The COVID-19 vaccination program already underway in many countries and soon to start in many more. Vaccination as a prerequisite to international travel seems like a no-brainer to many people. But not everyone agrees, and that includes some influential figures in the aviation industry.
It is a question of equity
Speaking at an online forum on Tuesday, Subhas Menon, Director General of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA), said his organization did not think a COVID-19 vaccination should be a precondition to international travel unless evidence points to prevention of infectiousness.
“Everyone is pinning their hopes on the vaccine and mass immunization,” said Mr Menon. AAPA’s DG is not an anti vaxer. For him, it is a question of equity.
“It’s not about whether we should jab or not. It’s not about who to jab, when to jab, or what to jab. Rather, the answer is more important. No-one is safe until everybody is safe.”
According to a timeline presented by AAPA, drawing on data from The Economist’s Intelligence Unit, it will take several years to achieve mass vaccination. Across Asia-Pacific, in 2021, you could reasonably expect 60% of the population in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan to get vaccinated. Next year, the same number of people in Australia, Macau, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Brunei, China, Maldives, India, Mongolia, Malaysia, and China should be vaccinated. By the end of 2022, 60% of the population in Bhutan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal, New Caledonia, the Philippines, Samoa, and Tonga should be vaccinated.
A tale of haves and have not, says AAPA
Suddenly, it’s a few years down the track. At this point, a lot of countries in the Asia-Pacific region still haven’t achieved that 60% vaccination rate. It’s not expected to happen in Pakistan until 2024. It will be 2025 before that vaccination rate is achieved in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Fiji, Laos, Myanmar, North Korea, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, and Vanuatu.
“It’s a tale of two halves, the haves and have not,” said Mr Menon. “It seems like while the developed world will be done and dusted with regards to immunization by the end of the year, the developing and emerging world is on a very, very long and slow road to achieve the same result.”
“Unfortunately, economic recovery cannot just hinge on the recovery of the developed world. Nor can travel recovery just proceed with travel among the developed world.”
While AAPA’s backyard takes in some wealthy countries, it also takes in some pretty impoverished countries and many developing nations. Mr Menon argues it is unfair citizens of these countries remain excluded from travel just because they lack the resources to roll out a vaccination program as the more affluent nations do.
Some industry players are stepping up
It’s something some players in the airline industry are aware of. Last week, Emirates announced an ambitious partnership to use Dubai as a COVID-19 vaccination hub so to get the vaccination out to more impoverished and developing nations in that region as quickly as possible.
Some nation-states are stepping up. Australia is buying far more COVID-19 vaccinations than it needs. But it plans to donate and distribute them to neighboring developing countries. That’s potentially good news for many countries on the tail end of AAPA’s timeline – Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, and Timor-Leste, for example.
But AAPA’s no vaccination to travel position touches on a largely unremarked aspect of this pandemic. The virus has reached into the first world, crippled their airline industries, and thwarted travel plans. That’s seen rich countries throw enormous resources are containing and controlling COVID-19. However, Mr Menon is in the corner fighting for those who risk being behind and barred from accessing international travel for some years yet.