Travel in the Times of Covid: Crazy, Chaotic, Capricious Norms

Countries have the right to allow or refuse entry to folks. Equally in a rule-based world, this determination cannot be divorced from science and promised allegiance to global cooperation.

By Shankkar Aiyar |Published: 19th September 2021 05:13 AM |

An old maxim frequently attributed to Archimedes of Syracuse, states that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. The truism is being upended by countries when it comes to travel in the times of Covid19!

Chaos engineered by crazy policies has driven travellers traversing parts of the world they may or may not have wished to see for reaching places they desperately want to — despite being fully vaccinated and regardless of the RT-PCR test reports they carry.

Students headed to Toronto last month were forced to travel from Mumbai to Doha to Cairo to Frankfurt to Toronto. The most ‘liked’ route to the US till recently was via 14 days in Mexico — Atmanirbhar travellers from Mumbai stuck in Mexico even cooked their own meals for a break from beans! This week, the preferred route is via Dubai.

One need not be a subscriber to conspiracy theories to recognise that travel protocols are capricious and suffer from confirmation bias to say the least. This is the result of the blending of creative inertia bureaucracies revel in with perverse pre-emptive politics. Countries have the right to allow or refuse entry to folks from other countries. Equally in a rule-based world, this determination cannot be divorced from science and promised allegiance to global cooperation.

Nine months since Margaret Keenan received the first Covid19 jab in the UK, over 5.85 billion doses have been administered. Almost every country has endorsed the role of vaccinations to fight the pandemic. Theoretically, vaccination and RT-PCR test should clear travellers — in fact, double vaccination is deemed adequate for work and travel within countries. The contours defining geopolitical responses though tell a different story.

The state of affairs is illuminated by norms of entry to the ‘land of the free and home of the brave’. Since May 4, Indians and persons of 32 other countries cannot enter the US unless they show proof that they have been out of the geographies for over 14 days even if they are fully vaccinated and adhere to test requirements. What makes the policy curious is the narrative articulated by data.

The US on Friday topped the chart on daily fresh cases, new deaths and active cases. On September 17, the New York Times Tracker shows that the US recorded 165,465 new cases and 1,992 deaths — and its seven-day average case count stood at 148,816. Comparisons may be odious, and trigger the predictable posit on testing and reporting, but it does bear mention that the caseload is five times that of India and, perhaps, much more when compared to 32 other countries on the list.

The US is scarcely alone. The virus of stall, at all costs, afflicts policies elsewhere too. Canada is home to a large Indian diaspora and thousands of students. The ban on direct flights has grounded many or forced multi-country circular travels. In a recent travel guideline, Canada agreed to allow Indians who are double vaccinated into the country if they get an RTPCR test done in a third country. Why a third country? Might it be an implicit, an unstated distrust of testing standards?

Trust deficit afflicts recognition of vaccines, too. Covishield, administered to nearly 700 million Indians, is recognised by the European Medicines Agency and in 15 European countries. Bizarrely even though the vaccine is based on the Oxford AstraZeneca, it has struggled for recognition in the UK. India has been flagging these concerns but clearly it needs to leverage its status further to achieve outcomes.

The chaos unravelling across the world illuminates the pusillanimity of the World Health Organisation particularly with respect to the sanctity of vaccinations, testing standards and travel protocols — forced journeys across unnecessary geographies can only widen the scope for the virus. The often cited authority on matters relating to the pandemic has sadly been a mute spectator of aggravated ‘otherism’ being practiced. Waiting for the WHO to act is like waiting for Godot.

The pandemic promises to persist as demonstrated by the havoc wreaked by the Delta variant. With the majority of the global population yet to be vaccinated, virus mutations are a given. There is the socio-political cost, the threat of regime instability and then there is the economic price that the world is paying in lost jobs and incomes. Indeed, the relaxations promised by the UK this week are catalysed by mounting public pressure. Evidently, there is nothing as effective as public hardship to shake off delusions.

The free money regime — which even G7 countries can ill-afford — has its limitations and the nervousness about growth is palpable across markets. Services account for nearly two thirds of global GDP — and every sector in the face-to-face economy, education, hospitality, travel et al continue to be stranded between hope and despair. Without a globally funded programme for vaccinations and a universally accepted protocol for economic engagement, the global economy will only lurch from one wave to another.

It is not enough for leaders to lip sync clichés such as “we are all in this together”. The pantheon of global leaders clearly needs to come together to pave the pathway to the next normal.

Shankkar Aiyar, political economy analyst, is author of ‘The Gated Republic –India’s Public Policy Failures and Private Solutions’, ‘Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12-Digit Revolution’; and ‘Accidental India’. You can email him at and follow him on Twitter @ShankkarAiyar. His previous columns can be found here. This column was first published here.