a group of people standing next to an umbrella: Filipino tourists wearing traditional Korean hanbok pose for photographs at the Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul on September 30. With Covid-19 going nowhere and widespread vaccines unlikely for another year, the imperative is to quickly establish protocols for safe travel. Photo: EPA-EFE

Filipino tourists wearing traditional Korean hanbok pose for photographs at the Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul on September 30. With Covid-19 going nowhere and widespread vaccines unlikely for another year, the imperative is to quickly establish protocols for safe travel. Photo: EPA-EFE

Fulfilling their responsibility to provide advice to leaders and government officials across the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group, members of Apec Business Advisory Council (ABAC) two weeks ago drafted a carefully worded letter to the region’s health ministers as they gathered virtually for the High-Level Meeting on Health and the Economy.

Inevitably, the urgent priority was the global pandemic, so apart from calls for a free flow of goods and services (in particular for personal protective equipment), innovative ways to finance health care, convergence around regulations to approve medicines and treatments, and cross-border health data-sharing, the council’s letter made a single forceful plea.

“ABAC believes that an important initial step demonstrating (our) commitment to cooperation would be for Apec … to facilitate urgent development of health procedures and protocols that can lay the foundations for the earliest possible restoration of trusted travel across the region”.

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It seems our health ministers were deaf, both to the message and to the critical urgency of the business plea, even as thousands of companies across the region face the looming prospect of insolvency due to pandemic-enforced lockdowns, and the need to lay off possibly millions of workers.

The health ministers’ joint statement talked of improving health sector funding, strengthening cross-border supply chain resilience for medical products and cross-border data sharing. But on the urgent need to restore safe and trusted international travel, there were the most perfunctory of platitudes: “The exchange of international and Apec region experiences and best practices helps to shape and inform policies that can address Covid-19 while improving health systems in the long run, and in doing so enable a return to strong economic growth.”

What a perfect example of bureaucratic obfuscation and wheel-spinning. When the core messages of Apec’s Malaysian chair are focused on inclusion, integration, collaboration and cooperation, what better example of empty words? ABAC members might as well have been spitting in the wind.

Since May, when the global severity of the health crisis became clear, and the scale of the recessionary impact of necessary lockdowns began to be felt, the message from businesses has been urgent and clear: governments must cooperate widely in sharing the scientific insights needed to bring the pandemic under control, and put in place agreed practices and protocols that enable speedy domestic economic recovery, and restore safe and trusted international travel as fast as possible.

Five months later, scientists have worked quite well in sharing insights as knowledge of the Covid-19 virus has grown, but political or governmental cooperation internationally remains shockingly absent. Most governments – including our own – have focused entirely on the crisis within their borders, and spent little time cooperating with or learning from others. The reality that no one is free of the pandemic until everyone is – making international cooperation the highest of priorities – seems to have been wholly ignored.

The result has been economically catastrophic as we sweep into the deepest recession in almost a century. It has made our repeated Apec commitments to inclusion and cooperation look embarrassingly empty.

How Apec can provide a template for Covid-19 ‘travel bubbles’

Even here in Hong Kong, where tourist arrivals have fallen from about 100,000 a day in January to meagre hundreds, and where tourism-linked sectors such as hotels, restaurants, travel agencies and luxury retail look likely to lose more than 120,000 jobs, there has been significantly more talk than action.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said in a letter to consuls-general last week that “we must resume the flow of people between Hong Kong and other places”. She apologised that “a rebound in the local epidemic situation” had frustrated efforts made in July to restore travel with Guangdong and Macau, but emphasised that “we will strive to restart discussions with relevant authorities to enable members of the public to resume travel as soon as possible.” This included not just setting up a “travel bubble” with the mainland, but also reaching out to 11 other countries”.

But the excuses for delay seem empty. With the pandemic likely to be among us for a year or more, and vaccines unavailable for widespread use until at least this time next year, the imperative is not to wait, but to establish as speedily as possible protocols that facilitate international travel.

Creating a robust set of protocols need not be rocket science. The aviation industry has had protocols in place for many months to protect travellers. So, too, has the International Maritime Organisation agreed on protocols enabling the world’s 1.6 million seafarers who are starting, or reaching the end of, their contracts to travel securely between their home countries and the ships they are boarding or leaving.

Our very own Hong Kong start-up Prenetics has been contracted by the English Premier League to provide a testing regime that protects footballers as they have resumed the new soccer season. They have also been contracted to provide a testing regime for Cathay Pacific pilots from the beginning of this month.

The various elements needed for protocols to ensure trusted travel are clear: a means of discovering whether a “source” country is “red”, “amber” or “green”, likely or not to be a source of imported infections; testing protocols to ensure a traveller is “Covid-19 negative” when they board a plane; protocols on arrival; tracking protocols in the destination country; and international agreements on “safe behaviours” such as wearing masks, social distancing and regular temperature checking.

Above all else, the protocols would have to eliminate the need for quarantines.

Given the necessary need for caution, I can understand why governments want to start with small and manageable travel bubbles, but where is the urgency to get them started? I can also see merit in small-scale test cases used to build confidence – such as the Trade Development Council fairs or the Oxfam Trailwalker.

For the past three decades, Apec has given headline “lip service” to cooperation. In my lifetime, there has never been a more pressing need to give substance to that lip service. And Hong Kong should take a lead.

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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