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Plugging a COVID-19 loophole

By Emmanuel Okoroafor
13 December 2020   |   3:50 am
With the opening of travel corridors, people will travel, cross-country and across the globe, for a variety of reasons. Inevitably, such criss-crossings will include to and fro coronavirus hotspots.

(Photo by SAM PANTHAKY / AFP)

With the opening of travel corridors, people will travel, cross-country and across the globe, for a variety of reasons. Inevitably, such criss-crossings will include to and fro coronavirus hotspots. And justifiably, there has been genuine concerns about such movement driving another spread of the virus around. This time last year, that was the pattern of spread, mostly through international travel. However, between last December and now, the world has learnt enough about the novel coronavirus, to contain its spread, if not totally rein it in by prevention or curative means.

While there has been cheering news about a couple of vaccines that may eventually become game-changers against the scythe currently wielded by the pandemic, the world is still a long way from having assurance of curbing what has been one of the deadliest pandemics in human history. As for now, the requirement for COVID-19 tests prior to travel date is one of the essential instruments in the toolbox being deployed to combat COVID-19.
Sadly, this measure had been rendered ineffective even before it took off. The issue is the cost of the tests to the traveller. Someone travelling from London, UK to Lagos, Nigeria pays £154 for a COVID-19 test and another upfront payment of £105 for another COVID-19 test after seven days of arriving in Nigeria, totalling £259. How many travellers will be able to afford that after paying the same amount for a seat on a flight, when indeed, 95 per cent of travellers travel economy class?

There have been disturbing stories of fake COVID-19 test certificates being peddled at various airports. That shouldn’t be surprising. Clearly, trafficking in fake certificates is a crime that should attract severe punishment. However, the system creates a conducive atmosphere for such a sharp practice to thrive. Placing such a big hurdle before determined travellers who cannot afford the extortionate costs of COVID-19 tests is leaving them with no option other than to patronise peddlers of fake certificates. It is not as if people did not know the implication of what they are doing, but desperation made them a willing customer for fake certificates. The policy is a good one, but the way it is being implemented is self-defeating. It creates a loophole for COVID-19 to continue circulating round the globe.

Need we remind ourselves again about how this mismanagement can boomerang? We have seen the havoc wreaked across countries and continents by the COVID-19 pandemic; we have seen how overwhelmed healthcare systems have been, how daily deaths have been skyrocketing. America currently is a postcard of this gloomy picture. The world’s superpower country is presently bracing for a COVID-19 nightmare. We all know too well how extreme measures have even left the world the worst for it, how lockdowns imposed to flatten the curve had led to a shutdown of economies, crippling companies, and causing massive job losses. The world is caught in a COVID-19 vortex (see diagram by Dr Helen Onyeaka). The situation —  dire, dreadful, and deathly – calls for careful, well-thought measures. As travel is inevitable, we, citizens of earth, ought to put our best foot forward.

Vaccines would soon become available. Good news, but again, we have to be cautious. The vaccines are not prophylactic. They are claimed to reduce the impact of COVID-19 on infected individuals. None of the vaccines has demonstrated that it can prevent infection altogether or reduce the spread of the disease in a population. This leaves open the chance that those who are vaccinated could remain susceptible to asymptomatic infection — and could transmit that infection to others who remain vulnerable. In the worst-case scenario, as stated by a virologist, you have people walking around feeling fine, but shedding virus everywhere. Moreover, at this early stage, one is not certain how long the vaccine-induced immunity will last and possibly when booster shots will be required.

These uncertainties strengthen the case for regular free tests for international travellers.

With the future uncertain, one can boldly argue for free COVID-19 tests for international travellers. Such a move will encourage travellers to readily submit themselves to tests at designated certified test centres or at the certified test airports, while their national governments pick up the tab. A small travel tax included in the travel fares should be able to cover for this. That way, it is easier to identify and eliminate from the loop bugs that might otherwise truncate the objectives of the COVID-19 test. When international travellers test positive for COVID-19, they postpone their travel until they have shed the virus and test negative. With the world standing on the precipice for one whole year, enough lessons ought to have been learnt, especially about the need to have well-thought plans that do not leave room for unnecessary rebounds that will further jeopardise the world. Making the COVID-19 test free is a small price to pay in this long, unpredictable fight against the novel coronavirus.

Dr. Emmanuel Okoroafor

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