates could work. But while a closed regional mobility system could work in a few instances, such as with the planned Baltic bubble and the “Trans-Tasman” free movement between Australia and New Zealand, countries with significant community transmission will have to keep mobility to a minimum.

Adaptations taken by travel operators and airports will thus be paramount. Tightly packed airplanes are the antithesis of social distancing, and discussion of a resumption of full flights has triggered a public backlash. There has been some speculation that airlines will slash prices, but some may decide to wait (especially if covered by stimulus and furlough packages) which could force them to recoup costs by raising prices on “inelastic” demand—i.e. essential business travel on routes where they have a monopoly—or by marketing themselves as the “safe” airline, with features such as spaced-out seats or plexiglass compartments.

The default option may be to let the market constrain mobility, by imposing additional costs on travelers. The Vienna airport’s new on-arrival COVID test, which allows arriving passengers to pay 190 euros to avoid a quarantine period, is an early sign of this approach; costs could be increased as a tool for managing volume. But others may take the approach of carefully calibrating who enters. Whatever choices are made could set the stage for future migration and mobility management.

Managed Mobility amid Pandemic

As congestion hotspots, airports and ports fall into the same bucket as concert venues and sports halls—still months away from business as usual. But even when some countries are ready to completely reopen, others may still be struggling to tame the virus, which will create huge incentives for a second wave of travel bans from high-risk regions. The process of reopening borders may therefore be non-linear. Governments should heed the lessons of earlier this year (where travel bans were often too leaky and too late to contain the virus).

Resuming mobility on a larger scale will also depend on a wholesale rethink of border and travel processes—including a big push towards digitization and automation. The technology for touchless border crossings, such as facial-recognition automated gates and contactless baggage check, was in pilot prior to the pandemic; companies are now racing to develop facial-recognition software that will work even with a mask. And software previously shelved for ethical reasons, such as built-in lie detectors at automated border stations, may now seem worth the cost if it minimizes staff exposure.

Health screenings will be the cornerstone of managed mobility in the COVID-19 age, but countries will have to determine who to subject to screenings (e.g. pedestrian and vehicle traffic, or just people arriving through airports). Pretravel quarantine periods or predeparture blood tests may work for longer-term or longer-distance travel, but will be difficult to implement at high-traffic land borders, where many travelers move between countries on a daily basis for work or shopping.

Governments are looking to thermal screening as a way to avoid the long lines that formed in airports in the early stages of the pandemic. Yet fever is an unreliable indicator for COVID-19 and can be masked. Even the most efficient tests, such as Korea’s famous COVID booths, take seven minutes, pointing to a potential tradeoff between accuracy (reliably identifying virus carriers) and social distancing (keeping screening fast enough to prevent lines from forming). Health screening is also expensive.

Two potential gamechangers could allow for swifter return to pre-pandemic mobility levels:

  • Immunity passports, currently contemplated by countries including Chile and Greece, would allow countries to open up to large number of visitors. These have yet to take off, namely because it is unclear if there is immunity and how long it lasts, and because of the risk of false positives in current antibody tests, as the World Health Organization (WHO) warned recently. Immunity passports may also incentivize people to get sick intentionally, which could be deeply problematic in the case of people whose lives, livelihoods, or family relationships depend on crossing borders.
  • Contract-tracing apps, which will ping users who have been within six feet of someone later diagnosed with the coronavirus, are also being viewed with hope. Apple and Google recently announced they would build a contact-tracing tool; and countries including France, Iceland, and the United Kingdom are developing their own. Some signs of such a future come from China, where local governments have been using checkpoints with QR codes that rate the user’s risk of catching the virus and prescribe a level of quarantine when moving internally; and Taiwan, where geolocation smartphone technology is used to ensure people stay housebound during quarantines.

But already, questions are being raised about anonymity, digital inclusion, and voluntariness; one expert estimated that contact-tracing apps need 80 percent coverage, double the most successful download rate so far (Iceland’s 40 percent). Moreover, these apps are being developed for domestic contact tracing; its unclear how they could work across borders if countries design their own proprietary apps, unless travelers agree to subject themselves to a sustained period of tracking in the period leading up to travel—a sea change in the level of surveillance many are comfortable with. Nonetheless, combined with mass testing, such tools could be an important piece in getting the world moving again.

Mobility After COVID

Even when a vaccine or viable treatment is widely available, it may be difficult to unwind policies enacted in the name of pandemic response. Countries dealing with unauthorized spontaneous arrivals have seen the benefits of border closures. Many pundits speculate the virus could mark the end of Europe’s Schengen area, for example, since secondary movements of asylum seekers have fallen dramatically following the widespread reintroduction of border controls. The chill on movements may ultimately spell the end of some forms of mobility, such as territorial asylum, as countries discover that public health is a readily accepted way to turn back people who present at borders without authorization.

Mobility inequalities drawn out by the pandemic may also linger. If either vaccination or a positive antibody test becomes a condition for crossing borders, this sets a precedent for health status being a source of freedom; similarly, recent calls from the World Travel & Tourism Council for young people to be first to visit tourist destinations points to a world where health becomes a type of currency. Access to immunization—and the digital verification to prove it, as paper-based documents would bring too much risk—may sort people into classes of “movers” and “non-movers,” and further cement the relationship between income and international freedom of movement.

A protracted period of severely restricted travel may also create greater incentives for clandestine movements. While the first phase of pandemic appears to have reduced irregular movements (except across the English Channel), demand for smugglers to facilitate illicit movements may grow as economies open up and stranded migrants look to return home. And even after the virus subsides, this shadow infrastructure may be even more difficult to walk back from—especially if more onerous health requirements place above-board travel further out of reach for the sick or uninsured.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 is likely to be a watershed moment in relation to what level of private data, specifically health and movement data, publics are willing to cede in the name of travel. The pandemic follows major expansions in the use and scope of digital powers and practice—from the Trump administration’s “extreme vetting” policy to New Zealand’s “digital strip search” for smartphones. Such surveillance will need to be handled especially carefully when it comes to cross-border movements, where legal frameworks are fuzzy and the paths in the rocks are often carved by nongovernmental partners with fewer ethical scruples.

The biggest question of all, perhaps, is whether the world will return to pre-crisis mobility levels, and travelers will again experience the freedom of a transatlantic dash to a meeting in Brussels or weekend trip to Cancun. The fact is that a great deal of the world’s population never had such a freedom, so the pandemic is exposing for the lucky what has always been true for the worst-off—mobility is precious, but it can also be extremely costly and may be increasingly constrained.