Ignorance, COVID-19 and Tourism
Pandemics are not just about pathogens
It is convenient to claim that the tourism industry has been brought to its knees because of COVID-19; however, the blame would be misplaced. The broader picture includes a confluence of culture, politics, science, and geography joined together by incompetent leadership resulting in the elimination of millions of jobs, billions in lost revenue, and a future that is both unknown and unknowable.
Epidemics are not just a function of pathogens, they reflect the structure of society; how political power is used/abused in the name of public health; how quantitative data is collected; how diseases are identified and categorized and modelled; along with the method in which histories are recorded, categorized and shared.
When COVID-19 was identified in 2019, historians and scientists looked backward before dealing with the present and pondering the future. The scientific/healthcare community looked at the history of pandemics, searching for a pattern and lessons learned; unfortunately, there were no magic bullets that would immediately stop the virus in its tracks. There were no experts able to control this disease although similar diseases have circulated the planet for centuries. Already in place, however, were the tried/true methods of disease control including surveillance, quarantine, masks, and hand-washing, reminding every citizen of history (i.e., AIDS; 1918-20, Influenza; 14th century, Black Death) that we had been there and done that. The universal failure in corralling the virus was the absence of private and public leadership leaving problem-solving on the desks of global executives who preferred to put profits before safety, hiding in the shadows and invoking magical thinking and encouraging everyone to believe the virus would disappear on its own without human intervention.
The Chinese government was remiss in not listening to its scientists and burying the alarms that the virus was circulating, choosing to kill the messengers for the message. The executives at major cruise lines preferred to ignore warnings from the Chinese and Japanese countries that the virus had infiltrated their spaces and passengers and crew were disease carriers and virus spreaders. The World Health Organization (WHO) executives preferred to protect their political hides rather than assert themselves into the growing healthcare emergency, alerting the world that this virus was deadly and spread rapidly.
Diseases Do Not Stand Alone
Epidemics influence and impact on societies and cultures, sweeping across domestic and international boundaries, leading from ignorance to revelation, from individual to collective actions, in an attempt to control the randomness of the disease. Eventually the disease rests in the cobwebs of history, and the lessons learned disappear into obscure tomes that gather dust on shelves of medical professionals and government leaders. Unfortunately, before the end is sighted, millions of people get violently ill and thousands needlessly die.
Politics or Business
While the scientific beginning of COVID-19 belongs in the world healthcare communities, its transmission is intimately tied to human conduct, industry avoidance and government denial. The common behavior of holding hands, kissing on cheeks and lips, the traipsing of travelers spanning time zones at global airports, train stations and cruise ship terminals, governments more concerned with politics than human lives, all played a part in expediting the spread of the virus.
Even 11 months into the pandemic the world eagerly awaits the news of additional cases and, holds its collective breath for the forecast of new deaths as keenly as awaiting the predictions for the weather and the stock market. Unfortunately, this information has been, at best, unreliable, because the data has been linked to the whims and wiles of erratic leadership, and the unpredictable nature of human beings. Even today, with the announcement of the availability of vaccines it appears the activity is a very large public relations effort rather than a rational approach to stemming the COVID-19 tide of destruction and despair.
Epidemics are defined by their uncertainty. In the 21st century, scientists, politicians, government and private sector leaders are expected to know all the answers; however, it is impossible for anyone to be completely knowledgeable in the light of a new disease uncontained by national boundaries or previous scientific studies. In The Lancet (1953), England’s medical journal, during the country’s third cholera epidemic, scientists were able to say, “We know nothing, we are at sea, in a whirlpool of conjecture.”
It was possible and acceptable in the 19th century to admit “not knowing;” however, in the 21st century, rather than admit to ignorance and the making of mistakes as a result of a lack of knowledge, information and experience, leaders cower in the shadows, refuse to respond to the questions of reporters, and deny any knowledge or interest in finding causes and remedies (i.e., Barbados and the feeble attempt to reboot cruising). Even in December 2020, almost a full year since COVID-19 began to dominate our lives, the cause, effect, remedies and prevention options remain in the realm of the “unknown” and many actions implemented fall into the class of foolish or just plain stupid.
Historically, the management of epidemics remained in the hands of political authorities who negotiated, developed, wielded and revealed the pathway to good health. Government and political leaders led through the organization and distribution of free medicine, collecting and disseminating information and for those of following a religious track, encouraging appropriate worship. The Chinese approach to the Wuhan outbreak drew upon an authoritarian, top-down management model, using the strategy implemented during encounters with smallpox, leprosy and pneumonic plague.
Another model is available, an approach considered the “benevolent” state. The Song dynasty (960-1279 CE), embraced the idea of compassion; that a caring state could bestow on its citizens, providing health-promoting suggestions, establishing sick-wards and public pharmaceutical dispensaries. The first has been the methodology used by the Trump-led White House, Republican elected officials and private sector executives, while the new Biden team appears to be accessing the Benevolent State approach.
Post Truth Era. The Production of Ignorance
A challenge faced by the Biden administration as it attempts to realistically and pragmatically address a global pandemic and an economic catastrophe, is the huge gap in databases that should be chockful of valid and accurate research – covering periods of time that date back to President George W. Bush’s administration. Unfortunately, the United States has been living through a time period when scientific findings were suppressed if they undermined the current political ideological positions. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan refused to use the word AIDS and the country continues to suffer from President Richard Nixon’s Drug Enforcement Agency, (1971) where drugs such a marijuana, LSD and psilocybin were identified as Schedule 1, producing prohibition on clinical research into potential medicinal uses of these drugs.
The distrust of truth and the necessity for research continues into 2021. Television pundits continue to debate the existence of climate change, despite the melting of century old glaciers, and entire land masses disappearing during hurricanes and tsunamis. Hours are spent debating whether children should be held captive in cages for months, separated from their parents, and question whether the entire process should be labeled as Concentration Camps.
Trump and business leaders have actively engaged in promoting “agnotology” the study of the deliberate production of ignorance. Political institutions and large corporations (i.e., tobacco, pharmaceuticals, oil, agriculture, banking, cruise lines, airlines, tourism) suppress knowledge to suit their own economic or ideological goals. Scientific controversy is used by both the public and private sectors, not as the inevitable product of ignorance but as something manufactured and maintained by powerful interests to produce doubt.
Tourism Leadership Vacancies
The COVID-19 pandemic is tied to politics, linked with local, national and international audiences in mind, crafting the course of the disease and the responses. The white male dominated political and corporate structure has systematically obscured, ignored and marginalized women and people of color. The arrival and nurture of the pandemic has enabled the leadership to remove large numbers of women from the marketplace, forcing them to return home to tend to family demands. Women and people of color held many of the jobs in the tourism industry, and its demise has left these individuals jobless, without benefits and with little hope for a brighter future.
We have been living in a time fueled by the rise of populism which promotes a general distrust of expertise, encouraging individuals to rely on their own experiences rather than to look to and trust professionals and experts in their fields. In some instances, the distrust of experts is a logical reaction to the fact that corporations have a significant influence on the design, production and distribution of what is released into the ether as “scientific knowledge,” when it is really a subterfuge as the products release lethal chemicals into the environment, food chain and healthcare systems.
A tobacco industry executive is noted as saying, “Doubt is our product.” For nearly 70 years since the lethal effect of tobacco is noted as a fact, the cigarette industry has campaigned to suggest that there is room for disagreement on the issue. From press releases, funding decoy research, establishing scientific front organizations, manipulation of legislative agendas, the preponderance of “friendly research” for publication in popular media, and other consumer directed dissemination of mis-information, the duplicity continues to support the annual sale worldwide of over 5 trillion cigarettes, smoked by people who have been convinced that “perhaps” smoking is not harmful.
From the mid-1950s – 1990, the Council for Tobacco Research, sponsored by the large cigarette manufacturers, spent $450 million on research with the purpose of distracting the public with legitimate research on other harmful and contributing factors such as occupational hazards. Rather than oppose the solid and well-established connection between smoking and cancer, the industry objective was to destabilize the claim by stating, “we need more research.” In many instances, the major ambitions of politicians, economists, journalists, and business executives is to plant doubt and ignorance among the populace; it is a political tactic and the link between information and power.
Ignorance allied with power is the largest enemy of a democracy. President Donald J. Trump dismisses vigorous journalism as “fake news,” and small attendance at the Presidential inaugural is considered as “alternative facts.” The airline industry, trying to convince the public that flying is safe hired Harvard University to develop a research project, proving that flying presented a relatively low risk for acquiring SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) because of the air-filtering systems and mask requirements. The study found that the risk was low regardless of seat location (i.e., middle, aisle or window).
What is not part of the major public relations effort is the fact that the research was based on models and therefore the recommendations are founded on data developed under controlled conditions and passengers must be COVID-19 symptom-free, comply with all airline protocols including physical distancing during boarding and deplaning (degree of protection – to be determined). In addition, the gate and flight crew must enforce compliance. The public relations efforts promoted headlines that were less than candid, including: “Harvard Study: Low Inflight Covid-19 Transmission Among Masked, Distant Passengers” (businesstravelnews.com), and “With Proper Measures Flying Can Be Safer Than Eating at a Restaurant During the Pandemic, Study Says (washingtonpost.com).
Although the researchers stress their analysis of the results as impartial, and confirms conclusions released by the Department of Defense (odds of the virus droplet expelled by an infected traveler – 3 in 1000) – IF, everyone wears a mask, what is not readily disclosed, is the fact that the Harvard study was financed by the airline industry.
In addition, another fact that was not part of the study or the public relations campaign that accompanied the release of the report was the European infectious disease research Eurosurveillance Journal report that identified the infection of 13 passengers on a commercial flight with 48 passengers and 12 crew on a plane with 283 seats with nine of the infected passengers wearing masks, and one (a one-year-old child). The passengers were from three different continents connecting through a large international airport for the flight to Ireland. The report linked the further spread of COVID-19 to 46 additional people in Ireland (from the original 13 travelers).
The public is hungry for research based on science that is unbiased; however, there is the underlying reality that industry and governments can collude to produce information that is not objective. The consumer understands that powerful interests introduce “knowledge and technologies” designed to service the corporation rather than the public good.
Industry Facilitates Spread
Travelers import diseases as they transit through Europe, Asia, Africa and the rest of the world. Cross border movements of people as well as the increased movement of trade and services challenge the control of infectious diseases. Travel has increased through the globalization of the airline and cruise line industries. With this growth comes the risk of new diseases as people are exposed to novel pathogens spread through international transportation. While some have tried to create new ways to address the spread of infectious diseases (i.e., SARS-2003; EVD outbreak-West Africa – 2014; COVID-19, 2019-2020) it is apparent that the current global system is not functional. Pandemics threaten public health and the global economy, sustained by the growing hotel, travel and tourism industries and industry leadership appears to be unable and/or unwilling to address their role in facilitating the problem and finding a solution.
Too Slow to Respond
If scientists, governments, WHO and business leaders had responded quickly to COVID-19 (within 2-weeks), research suggests that travel restrictions would have been 99 percent effective in conjunction with border closings, preventing the movement of infected travelers. A 90 percent restriction on long-distance flights could have delayed the spread of the epidemic. The fear of economic hardship should not be a reason to keep borders open when pandemics have been observed. One way or the other, there will be economic hardships. The fear of economic penalties and social stigma can be identified and lead authorities to underreport data in epidemics, risking public health consequences leading us to the dire situation we are now experiencing.
Preparedness – Not Prevention
As the world moves into 2021, the concept of preparedness as opposed to prevention should be the objective of planning for the next health crises. The opposite of an epidemic is not the lack of disease but endemic disease – disease distributions considered typical and domestic and acceptable. Increased global travel, tourism and trade will bring new medical challenges to every facet of a globally integrated world.
Human activities are ultimately responsible for the transmission and spread of infectious diseases. It is possible to face the disease and take the measures available to reduce risk of transmission and spread by changing human behavior and implementing better early warning systems and effective disease control and prevention, including global surveillance, international political will, multidisciplinary collaboration of all stakeholders – working together to identify, corral and ultimately eliminate future threats.
Countries with inadequate infrastructure and equipment and lack of awareness regarding laboratory biosafety and biosecurity who have been responsible for the spread of the disease to the world, have to be held accountable. People handling pathogens, especially viruses, have to be trained so as not to expose health workers to high-risk contamination. From health workers and laboratory workers, to doctors and nurses and support staff, training and education must be shared and not spared or restricted to only a few. The multiple levels and facets of the hospitality, travel and tourism industry must be part of the conversation as they are at the front line, meeting and greeting travelers as they arrive at airports, seaports and train terminals, and interact closely with them on a 24/7/365 basis.
There is a future for the tourism industry, but – if it is to flourish, it must be part of the solution, as it is already a large part of the problem.
© Dr. Elinor Garely. This copyright article, including photos, may not be reproduced without written permission from the author.