Over the last month we have seen the global recorded deaths from COVID-19 exceed a tragic 1-million souls, and the number of those having been infected reach 35-million cases. These numbers are staggering, but what I find sometimes gets overlooked is that behind each number, each seemingly straightforward statistic, is an individual, a family and a community, left suffering.

When the pandemic entered our consciousness nine months ago, there is no doubt that governments were taken by surprise. No one, absolutely no one, ever imagined 2020 – a new year, a new decade – looking like this.

What did we all do? We looked to our leaders, whether they were ready or not. Across the globe, heads of state were being looked to for comprehension of the speed, severity and scope of impact of the first global pandemic of our generation. From east to west, leaders were rapidly forced to make decisions based on hypothesis; decisions that initially focused on saving lives, that soon had to incorporate saving livelihoods.

Yet here we are, now in the midst of the second or possibly even third wave, and despite what we thought were the lessons learned, too many governments continue to fail their people. Clearly the first wave’s lessons are at risk of being lost.

Once again the virus is spreading at an accelerating rate, yet still too many governments do not have a cohesive, coordinated plan on how to manage the continued risk of COVID-19, establishing how we can live with the virus in a sensible way. Too many are rejecting the science and putting politics first. United once, today they divide, looking inwards with remarkable rejection of multilateralism.

The once lively Bourbon Street, Louisiana, has now been reduced to a deserted ghost town.

This is incomprehensible and unacceptable. COVID-19 is not our first crisis, and equally it will not be our last. It is now clear that even with a vaccine, it is going remain a threat to humanity at least for our near future. This is a disease where prevention matters most, and that’s where our governments need to focus resources: funding, intelligence, political capital. Impact demands that our leaders find ways, quickly, to promote and engage, rather than ignore or debase.

As a result of States’ ongoing failure to appropriately respond, with their ever changing, conflicting and contradictory directives and a manufactured shifting environment, the urgency of this crisis has been lost. We now find millions of people worldwide appearing selfishly bored with the pandemic, ignoring or waiting until they get it, get through it, until a vaccine gets discovered and rolled out, in the hope that the world can get back to normal.

What is getting lost is that there is no ‘going back to normal’. There is no back, and there certainly is no normal.

What is senseless is that with the removal of politics and with planning, we can actually live with the virus. Through collective prioritisation and pooling of resources, leaders won’t need to make a choice between shutting down our economies or keeping people safe. Doors can be left open, so that life can in fact go on. The lives versus livelihoods debate can stop.

The time for a dramatic shift is now. It is not too late to change course. It is not too late for leadership. But what we need, are no more excuses. Longevity of the virus is in the hands of leaders, literally and figuratively.  Courage and conviction must be found to develop plans that change the current trajectory. Unless we change course, we risk heading into a precarious downward spiral and facing a potential “Domino Effect” of immense proportions.

The first line of defence? Coordinated, clear government communication, based on testing and tracing, social distancing and wearing of masks.

It seems so simple. Yet these necessary simple public health measures serve no purpose unless they are combined with clear direction and determination for change in behaviour. Mere suggestion to look after our own health are weak. Strength comes through well thought through, clear guidelines, with rules and protocols developed and enforced.

There is no sector more exposed to this reality more acutely than ours – Travel & Tourism. According to the latest World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) estimates, by the end of 2020 a staggering 197 million jobs and USD 5.5 trillion will be lost worldwide due to the collapse of travel globally.

To put this in perspective, we need to consider that in 2019, our industry represented 1 in 10 jobs worldwide. Our rate of economic sector growth exceeded all others. We were unmatched as a force for global unity, harmony, opportunity and connectivity. Travel was a force for good in poverty reduction, driving prosperity, reducing inequality, providing opportunities regardless of gender, education, nationality, and beliefs. In fact, 54% of our sector’s workforce are women and over 30% are youth, the very foundation of what is needed today.

The complete halt of all global, regional and local activity has exposed how critical our industry is to economic, social, cultural, and environmental ecosystems. COVID-19 has been an x-ray on our industry at all levels: qualitative, quantitative, economically, socially, financially, spiritually, and culturally around the world. And we have seen that without travel, there is no travel industry.

Even today, with 53% of countries easing some border restrictions, travellers remain extremely cautious of travelling. Why? It’s less about fear of the virus, and increasingly the fear of government actions. These have included making quick decisions to change border policies, especially with regards to quarantine requirements, forcing travellers going to / returning from other countries to be in self isolation for up to 14 days with a lack of explanation as well as local enforcement, locals or other travellers disrespecting protocols, the weaponization of mask-wearing, shifting health & safety protocol guidelines, inconsistent protocols, a string of ill-conceived policies that can eclipse the pleasure of travelling all together. All of this creates uncertainty as well as a sentiment of ‘why bother?’

Our industry is a perfect example of what can and has gone wrong. Travel & Tourism is not part of the problem. With travel stopped, the spread of the virus has not stopped. As I look to our business as well as our supply chains, direct and indirect competitors, many have diligently developed protocols on how we can exist and travel in a COVID-19 world. Yet despite careful planning and action, we find ourselves at a precipice of defining the strength, or weakness, of the Travel and Tourism industry worldwide.

We can no longer wait. The public and private sector have to work together to define the path forward to provide the economic recovery needed, and to do so without compromising the necessary health measures, bringing back millions of jobs.  

To begin the recovery, it is essential that we can provide certainty for travellers. For the Travel & Tourism industry, on the 7th October, WTTC and 20 industry CEOs presented a 12-point plan defining protocols for how as an industry we could cautiously restart Travel and Tourism. Importantly, the plan also looks at how they can be reenforced. The enforcement is vital.

How do we find sanity in uncertainty? By demonstrating how one industry can find a way forward, giving governments a road map to guide us through these challenging times, without the need for the dominos to fall out of line.

That’s the core challenge of these times. Our world needs to travel. It needs to connect, yet we are being forced to separate. We are hearing in increasing volumes the degree of cabin fever that is consuming us all. We can rebuild confidence in travel among travellers and those working in the travel industry by investing in the logical and accountable ways of keeping people safe.

Again, we come back to the how? What can each of us do to protect the travel experience, and therefore the travel industry?

Simple: be accountable, and hold others accountable.

The travel industry can lead the way, but we need the governments to join us. As an industry, we can either plan for future growth and development…or governments can plan on our industry’s demise.

So let’s end the indecision. In this crisis we either all win, or we all lose. COVID-19 does not care about our politics, our policies, or our perceived power.

Governments must identify the trade-offs that make both economic and social sense. Our leaders need to work together as well as call on their citizens to step up as responsible patriots, playing their part in confronting this invisible, merciless threat to not just their wellbeing, but the wellbeing of their loved ones, of their communities, and of future generations. That bold, brave leadership will one day be written about in history books as best practice of what we did, to whom we listened, and how we found strength and cohesion in crisis.

Our industry was a poster child for living with opportunity, possibility, unity, harmony, peace. It can and must be that once more.