22 May 2020

Imagining travel in a post-coronavirus world

The coronavirus pandemic will likely change the way we travel forever, with public health concerns likely taking precedence over privacy and civil liberties

The global novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has been disruptive in every aspect of our lives to the point that the pandemic has been drawing parallels to 9/11, the Great Recession and the 1918-19 influenza pandemic. As experts warn that the peak of the pandemic has yet to come, a post-coronavirus world feels too far away to imagine. However, it is already becoming clear that the pandemic will permanently change the way we travel, as governments will seek to prevent its repeat.

Recurring waves of the outbreak will likely trigger travel restrictions on short notice. Governments will not want to be seen as acting too slow, but they will also not want to bear the costs of cyclically lifting and reimposing months-long travel lockdowns. In the medium-term, when the virus resurges in a location, public health authorities will need to collect much more data on travellers and share it with transportations officials to respond with less-disruptive, selectively-targeted controls on personal movement. We already have a glimpse of what a post-coronavirus world would look like from the way governments around the world responded to the first wave of the outbreak. Like national security in a post-9/11 world, public health is taking priority over privacy and civil rights. In South Korea, millions of smartphone users have been receiving government "emergency alerts" that reveal the timeline of each patient's whereabouts since the beginning of the outbreak in January. In Hong Kong, travellers arriving to the territory are required to wear electronic wristbands that monitor their movements and ensure that they comply with their quarantine order. On 18 March, the Israeli government approved emergency regulations for gathering mobile location data and other personal information from those confirmed or suspected to have been infected with the virus, triggering anti-government protests outside Parliament on 19 March. Similar measures to obtain users' mobile data are under consideration in the United Kingdom (UK) and United States (US).

The novel coronavirus outbreak has forced us to rethink public health in an increasingly connected and high-tech world. The actions being taken by governments across the world show that the pandemic will change the way we travel for good. When airports and borders reopen, we are likely to learn that resuming travel will entail making further compromises to our privacy. Like metal detectors and x-ray machines, surveillance equipment monitoring the body temperature of passengers and searching for other potential symptoms may become a permanent feature at major airports and transport hubs. In the event that they are diagnosed with an infectious disease, travellers should anticipate the possibility of their personal information - including gender, age, nationality, residence and workplace - being disclosed to the public, as well as their movements being tracked through smart devices. While the pandemic may end, the changes it will bring to travel are likely to stay. Travellers, airlines and governments alike must adapt to them, just as they have in a post-9/11 world.