The COVID-19 outbreak has led to worldwide travel bans and restrictions as well as nearly a complete stop in global passenger air traffic, leaving hundreds of thousands of people stranded in foreign countries. Saif Islam highlights the varied challenges of evacuating and repatriating people amid the pandemic.
In January and February this year COVID-19 cases were still primarily limited to China, with isolated cases in a few dozen other countries. Nonetheless, several governments introduced restrictions on flights to and from China, or required people arriving from at-risk regions to be quarantined. After the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on 11 March, countries started taking more stringent preventative measures to contain the virus. By the end of March, more than 100 countries introduced a full or partial lockdown, including closing air, land and sea borders to foreign nationals.
Impact of travel restrictions
These restrictions compelled many major international airlines to cancel all or the vast majority of their scheduled passenger flights by early April. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates that approximately 1.1 million flights will be cancelled through 30 June, and annual passenger revenues will fall by 55% compared to 2019. The combination of travel bans, flight cancellations and airport closures at short notice have left many tourists, businesspeople, diplomatic personnel, workers, students and others stranded in foreign countries. There have been reports of travellers being evicted from their hotels, sleeping in airports, experiencing visa-related complications and even encountering hostility from locals who believe foreigners imported the virus into their country. Several major airlines cancelled flights even before a country closed its borders; many travellers complain that they are yet to receive a refund from these airlines. Others managed to return home in evacuation flights or in private jets before worldwide lockdowns began. Private jet companies have reported increased evacuation demands from companies and wealthy individuals.
As of 30 April, some countries are still technically allowing foreign nationals to depart and citizens to return in commercial planes, although with airlines cancelling so many services this may be a moot point. This leaves stranded foreigners solely reliant on their governments to organise charter repatriation flights. While evacuation efforts have been ongoing since January – especially from Wuhan, where COVID-19 was first identified – they have become global and increasingly complex in recent weeks.
Coordinating with all evacuees and gathering them in one place is challenging, as this requires local authorities to relax certain restrictions, such as bans on travelling between cities or provinces, to allow these individuals to reach airports.
Challenges of evacuation
Air evacuation efforts vary from country to country. Some states do not have the means to evacuate all their nationals, certainly not from every country. There are also concerns about returnees bringing the virus home. In February, when Wuhan was still the epicentre of the disease, Pakistan refused to evacuate its citizens from the city, fearing that the potential arrival of new COVID-19 cases would put pressure on its already ill-equipped local healthcare infrastructure. While Pakistan is now trying to evacuate its citizens from certain countries, neighbouring India has decided against evacuating its nationals and urged them to seek assistance from diplomatic missions instead. Russia, on the other hand, has repatriated thousands of people but temporarily cancelled all evacuation flights on 4 April, to prevent the import of the virus.
The countries that continue to evacuate their citizens, and those citizens themselves, face several challenges. The US and the UK, for example, have been evacuating thousands of people, but mainly from priority countries – those where large numbers of people are stranded – at this stage. Some charter flights have been organised for countries where relatively few people are stranded or from where commercial flights are not possible, but evacuees must pay considerably more. For instance, in late March, the UK government told 90 citizens requiring evacuation from Laos to pay between USD 1800 and 2200 for a charter flight. In these cases, if some people refuse to evacuate due to prohibitively expensive air fare, the price becomes even higher for those willing to get onto the flight. These factors have delayed several charter flight negotiations.
In fact, arranging any evacuation flight can take substantial time and effort. Foreigners are typically stranded in various locations in a country, under some restrictions on travel and movement. Coordinating with all evacuees and gathering them in one place is challenging, as this requires local authorities to relax certain restrictions, such as bans on travelling between cities or provinces, to allow these individuals to reach airports. This is not always easy, timeous or even possible under the current circumstances.
Even after arrangements can be made, there are other obstacles. For example, in late March, thousands of UK nationals remained stranded in South Africa because the latter refused to relax lockdown regulations to allow evacuation aircrews to rest before returning home.
In the coming weeks, governments will be under immense pressure to ease domestic lockdown measures, to allow economic activity to resume. Although lifting international travel restrictions is not assessed to be as pressing a priority, if they are also eased globally, many businesspeople, expatriate workers and tourists will be tempted to resume travel. However, there remains a threat of second and third waves of infections later in the year, potentially resulting in further international travel bans. As such, companies should pay greater attention to their own evacuation planning and preparation in the interim, instead of solely relying on governments. While pandemic-related evacuations may not be as unpredictable as political or natural disaster evacuations, as recent events demonstrate, they still pose many challenges to business and leisure travellers alike.