As COVID-19 continues to dominate the conversation, it’s getting increasingly more difficult to sift through the abundance of information and decipher what’s really relevant for your travelers and your organization. On Call’s VP of Global Assistance Services, Ryan DeStefano, is here to help by answering more FAQs we’ve been hearing from clients and travelers, while also providing his valuable insights on COVID-19 from an assistance, security, and risk management perspective.
If expatriates or travelers who originally chose to shelter in place are now desiring to evacuate, what are their options?
Ryan DeStefano: In this situation, first they should check current commercial options as well as inbound/ outbound country immigration policies related to repatriation of citizens. Even some countries with closed borders have options available (albeit at very low capacity and frequency), and it’s important to validate the nationalities and paperwork required for travel. It is additionally important to understand any restrictions on connecting airport countries since some have imposed transiting restrictions. Second, travelers should make sure they registered with their requisite host governments’ embassy or consulate. During the height of lock downs, many governments had, and still occasionally can, secure passage on commercial or charter flights home for their citizens as long as they know their travelers’ whereabouts and have a means to communicate with them. Third, if there are no commercial options and the traveler’s host government is not arranging any transport, travelers may be able to find a charter flight through a travel risk management provider. There are many factors that come into play here such as high cost, long permitting windows, and the same criteria as above. Other considerations include understanding the medical screening and travel approval protocols in place—travelers may be required to produce travel history as well as possibly even a negative COVID-19 test or have some documentation to prove no COVID-19 symptoms have been experienced over a certain period of time. There may also be a lack of ground transportation options to even get to the airport, stringent travel windows, or government-imposed immobilization efforts that need to be evaluated. Finally, travelers should know they may still be required to quarantine or practice self-isolation upon return.
For those sheltering in place, what are some recommendations for those individuals?
Ryan DeStefano: Here are the general guidelines and recommendations we are sharing with our travelers sheltering in place during this time:
- Have some cash on hand for emergencies, as well as a reasonable amount of food and water on hand to limit frequency of needing supplies, and check prescriptions to make sure they are not low.
- Abide by all local laws and regulations and specifically the new restrictions in place.
- Have chargers and emergency power back-ups for devices and extend any international calling plans. (Some carriers are offering this at little to no cost)
- Refrain from risky activities to reduce the risk of any additional illness or injury. You want to avoid needing to go to the hospital and take care of your immune system.
- Monitor the local and regional developments regarding what level of restrictions are in place and what new steps the local government may implement to combat the spread.
- Register for the US State Department’s STEP Program (or your home country’s equivalent program) to ensure the local government is aware of your location and any particulars about your situation.
- Establish check-ins with your organization make sense on an appropriate frequency based on situation and personal preference.
- Monitor mental health as this will become a significant condition to monitor for folks stranded and sheltering for long periods of time.
- Finally, as always stay informed by following local reports or subscribing to an alert service and practice your situational awareness.
Is it impossible for a traveler to obtain a medical evacuation amid the COVID-19 travel and transportation restrictions?
Ryan DeStefano: As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, medical repatriation has become increasingly more difficult due to transportation restrictions, but by no means impossible. We are seeing that medical evacuations are generally permissible amid current COVID-19 restrictions, but due diligence is critical in order to evaluate the most feasible option based traveler condition/circumstance and as local and national governments permit. Triggers for evacuation support and transportation logistics are completely dependent on the assistance program a constituent/organization purchases.
There are several other factors that come into play from this perspective including increased costs due to potential for denied entry, increased permitting fees/flight quarantine costs, and other COVID-related complications. Note: If an appropriate medical facility is not available locally, ground/sea/air medical transport may be required in order to provide the traveler with access to an appropriate medical facility and care. Medical repatriation may be arranged as soon as the traveler is deemed stable (and as COVID-19 travel and transportation restrictions allow).
What are the factors that the individuals and/or organizations should track to understand if things are getting worse beyond the local COVID-19 situation?
Ryan DeStefano: While we are generally seeing an acceptance of government restrictions and a collective humanitarian spirit to get through this, the longer it draws on the increased risk for escalated criminal and protest type behavior. They should be monitoring what the increase of infection rate looks like where they are, and level of strain that is putting on the local healthcare infrastructure as well as the availability of supplies related to long-term survival (food, water, shelter.) The unemployment and economic situation of the country is another variable likely to play a role the longer the impacts of the virus continue local suppression efforts. Depending upon location, the possibility of a civil unrest or military clampdown is possible. It is important to watch how the local authorities are responding and what level of control they seem to have over the situation. If the government is being widely criticized for a poor response or withholding information, combined with resource restrictions on the population, this can ferment into anti-government sentiment and the possibility of civil-unrest. Also important to note that some insurance plans trigger a benefit for civil unrest if one has yet to be triggered.
What is your prediction on when travel bans will be lifted and borders will begin to open?
Ryan DeStefano: At this time this is total speculation, and theories on this are all over the map. We anticipate that this could be a case whereas the impact of COVID-19 shifts across the globe from east to west, the level of cases will peak, additional cases per day begins to decline and the corresponding level of measures will deescalate proportionally. By that, we mean the impact to daily life of local citizens will slowly become more normal. That being said, these countries will still be concerned about a rebound threat of allowing travelers in more hotbed areas entering their country. In this theoretical case, the internal restrictions will gradually subside but the travel restrictions will remain in place until the situation improves globally. As an example, some countries in Asia have begun to lift restrictions. They have not lifted transportation restrictions (and are unlikely to) until they feel there are little to no new cases AND their populous infection rate is sliding towards null as well. Additionally, in the U.S., certain states are starting to lift social distancing measures. This is important to note as the mounting pressure to re-invigorate local and national economies may have adverse side effects on global restrictions if the case counts continue and/or rebound.
The reality of the matter is, when travel bans are lifted and borders re-open, many organizations will not feel confident in ‘flipping the switch’ and restarting travel unless they have successfully performed some additional due diligence and consider a variety of other factors. Regardless of risk tolerance, organizations need a decision-making framework with pre-established reverse tripwires that take into account very specific factors and criteria in order to ensure they’re meeting duty of care obligations and making the most informed decision on when to resume travel.
Not sure where to start? On Call can equip your organization with the information it needs in order to make the most informed decision around when to restart travel —contact us today for a complimentary travel restart consultation.
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