Political insanity, media inanity, and wailing into the wind

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

What a mess. And a horribly predictable one at that. The world has responded to the emergence of the Omicron variant in a way that shows almost no lessons have been learned from the past 22 months. Or perhaps I should not use the collective term ‘the world’, for what we have seen is nationalistic individualism at its hastiest, sometimes nastiest and always most parochial. The only consistent thing about such kneejerk responses (I decline to call it strategy) is that hammering the travel industry over the head tends to be the first line of defence.

It’s understandable in one sense – governments are, after all, meant to protect their people and all are playing primarily to domestic audiences. But that doesn’t always make it logical.

From 04:00 today, Tuesday 7 December all those entering the UK aged 12 and over must show proof of a negative PCR or lateral flow test no earlier than 48 hours before departure. The British government said that the move was necessary due to an increase in cases of the Omicron variant linked to international travel (previously, travellers only needed to self-isolate until they tested negative within two days of arriving into the UK). Similar scenarios are being played out in many other countries.

“The re-introduction of pre-departure tests will be a huge blow to travellers and an already devastated travel industry, which has been the hardest-hit sector throughout the crisis and which is now fast approaching the key booking season for next summer,” said a spokesperson for the ABTA travel association in Britain.

“It’s vitally important this decision is reversed as quickly as possible, in line with scientific and medical advice, as it is simply not possible for the travel industry to recover properly while this huge barrier to consumer confidence is in place.“

Powerful trade associations such as the UNWTO and ACI and sector-specific voices such as the Duty Free World Council have also rightly called on governments to lift travel travel bans, alas with all the impact of wailing into a storm force headwind.

The Sky News website in the UK runs a column called ‘Everything you need to know as COVID travel rules change again’. I suspect it needs updating more regularly than the weather report. Pretty much every major media title worldwide does something similar. I used to think CNN had a pretty good overview of the situation until I read their preposterous report this week headlined China wants to return to ‘zero-Covid.’ But cases have been above zero for seven weeks. The second sentence of that header may just rank as the most banal and distorted of the year.

Click on the image to read the full CNN article

“As the world grapples with the new Omicron coronavirus variant, China is determined as ever to eliminate Covid-19 within its borders – but it hasn’t been able to achieve that ambitious goal for the past seven weeks,” CNN intoned. “Since October 17, China has reported at least one locally transmitted case every day, as local outbreaks continue to flare up one after another with increasingly short intermissions.”

Ahem. One every day. Right. The USA (population 334 million), by contrast, recorded 88,825 new cases yesterday according to Worldometer.

The trouble is that such negative reports are rarely followed up with the consistently positive news out of China that the crackdowns have been effective. Yesterday, for example, The National Health Commission of the People’s Republic of China reported 60 indigenous cases of which 55 were in Hulunbuir, Inner Mongolia autonomous region. Put another way, there were only five other locally transmitted cases across this whole vast nation of 1.45 billion people.

Latest figures from the National Health Commission of the People’s Republic of China suggest that the country’s ‘dynamic zero-case’ policy is playing out well in the face of a hugely demanding challenge

I rather like the punchiness of Chinese state media Global Times and its consistent willingness to hit out at what it perceives with much justification as western media hypocrisy.

Click on the image to read the Global Times editorial

A Global Times opinion piece on 30 November ran like this.“CNN and other Western media have misunderstood China. They only see China’s ‘calm’ but they seem to forget how China has firmly adhered to the path of ‘dynamic zero-case’ policy, how it has been implementing strict measures for overseas arrivals, and how it has effectively carried out rounds after rounds of nucleic acid tests. Few countries in the world could attach such great, if not greater, importance to the COVID-19 epidemic as the Chinese government and public have done.

“It is also wrong for CNN to say China ‘extols isolation.’ No country would ‘extol’ isolation. The problem is, how could China completely open its border when the pandemic is still raging outside of its border? Just look at how those Western countries which previously relaxed restrictions are now caught off guard by Omicron.”

Not just off guard but caught reacting hysterically. Omicron will not be the last COVID-19 variant. It probably won’t be the worst. Imagine we could have a President of the world. He or she would surely opt for a balance of improved vaccination rates (particularly in the disgracefully underserved emergent countries); more social responsibility (I shudder when I see images of unmasked shoppers or football supporters in Britain and many other western countries); emerging COVID treatments; and measured travel protection measures as the way forward. But there isn’t such a role and so we will continue to stumble from variant to variant, crisis to crisis.

At our weekly online staff meeting this week I told my team several things. Firstly, of course, we have to be pragmatic in business and in cost control while medical science discovers the truth rather than the fearmongering about Omicron. Secondly that we have to continue doing what we do but do it even better. Thirdly that there is only one ultimate trajectory for the travel (and therefore travel retail) world and that is up. Fourthly, focus on what we can control, not that which we cannot.

As I look out across the bay from my rooftop here in Hong Kong, I can see a solitary white gull flying across the water and far beyond it in the distance, a cargo flight high above the hills en route somewhere abroad from Hong Kong International Airport. Given Hong Kong’s Fort Knox-like travel protections, such sights are about as close as I will get to flying for a while yet, though at least I can take an ‘overseas’ trip several times a week on the ferry (pictured below) from Discovery Bay to Central.

It’s frustrating as hell and there is no question that being in the travel or travel retail sectors sucks right now. But despite the political inanity and occasional media inanity that dominates the world, our industry will come back. We will not be wailing into the wind forever.

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