As 2021 commences, global tourism remains at a virtual standstill owing to the pandemic, with any hope for a recovery dashed by the new Covid-19 variants that emerged in late December. When it comes to travel freedom, the pandemic has somewhat leveled the playing field, albeit temporarily. For developed and developing nations alike, limited human mobility around the world is currently not only the result of a lack of social freedom or poor economic development but also a failure of risk management, health readiness, and monitoring and detection.
In numerous countries there are telling trend lines showing links between their visa-free scores on the Henley Passport Index and not just their economic and social freedom but also — as our research reveals — their healthcare and emergency preparedness, Covid-19 monitoring and detection, and government efficiency. There are certain countries with stronger economies and well-developed public health systems that have had their vulnerabilities exposed by the pandemic, often because they did not actively introduce certain timely measures.
In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, Deep Knowledge Group’s Covid-19 Risk and Safety Assessment (Covid-19 Safety Assessment) study was designed to classify, analyze, and rank the economic, social, and health stability achieved by the 250 countries and regions included in its analysis, as well as the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats or risks that they present in the battle against the global health and economic crisis triggered by Covid-19.
...certain countries with stronger economies and well-developed public health systems have had their vulnerabilities exposed by the pandemic...
The methodology of the Covid-19 Safety Assessment is based on calculations involving six overarching categories, namely, quarantine efficiency, government efficiency of risk management, monitoring and detection, health readiness, regional resilience, and emergency preparedness, with over 140 sub-parameters and more than 35,000 data points. The Henley Passport Index is an authoritative ranking of the passport strength of 227 destinations — travel freedom has proven links with both economic and social freedom. In the current context, the general perception of these concepts, and of world mobility in general, is changing considerably. As such, it is helpful to find commonalities between them and to reveal irregularities within any country’s national healthcare policies and other related systems, thereby transitioning from an approach to health-related governance that is based on deep knowledge rather than common belief.
Furthermore, raising awareness of the issue of the economic fragility of certain countries will contribute, if not to the resolution of the challenges it presents, then at least to identifying means of mitigating risk in the foreseeable future.
Major tourism indicators declined by between 50% and 90% year-on-year in 2020 compared to 2019 — a gap that is projected to continue widening for the foreseeable future. Air reservations dropped by 90% in 2020, the number of inbound tourists fell by 70%, and hotel bookings decreased by 50%. October 2020 data revealed that hotel occupancy rates also reduced dramatically, ranging from a decline of 19% in Central America to 62% in Northeast Asia and as high as 44% globally. This has been particularly damaging to economies that rely on the hospitality sector especially, including small island states in which exports comprise up to 95% of the sector. Necessary food imports in such destinations greatly depend on foreign currency exchange rates, amid lack of diversification, and the national currency maintained by cash inflows from tourists.
Many countries with the lowest levels of healthcare readiness and emergency preparedness in the Covid-19 Safety Assessment had failed to diversify their GDP and exports prior to the pandemic, leaving them even more vulnerable when their governments had to make difficult choices due to mounting pressure from the subsequent economic crisis. Thankfully, the health of the population appears to have been prioritized by most countries regardless of the quality of its healthcare system, and even countries with less developed healthcare systems were among those that decided against lifting travel restrictions early. While tourism is the most obvious, there are other drivers of mobility that have been affected by the pandemic, including labor migration and forced migration.
While a shortfall of demand in global markets is forcing migrants to return to their countries of birth, which in turn creates an additional economic burden in those already fragile places, internally displaced people, asylum seekers, and refugees were already among the world’s most vulnerable populations. Now, even more restricted access to healthcare services and medicine indicates that extreme vulnerability lies ahead for displaced people.
Those forced to move due to poverty, wars and conflict, climate change, and other natural disasters rely completely on financial aid and in-kind assistance. Thanks to financial technologies in the charity and impact investing sectors, citizens in almost every state are able to connect themselves to those in need easily by making donations, investing, or granting credit through trusted platforms and organizations.
As the graphs below illustrate, overlaying the Covid-19 Safety Assessment and Henley Passport Index data to compare countries’ visa-free scores (the dark blue lines) and the various parameters of the Covid-19 Safety Assessment (the light gray lines) shows definite correlations between the trend lines for travel freedom and those for government efficiency of risk management, health readiness, and monitoring and detection. By contrast, there is far less correlation between travel freedom and emergency preparedness, country vulnerability, and quarantine efficiency indicators. As the graphs reveal, the latter two indicators (which include the key indicators of number of cases and mortality rate) show the least correlation with travel freedom (which is associated, inter alia, with economic and social freedom). This presents a challenge for developed countries and it also suggests the need to review performance criteria in more detail.
...global immobility is not solely the plight of citizens of less advanced countries.
Citizens of more developed countries that generally occupy the upper positions of the Henley Passport Index, formally having more freedoms, remain at the time of writing de facto less mobile than they were pre-pandemic and limited in their freedom to travel owing to restrictions in four of the ten largest sources of outbound tourism (countries that are leaders in terms of the number of citizens traveling to other countries). At the same time, citizens of developing and less developed countries, in addition to having visa-free access to a far smaller number of travel destinations, are also affected by restrictive measures and have even fewer options in terms of purchasing power.
A conclusion can therefore be made that limited human mobility around the world is not only the result of a lack of social freedom or poor economic development but also a failure of risk management, health readiness, and monitoring and detection. In other words, global immobility is not solely the plight of citizens of less advanced countries.
Historically there has been a strong incidence of return migration to rural areas from cities when economic activity has decreased. This could well be the case in the context of the current pandemic, when a near-total cessation of urban economic activity combined with a need for social distancing, exercise, and open spaces drives people from cities to more rural areas. Mega-cities that are currently overcrowded owing to past influxes of people seeking employment and wanting to be close to business centers could become less populated. Dealing with the extreme complexities inherent to both viruses and economic systems, municipal governments are forced to focus more on accountability, planning, and measurement. On the other hand, the coronavirus shock could prove to have been the starting pistol of a marathon towards greater sustainability and changing patterns of behavior in favor of reduced burdens on facilities and transport. Covid-19 is a truly unprecedented global challenge of the 21st century that has affected almost all the Earth’s population.
What will become the new normal — a shift from egalitarianism to an even greater commodification of space, or a careful transition to an integrated approach and a thoughtful attitude towards safety, sustainability, and intra-regional cooperation? Or will there be more tight vertical interactions between the state authorities and each region? It will depend significantly on the existing institutional environment, including flexibility regarding cultural values and social norms. The prolific success of countries such as Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, and Switzerland that have both high visa-free scores (which is usually indicative of high levels of social and economic freedom) and high Covid-19 Safety Assessment scores (which include indicators embracing government and healthcare efficiency and preparedness), proves that human-oriented and well-balanced technological progress as opposed to pure economic growth are more crucial ingredients of change, while recent challenges only highlight their urgency.
Covid-19 is a truly unprecedented global challenge of the 21st century that has affected almost all the Earth’s population.
The above research has made it apparent that to focus on growth alone might exacerbate the fragility of society. Both the economic system and the pandemic — being phenomena of the highest complexity — are so unpredictable that it would be unwise to respond to single macro-economic factors. Developed and developing countries alike will need to account for the extreme complexities inherent in both the phenomenon of the virus and the economy and harmonize their approach towards sustainability in all respects. A coherent approach to intra- and inter-governmental cooperation and human-oriented technological progress could be the key to taming both challenges, thereby restoring mobility to all.
Deep Knowledge Group. Covid-19 Regional Safety Assessment DKVGlobal, 2020.
Henley Passport Index. Henley Passport Index, 2021.
Khanna, P, and Prasad, K.K. “How Coronavirus Could Make People Move.” Politico LLC., Politico, May 13, 2020.
The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). “70% of Destinations Have Lifted Travel Restrictions, but Global Gap Emerging.” UNWTO, December 2, 2020.
The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). “International Tourism and Covid-19.” UNWTO, 2020.
The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). “UNWTO Global Tourism Dashboard.” UNWTO, 2020.
The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). “UNWTO Tourism Recovery Tracker.” UNWTO, 2020.