April 2020

The case for a global alliance to fight viral infections via the global transport industry, a key vehicle responsible for Covid-19 transmission.

The role of the global transport industry in the spread of Covid-19

By Siddiq Bazarwala

With the number of confirmed Covid-19 deaths surpassing 10,000 as of late March 2020 ( note: 410,000 by early June 2020), it may be time to examine not only what could have been done differently to prevent its spread, but also where future key adjustments need to be made.

Following the tragic events that unfolded on 9/11 when just under 2977 lives were lost, a number of reforms were introduced in the travel security industry, a top-down restructuring that forever changed the experience of travel.

From new generation x-ray machines to millimeter wave machines, the ban of liquid bottles to taking shoes and belts off for scanning prior to take-off, most people have normalised the added inconveniences of travelling today and only the older generation reminisce what it was like travelling prior to 9/11.

Two decades on, Covid-19 therefore may just be a key inflection point for the global travel industry, which is unintentionally playing a key role in the transmission of the viral infection.

The impetus for change, post 9/11, was the perceived threat to global safety. Similarly, the incalculable risk of Covid-19 today calls for yet again a partial overhaul of safety protocols within the global travel industry.

Easier said than done, much of this contagion could have been mitigated if the relevant government authorities in Wuhan had shut down its outbound transport network from the outset. Or if cities connected to Wuhan had done the same but as things stood, this was virtually impossible.

From over 41,000 cases in Italy to 1 in Somalia and a growing number of countries being added to the list of countries with confirmed cases of Covid-19, the idea of implementing a border shutdown is proving to be just as difficult elsewhere.

Nevertheless, an increasing number of air, sea, rail and road links that are now belatedly suspended, with transport companies staring into the perpetual abyss of multibillion dollar losses, should have been suspended much earlier to contain the spread. However, the absent of such cross boundary, industry-wide contingency planning despite the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) demonstrates how the global transport sector too, needs to introspect what went wrong where and how the compounding monetary and looming job losses in the global transport industry could arguably have been minimised.

Countless articles and news clips finger pointing global policy failures at World Health Organisations (W.H.O)Center for Disease Control (C.D.C) and other global health organisations for their abject failure in activating near-pandemic policies, also do little to advance the overall cause.

Pharmaceutical companies meanwhile, which generate bulk of their billion dollar earnings from anti-depressants, anti-ulcer, anti-anaemia, cholesterol reducing drugs could also surely have done more with the nowhere as profitable anti-viral drug trials but “clinical trials for commercial antibodies normally require 8-12 weeks while working vaccines can take up to 1 to 2 years”, according to John Nicholls a clinical professor in pathology at the University of Hong Kong and expert on coronaviruses, rendering much of the criticism as valid but not entirely fair.

From face mask manufacturers, medical equipment suppliers, biotech companies to publicly-funded universities, Covid-19 has now shone the spotlight on how these key sectors with full government support, urgently need the necessary global infrastructure and scale, let alone a much more robust transport and global supply chain distribution network, when the next contagious viral infection (re)emerges.

Standalone, these are seemingly individual cogs in an evidently interconnected global system but when viewed together, it soon becomes clear there is an urgent need for these stakeholders to urgently find a way to seamlessly work together, before the next outbreak reoccurs.

With an incubation period of 14 or more days, the vast majority, if not all current temperature detecting equipment at airports around the world have proven to be near obsolete, if not ineffective. In fact in a reported time span of four months since November 2019, we have gone from 1 case to over 245,000, as of late March 2020. (note: 7.2 million as of early June 2020)

Therefore, key primary stakeholders need to come together to avoid a repeat of this debacle.

Governments around the world, the global transport sector, the pharmaceutical industry, universities, multiple world health agencies, face mask manufacturers, medical equipment suppliers and the biotech companies need to consider developing a holistic global anti-epidemic strategy.

One where everyone can unanimously agree on the relevant mechanisms that will first and foremost, call for the shutdown of transport networks in a given cluster or province, to prevent, if not minimise the spread of another such viral infection in the future.

Such a global alliance not only needs to have both regulatory bark and bite but needs to put far greater weight on the creation of health than wealth, in order to be effective. Just as critically, whistle blower protection, conflict of interest issues and the important role of data and information transparency, need to be key building blocks of this initiative.

Meantime, there is a compelling need for serious investments into developing reliable hand-held diagnostic test kits that not only detect abnormal body temperature but also quickly diagnoses the obvious symptoms especially during the incubation period, even if a carrier tries to masks his or her symptoms by for example, taking paracetamol before arriving at the port of destination.

The deaths of nearly 3000 people two decades on 9/11 from across over 62 nationalities in the United States served as a wakeup call for reforming the global travel industry.

With Covid-19 now in over 183 countries, as of this writing in late March, a new era uncomfortably needs to get underway with wide-ranging changes led by the global travel industry. Else, commercial interest, will continue to surpass any notion of public good.