Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Travelling in a pandemic

Travel restrictions may have been reduced significantly over the past few months. For those coming to the UK there are no longer forms or tests. But for many places outside of the UK, vaccination records, PCR tests and other documents are still required. And for Britons and other Europeans, now used to abandoning masks and other COVID rules, there are some countries that might prove to be a shock.

Journeying to South Korea recently was fraught, at least logistically. There were online forms required, not only by Korean authorities, but also the airline. For that one needed vaccination records and a negative PCR test certificate carried out within 48 hours of departure.

There was of course advice on the UK government and Korean authority websites, though much was either opaque, confusing or contradictory.

With all the documents checked, uploaded and printed off it was time to set off.

The Republic of Korea might still implement rigid COVID policies, but in the UK all rules and advice have all but been abandoned.

First stop was the local bus stop and catch a bus to the local Underground station.

With rules abandoned I was surrounded by mostly maskless passengers.

There was some comfort in my wearing an FFP2 mask. Nonetheless it was still disconcerting as one elderly woman coughed almost continuously throughout the 20 minute bus ride.

Paddington Bear stares from behind my mask seemed not to register with this maskless passenger who may have just had a common cold with an irritating cough or worse a debilitating condition or even cancer. But it could just as well have been COVID, a disease which she seemed oblivious she might be spreading to her fellow passengers.

She wasn't the only one. Half way along the journey another elderly passenger boarded who also coughed during his time on board while sitting with his mouth gaping.

The Tube was fairly empty for some of the journey though there was not a single mask in sight. By the time one arrived at Heathrow the percentage of passengers wearing masks had increased, but only marginally. Here too coughing could be heard, though those responsible were sitting at least some distance from myself.

Of course there are those who are of the opinion that we must all 'learn to live with the virus ' or believe the pandemic is over.

As regards the latter, this is simply not the case given the number of variants still being passed around. And as regards living with the virus, this is a potential recipe for disaster.

It is true to say that fully vaccinated individuals may only experience cold-like symptoms. But the danger of abandoning all mitigations - such as testing, mask wearing and isolation - is that new more dangerous, vaccine resilient variants could come about and essentially kick-start a whole new pandemic.

Part of the travel experience is the booking into a hotel. In London masks were almost non-existent, both amongst staff and customers at a Radisson near to the airport.

The same was true at the Bucharest Intercontinental a few weeks earlier, a country that has also ditched most COVID restrictions.

South Korea is a different ball-park altogether.

Masks remain mandatory for all inside spaces. There are no lanyards here. No ifs, no buts. "No mask, no entry" signs are abundant. And while there is no clear threat of a fine, no-one challenges or tests the rules.

A few people may be seen failing to wear their mask properly, often foreign tourists from the West, but they will often be asked to wear it properly. Most obliged without debate.

Some countries in the far East are still virtually impossible to enter due to COVID restrictions, such as China. However others are gradually opening up their doors albeit with strict requirements.

Before even boarding the plane to Korea, proof of vaccination and PCR test, completed within 48 hours of departure, had to be uploaded to the airline's website. One also needed to fill out a detailed online form on a Korean government website, again uploading vaccination certificates and PCR test results, as well as passport details, valid phone numbers and address where one would be residing during one's stay in Korea. Upon completion a document containing a QR code was generated which had to be presented before being allowed through immigration. After electronic fingerprint recording and the taking of a photo it was then necessary to get a PCR test which we had booked ahead of time. With that taken we were then free to go to our hotel, though should the test prove positive there would no doubt have been an ambulance dispatched with medical staff dressed in hazmat suits tasked with taking us away to quarantine. 

Despite the loops one had to jump through, it was all relatively efficient. Walking from the plane we were directed by staff wearing hazmat suits and masks to desks where our passport and QR code was checked. Immigration, which was fully manned, was controlled to maintain social distancing and it took just minutes to get through. Even the PCR test was carried out quickly and efficiently, though it was a little disconcerting to be swabbed by a medical worker sitting behind a hermetically sealed screen with gloved hands poked through the wall as though handling nuclear isotopes at a radiological facility. Even the result was swift, completed in a little under two hours. 

The strict measures are all about keeping infections and deaths down. The country of 52 million people has managed to limit its total case load to 18 million with 24,006 deaths [as of 24th May], through aggressive tracing and testing as well as widespread vaccination.

For much of the pandemic South Korea, a country with a population of around 52 million, barely saw the daily number of cases entering triple figures. However in July 2021 daily cases exceeded one thousand. And as Omicron gradually became the dominant variant, cases surged from around 5,000 cases at the beginning of December 2021 to a peak of 400,000 daily cases by mid-March. Since then daily cases have fallen significantly to around 25,000 per day. Deaths overall have been kept down by strict mask-mandates across the country. South Korea loosened rules at the beginning of May requiring masks to be worn outdoors as COVID-19 cases dropped. However many still prefer to wear masks outside.

Lee Geun-young, 34, who was wearing a mask, said he would stick to wearing one until COVID-19 became less concerning. "I miss the pre-pandemic days when we lived without a mask," Lee said from Hyochang Park. "It is inconvenient, but it's better to stay careful not only for myself but not to cause harm to others."

It is this social responsibility that is almost non-existent in the West. Many westerners, even those seen in Korea, only wear a mask when obliged or told. Fear of contracting the virus, or of passing it on seems not to be a concern.

It is only strict enforcement by air stewards that maintains 100% mask wearing on planes. And it is Westerners in the main that ignore or buck the rules.

On a recent Ryanair flight which still had a mask wearing policy in place, enforcement was non-existent.

Outbound to Romania saw only about 10% of passengers donning a mask whilst others wore them as neck ornaments or chin-warmers!

On return to Stansted airport, air stewards did make better efforts to enforce the rules, but only when the matter was raised with them as passengers boarded brazenly failing to adhere to the rules.

Lufthansa certainly took a more robust approach en-route to Korea. Stewards would periodically walk along the aisle and ask passengers to properly wear their masks.

There is clearly self-entitlement amongst some. Challenged by one passenger to wear her mask properly, the young German woman retorted "Who are you, the COVID police?" before muttering disparaging remarks in German.

Her mother calmed her, else one of our party might have further embarrassed her as he understood everything being said.

There was vindication however as at that moment an air stewardess passed and told her to wear her mask properly.

Strict enforcement had clearly been dropped on the return flight a week later as nose-joggers and chin-warmers were not challenged at all.

And mask-wearing all but melted away the nearer one approached Europe. 

At Frankfurt mask-wearing dropped to less than 30% within the airport. Even security staff were maskless. 

On board the final hop from Frankfurt to London's Heathrow airport most passengers adhered to the rules but upon leaving the aircraft and snaking through immigration barely one person was wearing any form of face covering.

Sitting on the subway train as it rattled through the capital, mask-wearing was clearing less than 1% with people clearly trying to put any reminder of the pandemic behind them.

 The final leg of the journey put icing on the cake as the maskless taxi driver aired his concern as to whether he would be able to go on a cruise. "I'm not vaccinated," he proclaimed. "Don't get me wrong, I'm not an anti-vaxxer," he added whilst going on to mutter false claims concerning the vaccine, its efficacy and questioning why one would need to take boosters.

Having been up for nearly 27 hours I was far too tired to explain the importance of mitigations and vaccines. Indeed there seemed to be no point in attempting to explain epidemiology to someone who was clearly an idiot.

With the pandemic clear not over. UK deaths are still hovering at around 1,200 per week while Korean deaths are around 300 per week, kept down by mask mandates as well as high vaccination rates [about 88%]. In comparison some 74% are fully vaccinated in the UK. 

There are clearly inconsistencies in the way different countries are handling the pandemic. In Korea the masks,, social distancing, and heat sensors make clear there is still a perceived threat. In Britain one might have thought there had never been a pandemic as people go about their daily lives. 

As cases of Monkeypox rise, a disease that can be spread through water droplets, surface contamination and close contact, it might be too early to drop the advice of 'Hand, Face, Space." [CDC]

If, as some already fear, Monkeypox becomes the next pandemic, travel may become even more fraught in the coming months.

tvnewswatch, London, UK