Europeans can now take a beach holiday. But does their summer relaxation signal a new wave of Covid contagion’s on the horizon?
As travel destinations reopen, new Covid-19 strains threaten the tourist industry’s revival. RT asked the experts whether the relief from lockdown stress is set to bring about another surge in infections.
With the summer approaching, the list of southern EU countries ready to invite foreign visitors is growing. And the number of people who want – at last – to book their trip to a coastal resort in Italy, Greece, or Spain, is growing accordingly too.
But is now the right time to get back to traveling? According to Professor Jose Antonio Lopez Guerrero, of the Department of Molecular Biology at the Autonomous University of Madrid, “It’s logical that, after a year of suffering, several countries are betting on tourism to revive their economy.”
“The situation across Europe and the level of vaccinations is more or less similar, and it is easing the reopening. Vaccination levels in Spain are progressing at a good speed, and it looks like, in a month, we will have vaccinated the majority of those over 70, the most vulnerable group,” he tells RT.
It would seem to be a good time to relax some restrictions, but not all of them, of course, as we still have a high number of hospital beds occupied, and the level of transmission is 150 cases per 100,000 people.
The countries depending on tourism were the main driving force behind the EU’s effort to relaunch travel. While the joint ‘green’ Covid-19 passport is expected to be ready by July 1, holidaymakers are already allowed to visit several resort countries under individual national rules, generally with a proof of either vaccination or a negative coronavirus test.
The sector couldn’t wait to be operational again, says Professor Lluis Prats Planaguma, of the Institute of Tourism Research at the University of Girona, in Spain’s Catalonia region: “All the anti-Covid protocols give the venues a possibility to reopen with safety. Numbers show there are fewer people infected and fewer hospitalized, and holiday bookings are going up.”
‘We need unified protective measures’
On Monday, May 24, Spain opened its borders to visitors from a number of countries, while tourists from the rest of the world who have received vaccines approved by the European Medicines Agency or the World Health Organization will be allowed to enter from June 7. The country is among the reopening frontrunners, but not the fastest, as Portugal, Greece, and Italy started to welcome foreigners in mid-May.
“Spain is a tourist country by definition. For now, it’s losing out to those countries that chose to reopen earlier. Some of them even have a favorable Covid rating, like Portugal, for example,” Professor Lopez Guerrero says. “Greece hopes to have a massive tourist influx as well. A big wave of tourists does look like a risk, that’s true, but as I said, Europe’s virus index is not so bad.”
While the Spanish authorities paid a lot of attention to saving workplaces, “they didn’t give strong support to businesses, and not only in the tourist sector,” Professor Prats Planaguma says.
“The regional authorities tried to add to those measures, but it was still not enough. Direct payments were small, their distribution was not well organized, and some tiny and micro-businesses never received them at all. Those who managed to survive did it by saving the money they had and by renegotiating their debts. It’s crucial to have more support from the state,” he tells RT.
But despite all the losses, if there’s a risk, it’s better to wait a bit longer and reopen with more safety measures in place, Professor Prats Planaguma suggests. “We’re talking about two weeks’ difference here. It might look like a big deal, but actually, it’s not. We’ve seen that it was hard to act jointly in the EU, not only in the field of tourism. This summer, to open two weeks earlier or two weeks later won’t make any difference.”
“The border controls, negative test checking or management of coronavirus passports – this should be a joint process all over the EU territory, and individual measures should be avoided,” Professor Lopez-Guerrero adds. “We need unified protective measures.”
One may argue that the return of tourists was prompted by economic factors, rather than any perceived end to the pandemic. But, while it damaged many people’s physical health, the virus took a toll on mental health for others as well. Lockdowns, self-isolation, a semi-permanent fear for the welfare of family members and friends… It’s hard to find anyone who isn’t tired of the perpetual stress.
“We’ve been deprived, as human beings, of a very fundamental factor of our existence: we are social beings, we are human beings. And to take it away from people… I don’t think we adequately understood what a big deal that was,” says Dr. Ashley Frawley, a senior lecturer in sociology and social policy at Swansea University, in Wales, UK. “Even during the Second World War, people had their social relationships, and sometimes that was what they desperately tried to protect. And now we’ve been completely atomized, and [the effect] is humongous.”
People are not afraid anymore, particularly young people, but instead they feel a lot of frustration.
How damaging this kind of exhaustion will be for the maintenance of Covid-19 restrictions is yet to be seen. Professor Prats Planaguma is optimistic about holidaymakers’ common sense: “It’s obvious that people are tired. But we see now that when they plan to travel, they choose to use private cars and to minimize their use of public transport, and they try to avoid planes, buses, trains,” he says. “For me, it’s a sign that people want to have a good time during their vacation, but without challenging the safety measures.”
“I think those people who feel they are at risk will take precautions to care for themselves,” Dr. Frawley adds. “Other people have made a decision about their own lives and measured up the risks in relation to what they value.”
‘Voting with their feet’
To see how big the desire is to feel free again, to forget about the restrictions and start partying, one only has to look at Barcelona, for example. Police had to disperse street celebrations on the very day the state of emergency was lifted. And a week after that for a second time.
“A lot of people are very tired and they are voting with their feet,” Dr. Frawley says.
But imagine now that those locals are joined by foreigners. The Spanish authorities are expecting them in their droves, as, by the end of the year, the country aims to welcome some 50 million people. Next Covid wave alert, anyone?
Professor Prats Planaguma thinks there’s no reason to panic. “The party in Barcelona attracted some 5,000 people, which is not that many for a city of over two million citizens. I’m saying this because the media are exaggerating a bit. The images might look alarming, but, in reality, the majority of the people are following the security measures,” he says.
However, from the medical point of view there are reasons to be concerned. “Without a doubt, the more human activity you have, the more cases you will have, especially as we see a more infectious variant as well,” says Dr. Bharat Pankhania, a senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter’s Medical School.
Unless we control it all properly from the beginning, we’ll be in trouble.
Professor Lopez Guerrero agrees: “It’s worth mentioning that the biggest rating of infection is among people aged 15 to 30. They represent fewer symptoms and catch the disease with less virulence, but they do transmit the virus. These crowds of young people – unvaccinated – that we’ve seen on weekends, all these illegal parties, might backfire in the nearest future and boost the level of infections. They do threaten the measures aimed to control the pandemic.”
The recent, more infectious mutation is certainly something to be worried about. The majority of foreign tourists come to Spain from Britain, which, in certain regions, is currently in the grip of the B1.617.2 strain, dubbed the ‘Indian variant’. It concerns Europe so much that France and Germany have imposed a quarantine on arrivals from the UK, while Austria has banned direct flights and non-essential arrivals from the country.
“We should be careful with the Indian variant,” Professor Lopez Guerrero warns. “We’ve already seen how the UK variant became predominant in Europe, so it’s important not to let new variants like the South African one, the Brazilian one, and now the Indian one do the same.”
I think the new variants need to be the authorities’ headache. Average people just need to act as usual – observe social distancing, wear a mask and follow other protective measures.
Strain after strain after strain… So, when will it all come to an end?
“Until and unless we suppress the infection in heavily-populated countries, we will carry on circulating the virus and creating new variants,” Dr. Pankhania says. “I expect the pandemic to last longer than anticipated, because, to date, most of the world’s population is not immunized.”
That does not sound very optimistic for holidaymakers, who would like to leave all their Covid-related fears and concerns behind them when they travel, but are still unable to entirely rid themselves of this burden. However, whether it will make them more careful when abroad is another question.
“I think people will still remain as cautious as common sense will allow, but I think one of the [unfortunate] things is that, during this pandemic, we were encouraged not to use our common sense. That could be an issue,” Dr. Frawley says, in regard to travelers’ capacity to undertake one last effort and respect anti-coronavirus precautions.
We were constantly told not to make judgements about our health, and just blindly follow the rules. That creates a kind of contradictory situation.
“Sometimes, it’s difficult psychologically to take responsibility. It’s more like a social phenomenon,” she explains. “So, we have this cultural idea that we are supposed just to follow rules, we are not supposed to think. And this might create the situation, once the rules are lifted, that people no longer use their common sense because they were told they were not supposed to trust themselves.”
‘It’s not alright’
Dr. Pankhania thinks it likely people will try to distance themselves from the advice of the experts, even if the pandemic enters a new round.
“I’m concerned that we’re losing our advantage of taking people with us, because we haven’t kept our ‘be careful’, ‘be cautious’, ‘small step at a time’ measures consistent. Instead, we’ve given out messages like ‘it’s all going to be OK,’ ‘we’re going to be victorious,’ ‘it’s all going to be fine’ etc.,” he opines. “We’ve built up a lot of expectations, but I feel we’re in danger of not having the control to tell people, ‘it’s not alright, and we still have to have some restrictions’.”
The Covid pandemic has taught people to live in uncertainty, and it looks like this feeling won’t go away with the reopening of tourism. However, for Professor Prats Planaguma, it’s now or never, because this is the season when this sector gets a chance to make money. Otherwise, it might be too late.
“The situation is very shaky, but the sector is able to stay afloat. We don’t see massive unemployment in the tourist sector. For the moment, as it’s all started to reopen, we can say that the tourist sector won’t lose its capacity to employ people. But if the restrictions had lasted longer, the effects would have been fatal.”
Some places have closed, and a lot will be closed in the near future, as the level of tourism won’t be the same as it was before the pandemic, at least for the next couple of years.
At the same time, the relaxing of restrictions may backfire, heralding skyrocketing Covid contagion. And if it all goes badly wrong, it’s anyone’s guess how damaging it will be for people’s health – including their mental health.
“There’s been a lot of talk about the fact that there’s no point in having any rights if you don’t have your right to life. Animals live a very long time in captivity, but nobody thinks that’s an ideal life for an animal. They’re alive – but what’s the purpose of living?” concludes Dr. Frawley. “It may be that we’ll need to lock down again, but I think a lot of people have made a judgement that the risks weren’t worth it, so they’re acting accordingly now, and they’ll act that way for the rest of the summer.”
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