The Olympic Winter Games in Beijing are starting even as the Covid omicron variant continues to ravage the planet. I asked Dan Richards, CEO of Global Rescue, a company that provides travel risk management, intelligence and crisis response services, to put the security challenges into perspective for travelers. Here’s our interview.
This pandemic is like a horror movie. Just when you think it’s over, it returns and scares the living daylights out of us. What should travelers do?
As the British say, keep calm and carry on. We know so much more about this virus than we did at the beginning, and omicron is likely the end of the pandemic phase of Covid-19. That said, this disease is going out with a bang, not a whimper, so with infection rates spiking around the world, travelers should observe best practices for keeping themselves safe and always have a contingency plan B if they or one of their fellow travelers get infected.
The UK just canceled some restrictions, mask and vaccine passport mandates, and many other countries will likely follow suit in the coming weeks, so travel should get easier for the spring travel season.
What are the security risks for the Winter Olympics? Do you have any advice for anyone attending the games?
Perhaps the hardest thing about the Olympics will be attending in person. China has severely limited attendance, and if you are planning and able to go, moving around unrestricted will not be easy.
Should you get infected, you will be subject to Chinese regulations, including quarantine and treatment, if necessary. The Chinese have dealt with the pandemic on their terms since the beginning, and this will continue to be the case.
How are the Chinese dealing with Covid? What do travelers to the Olympics need to know about these plans?
The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China will be unlike any other because of the COVID-19 threat. Chinese officials have implemented a closed-loop policy to protect against the spread of the disease.
In the event of a major illness or injury, official Chinese resources will handle ground and air transports for medical evacuations. Any emergency medical situation arising that requires outside, non-Chinese support will be handled on a case-by-case basis by international government and medical officials. It’s all quite unprecedented.
You’re constantly surveying your customers about travel sentiment. What are they telling you now?
They’re telling us they want to travel now more than ever, and they are bound and determined to do it once governments allow them to move with fewer or no restrictions. YOLO – you only live once – seems to be the philosophy of the day, and we are going to see an unprecedented number of bucket-list, revenge travel trips happen in the spring and summer.
You’ve talked about pandemic evolution for businesses and business travel. What do you mean by that?
The bar for traveling to a meeting has been raised — forever. Virtual substitution for in-person meetings is here to stay. The pandemic has demonstrated that productive work can be done from almost anywhere, and that is leading to people taking advantage of that capability.
What’s the biggest challenge in this new, evolved environment?
Managing the remote workforce will be a new challenge as unprecedented numbers of employees log in from the beach, mountains and other places where they’ve chosen to live.
Employers need to make certain their duty of care legal requirements are comprehensively detailed. Company leaders like CEOs, chief security officers, travel managers and human resources directors are accountable for the development and oversight of policies, programs and logistics that protect traveling staff. They carry a duty-of-care responsibility to their people, to take care of them and avoid exposing them to any unnecessary or undue risk.
When do you think business travel will finally come back?
Business travel has changed permanently but that doesn’t necessarily mean there will be less of it, just that it will be different.
‘Bleisure’ is here to stay, and particularly among younger employees without children, the prospect of being able to work from anywhere under more flexible attendance policies is going to give them the ability to live and work in places they couldn’t before. This will be good for the economies of many semi-rural communities in the U.S., but could be bad for cities.
Covid protocols are pretty confusing from one country to the next, and from one day to the next. I’d love to know which country has taken the most effective steps to control the virus by balancing safety with common sense. Which country is the most confusing?
The jury is still out on which country or state handled Covid best. Interestingly, when you look at the differences in response, from complete lockdown to almost no lockdown, there isn’t a statistically significant difference in hospitalizations and deaths — only in timing.
Where there is a big difference is in the performance of the economies and the economic damage done. Those who took a softer approach to lockdowns performed better economically.
Right now some of the strictest countries require a PCR test to leave the country. One example of that is the United Arab Emirates. But as you know, PCR tests can give a false positive if you’ve recovered from COVID for weeks, even months. How do you deal with a situation like that?
The good news about the PCR tests is they are very sensitive. That’s also the bad news, since people can test positive long after they’ve recovered but still have a small number of viral particles in their system.
Unfortunately, the answer under many of today’s governmental rules is either quarantine or private flight on an air ambulance, even if it is not medically indicated. We’re hopeful this changes soon.
What are the most common types of cases you get during the pandemic? Does that list offer any kind of insight for travelers preparing for their upcoming spring break or summer vacations?
Early in the pandemic, we had many travelers get very sick with COVID and need immediate, high-level care or who required evacuation. We also had those stuck in places where there was civil unrest caused by shortages resulting from interrupted supply chains.
More recently, the most common cases have been asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic cases where travelers have been stuck in quarantine until they test negative. While inconvenient, none of these cases have been life-threatening.
Who should be traveling now? And who should not be traveling?
The biggest threat to travelers now is not a serious illness, but getting stuck somewhere with a mild COVID case.
This can interrupt childcare responsibilities and work schedules and create great uncertainty in the travel process. If you have serious underlying health conditions, you should be extra cautious about where and how you travel, but travel now is an option for everyone who can handle the red tape associated with it.
How have you changed the way you travel during the pandemic, and specifically during omicron? How do you think people should change the way they travel now and in the future?
The amount of time I spend preparing for travel has increased dramatically, and this is true for my team as well.
We arrive earlier at airports and have contingency plans in place, especially when we’re traveling with children.
The responsible thing for governments to do is invest in infrastructure to prevent the next pandemic by utilizing a strategy that relies on early and continuous detection and treatment. We know containment is virtually impossible without being able to see who is infected, so we should do something about it.
We have the technology – we just need the will to implement it.