The novel coronavirus has cast a shadow on the whole world since January, though not everyone realized it until late February or early March. It’s led to a deeper recession than we’ve seen in any of our lifetimes, and one of the industries hit the absolute hardest has been travel.
Over the past several weeks there have been so-called ‘green shoots’ as domestic leisure travel has started to return in the U.S. For sure, travel isn’t rebounding as quickly as many have been saying and business travel is not coming back this year in any meaningful way.
The good news, though, is that we’re not that far away from a real recovery – in travel and for the world.
- COVID-19 patient outcomes are improving. We have better treatment protocols, perhaps the virus itself is becoming less deadly – that’s something to expect by the way, because viruses that infect the most are the ones that keep their hosts alive in order to spread. Maybe it’s just that we aren’t sending COVID patients into nursing homes anymore but even as cases remain at elevated levels the number of people dying from COVID-19 has been declining substantially in the U.S.
— Amihai Glazer (@AmihaiGlazer) June 18, 2020
- Patient outcomes should get much better still this fall. We no longer have just remdesivir, and laying patients on their stomachs. Anti-inflammation drugs seem to be helping with patients in advanced stages of distress. There are clinical trials in process not just for repurposed antivirals, but also antibody-based drugs developed from the blood plasma of recovered patients. Hospital stays should become shorter with more people recovering more quickly.
- We can choose to limit the spread. We haven’t gotten there yet, cases plateaued in the U.S. but haven’t declined, however we know now that targeted interventions may be nearly as effective as total lockdowns. About 10% of people spread perhaps 80% of infections. We need to limit superspreader events which are virtually all indoors over prolonged periods. And we can wear masks.
In Texas, where activity re-opened early and where just now we’re starting to see significant spread we have plenty of hospital beds though that can change quickly if spread grows exponentially (especially in Houston, and even in my home of Austin). Cities aren’t allowed to require people to wear masks (or at least cannot penalize them if they don’t) however given the situation on the ground the governor is now allowing cities to require businesses demand masks of employees and customers when in close proximity to each other, under threat of fine.
Ultimately the fights over masks in the sky simply mirror those on the ground. Mask wearing has become political, although more broadly about lack of trust in institutions and authority – we were told not to buy or wear masks by the same people telling us now to wear them. They were wrong before, and the studies are overwhelmingly suggestive now that masks can make a big difference. But the credibility of the CDC and others is largely shot. Still, airlines are communicating seriousness and in what almost looked like a put up job American Airlines even banned a conservative activist flaunting their rules and videotaping it.
- There should be a widely available vaccine next year. It could even be approved before the end of the year. This isn’t a guarantee, still speculative, but there are enough different platforms and enough different trials that we should wind up with something that is effective. The Chinese model of attenuated viruses may help only a little for a short period, but may be available first. Other approaches may take a little longer (mere months) but be more effective.
I don’t expect a ‘one and done’ vaccine that protects you for years. And it may not be completely effective either. But if 50% of people take a vaccine that’s 50% effective, that along with the population that’s had the virus recently, and those who may have some cross-immunity from other viruses or natural immunity, should get us close enough to herd immunity that the virus isn’t particularly dangerous to those outside the highest risk groups. We could have mass vaccinations in spring, then summer 2021 could be normal.
In past economic downturns, cleaning protocols have been one of the first things to go at airlines. Planes would go as long as 18 months between deep cleans. This time the opposite is true.
Years ago, in the regulated era, the government worked to keep airfares high and shut down competition to make sure airlines earned consistent profits, believing that without those profits carriers might skimp on safety. That’s really not been true in the U.S., where airlines operated safely through myriad bankruptcies. Now not only are they safe, they’re clean too. And while some of the most extreme practices (like Delta spraying disinfectant between domestic flights) probably won’t last past the end of the pandemic, new clean is likely to remain in some form at airlines and hotels.
There will be some cost in terms of travel experience. We’ll lose investment in passenger and guest amenities as businesses work to rebuild their balance sheet before competing in that arena. But overall what we’re learning now is going to make travel better in the long tun.