We need a globalised test, track and trace system for Covid-19, says UNWTO Secretary-General

There’s no way the global economy will come roaring back without the engine of tourism behind it.

For obvious reasons, though, many people are reluctant to travel.

Short of a vaccine, what can restore their confidence? There’s no real answer to that question that doesn’t take into account the latest technology that can make it safe for us to get moving again.

There’s no way the global economy will come roaring back without the engine of tourism behind it, writes Zurab Pololikashvili (pictured)

Many nations have had success in containing the pandemic by using national-scale ‘test, track, and trace’ systems. These systems – whether performed manually at the level of local public health infrastructure, or with the help of technologies like new privacy-friendly apps – help us see the spread of Covid-19 in real-time.

If countries know where outbreaks are taking place, how they’re spreading, and how fast they’re spreading, they won’t have to lock down their entire populations. Instead, authorities can focus shutdowns very precisely in affected areas only. That’s better for people’s health – and better for a country’s economy.

It’s also critical if we want to kickstart national and international travel for tourism.

 Not every government has made equal progress in tracing procedures and technology. But those that have – like South Korea or Singapore – could be models for the rest of the world

 Zurab Pololikashvili, UNWTO Secretary-General

Economic revival is possible, but only by reopening borders with confidence. This requires scaling up best practices in national test, track and trace systems, and implementing them internationally.

The world needs reliable, global standards which can form the foundations for who can travel and where.

But for this to happen, governments first need to collaborate to develop test, track and trace standards that can be implemented nationally and with a degree of reliability.

After all, there cannot be an international standard without national versions first.

Nations would then be in a position to form joint agreements with countries they can be confident are implementing these systems effectively. That, in turn, would give them confidence that citizens travelling across borders are bringing much needed economic benefits – not disease.

Unfortunately, not every government has made equal progress in tracing procedures and technology. But those that have – like South Korea or Singapore – could be models for the rest of the world.

A standardised process would also have immense ancillary benefits. For one, standardised test, track and trace procedures allow governments to share other kinds of anonymised relevant health data, which may help in developing, distributing and verifying the efficacy of a vaccine.

Mr Pololikashvili praised South Korea's track and trace model

Mr Pololikashvili praised South Korea’s track and trace model

While these dividends of a test, track and trace system are increasingly better understood – particularly in the countries where it has been successfully implemented nationwide – their critical importance for the revival of global tourism has been largely overlooked. Given that global travel and tourism contributes some 10 per cent of global GDP, we literally cannot afford not to do this.

After all, in some countries – especially developing and more vulnerable nations – tourism supplies some 50 per cent of gross domestic product. Sometimes more.

It’s often tourists who patronise green and sustainable business, or whose cash goes towards making conservation efforts financially viable. Should that tap run dry, what happens to all the projects that seek to protect and preserve our environment for future generations?

Tourism means jobs, too, especially for younger people and for women.

These patterns, broadly speaking, hold true across the world.

Tourism revenue in London contributes some 10 per cent of the city’s gross value-added income. That’s why the bigger picture is so worrisome.

In 2020, we might see over one billion missing travellers, which means 120 million jobs that might disappear, and $1trillion (£0.8trillion) in earnings vanished.

To prevent a bad recession from turning into a major depression, we are going to have to make it easy for people to travel with confidence.

Globalising test, track and trace methods will play a key role in getting us there.

As a specialised agency of the United Nations, the UNWTO can encourage cooperation between governments. But it cannot create or guarantee the political will necessary for governments to make the substantial investment for national test, track and trace systems. That task is left to governments themselves, who are beginning to realise that in the age of pandemics, wealth and health go hand-in-hand.

  • Zurab Pololikashvili has been Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) since January 2018 after being elected by the 22nd Session of UNWTO General Assembly. He was Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Georgia to the Kingdom of Spain, the Principality of Andorra, the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria and the Kingdom of Morocco and Permanent Representative of Georgia to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) up to December 2017.

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