Podcast: Lessons To Learn From Government COVID Rules

Tune in as ATW editors Karen Walker and Henry Canaday discuss their new cover story report on studies that detail the true impact of shutting down the air transport system during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Rush Transcript

Karen Walker:               Hello everyone, and thank you for joining us for Window Seat, our Aviation Week Air Transport podcast. I'm Air Transport World and Group Air Transport Editor-in-Chief, Karen Walker. Welcome on board. Now, today I am absolutely delighted to be joined by one of our longtime regular authors, Henry Canaday. Henry, it is great to have you on Window Seat. Thank you for joining us.

Henry Canaday:            Thank you for doing this.

Karen Walker:               Now, what we're going to be discussing is the cover story that Henry wrote for our new September issue of Air Transport World Magazine. It really is a compelling read, and I have to say a rather shocking telling of the true human cost of government responses everywhere to the Covid pandemic, and that, of course, was to typically close borders, place huge restrictions on air, travel, and essentially shut down the global air transport system.

                                    The extreme financial impact of those policies on airlines and the air transport industry have been well-documented and of course covered by ATW, Aviation Week and CAPA Publications. Airlines alone saw losses of some $280 billion in those first two years, and many are still struggling to stabilize. But what's been less talked about is the wider damage caused to people and economics because of the loss of air connectivity. That's what makes this article so important, I believe. And it's compelling because it brings together key findings from some independent studies that assess first whether actions like border shutdowns, mandatory quarantines and testing for air travelers had any effect on slowing or preventing the spread of the virus. And then they also look at what effects losing air connectivity had on people and economies.

                                    So Henry, let's start by hearing from you. What kind of researchers and organizations did these studies that form the basis of your report?

Henry Canaday:            All kinds. This was probably the most important public policy question in the careers of a lot of health scientists, a lot of economists, a lot of social sciences, all of whom rely on data all the time. So there was a massive amount of statistical analysis of what was going on from very early on. In fact, there were more studies than one could possibly read. Economists, health scientists, microbiologists, everybody really threw themselves onto this. Whether or not their findings were publicized or paid attention to, this was a very well-documented disaster.

Karen Walker:               The studies that you honed in onto, they weren't just like in America or just Europe. They were from different countries and they were independently done. Yes?

Henry Canaday:            Yeah. Most of the people doing the studies probably were from the US and Europe, but they were studying the entire world.

Karen Walker:               As you said, there was a lot of information there, and I know that you spent a lot of time working through all of that. What were the things that most caught your attention as you ploughed through that information?

Henry Canaday:            The magnitude of the damages, and I was surprised how little benefits there were for the domestic interventions of government, the lockdowns, the school closures, the mask mandates, that sort of thing. And then I was surprised at how straightforward and simple the argument about travel was that if you were an island and you could shut down things completely all contact, you could lock the virus out for nine months until the vaccines appeared. But if you weren't an island and the virus got into your country, air travel restrictions were pretty much meaningless. They seemed to be kind of a placebo that governments were offering to their people. They just didn't make any difference. That surprised me. That kind of came through very quickly. The argument about the domestic restrictions is more complicated, but the case of the travel restrictions is pretty simple. The logic points in the same direction as the data.

Karen Walker:               So again, there was independent studies done about this, so it wasn't like just one or even two studies were coming up with that conclusion. There were some nuances in some of the data, but again, looking at what I saw, the data you provided and of course your article, that's what struck me was that all these independent specialists were looking at the data and coming to essentially the same conclusion. And that with the air travel, there were two parts to it what they were concluding. First was the rules on air travel had little to no effect, and second, closing down the air transport system had huge, obviously unintended, but still huge consequences for people in terms of damage to livelihoods and even health and wellbeing. Correct?

Henry Canaday:            Well, I think it's important to realize that the damage was done by all the interventions taken together, not just the travel restrictions. The damage was done by the travel restrictions plus the domestic restrictions, the lockdowns, the school closures, the quarantines, the shelter in place orders. So travel restrictions were probably a smaller part of the damage, but they were part of the damage. But it was all the, when you look at those huge counts of damages economically and socially, that was done by all the non-pharmaceutical interventions taken together.

Karen Walker:               Do you think that looking at the air travel side as well, did it strike you that governments could have realized earlier, or even if they did realize could have reacted earlier, about changing some of those air travel restrictions?

Henry Canaday:            I think so, partly because the logic is there. I mean, it's pretty standard epidemiology that once a virus gets started in your country, you're not going to be able to do much about it by simply preventing people coming in who have about the same characteristics as your native population. This is one of the reasons the World Health Organization initially opposed any kind of travel restrictions. They just saw them as pretty meaningless.

                                    I think possibly some people saw the absolute shutdowns of the island countries and saw the that they had been able to keep the virus out of their country, maybe they could keep it out entirely with these travel restrictions. We'll just do it partially, it still will help. But it doesn't work that way. Once the virus is in your country, it's just going to grow. Restricting travel doesn't do anything for it. I think they should have been able to see that. I think they should have. But like a lot that happened once governments put policies in place, it was much harder for them to shut them down, whether or not they were working.

Karen Walker:               The analogy isn't really precise, but we saw that post 9/11, some of the things like the restrictions on liquids and things like that, that was supposed to be temporary. Nobody would disagree that tightening up security at airports was a good thing, but there was a lot of things that happened that they never undid. And this looked to me like there was a sort of, even though they were being told, as you say, WHO the World Health Organization, ICAO, IATA, there was lots of organizations giving them information and data on this, but it was as if they just didn't want to pay attention.

Henry Canaday:            I think it was very hard for them, and part of it, I suppose, was just an eagerness to be seen to be doing something.

Karen Walker:               The other thing that I thought as I read this, it's not really addressed in the report because it's not part of the studies, but also the sort of closed ears to the data that was being put forward about actually how safe it was to be on an aircraft relative to many other environments. The HEPA filters, there was this multilayer approach, people were wearing masks, and you've got the sort of natural barriers of the seat backs and things like that, but mostly because of those filters, the data again became clear that the risk of infection on an airliner was very, very small, but they weren't taking that into account either by the looks of it.

Henry Canaday:            Yeah. Well, I think that word eventually got through somehow or other to people because you saw the American domestic market, which wasn't confined by the restrictions, you saw that come back relatively quickly. I think partly that was people figuring out that this virus mostly struck very old and sick people and healthy people weren't in danger, and I think they also began to trust the airlines.

                                    So I think it was mostly just young healthy people realizing they weren't targets of this disease and they started coming back voluntarily. I don't know how much of those people understood HEPA filters or what, but they came back. It was where they were prevented from coming back internationally or where there were so many inconveniences like the PCRs and all that placed upon them that that did not come back quickly.

Karen Walker:               And to your point about the bad or the very bad, albeit unintended consequences of what was put in place, yes, it was because of the broader restrictions, but air travel was part of it, as you say, a very visible part I think for the governments. As you said, it was very obvious to governments that they could say, "We've closed our borders. We're going to insist that anybody who does fly in has to go through mandatory quarantines," and all the sorts of things that essentially stop people from flying anyway. And they weren't going to go through that, without any recognition of just literally all the good that air travel brings to their countries, brings to their people. I think this is why this is such an important message to get over, is that you have to really, really consider very strongly and deeply the risks of shutting down your air connectivity. And it seems to me that that really wasn't done.

Henry Canaday:            The US government, anytime a federal agency issues a health or safety regulation, they're supposed to meet a cost benefit criteria, including how much economic damage is done per life saved or per year of life extended. That's standard. Even FAA has to meet that metric. I was amazed throughout this that nobody talked about that. Nobody seemed to be paying attention to that kind of cost benefit analysis throughout this. It was strongest for the travel and for the other domestic restrictions, nobody seemed to talk about this at all. That just went out the window, and yet it's standard natural good practice in US safety and health regulation.

Karen Walker:               So that was a failure. And then of course, what the studies show, I mean, bad as it was in the United States and Europe, there were places around the world that were already poor have been made considerably poorer, particularly those areas that depend on tourism. It makes the point that some of them had their entire sources of income wiped out and recovering from that is very difficult, just simply awful. Something else that struck me in this was that I think it was one of the professors called for an investigation, so similar to an NTSB Air crash investigation, into all this. Do you think that's a good idea?

Henry Canaday:            I think certainly there ought to be some investigation. I don't know who ought to do it. In fact, there will be. Over the next decade, there are going to be many, many academic researchers who are going to go over and over this, sift this. This is probably the most important public policy event or disaster in their careers. This is going to be studied.

                                    Whether it should be studied by an official body that would be nice, something like the National Science Foundation, to take a really serious intelligent look at this. I think that would be a very good idea. I don't know if it's going to happen. The issue became so politicized in the United States that I don't know that it's possible for Congress to hold reasonable hearings on it. But something like the National Science Foundation, I believe can,

Karen Walker:               Again, one of the things that struck me was I know everybody wants to get on with their lives. I know the air transport industry wants to move forward, and there's plenty of other issues to deal with in this industry and people's lives. But it does seem to me that if we leave it too long, people will just forget not just the impact of the virus, but also the impact of what it was like to just lose air connectivity for trade, for people's wellbeing. I mean, the very fact, I think the proof is that, as soon as borders were lifted and quarantines and things like that, it wasn't just in America, it was everywhere, as soon as it lifted, everybody was just rushing to buy air tickets, which is proof that people were missing that they want to travel and you just can't help but think that it did not to need to get to that level of restriction.

Henry Canaday:            Yeah. There are a lot of non-economic damages that were done here and just depriving people of ordinary pleasures, not necessarily killing people, but ruining their lives, wrecking their lives in a lot of ways. And that was obviously done domestically with closing the school system, but it matters too whether people can travel, may travel to see friends and family, to see relatives, to see people, old relatives who may die soon. It obviously just matters a lot to people.

Karen Walker:               We also had many instances of people not even being able to go and travel and see their relatives who were dying of the disease or dying of other things. But again, that's a very humanitarian thing that you sort of assume that you're still going to be able to get to travel to be with them, and many couldn't probably for no actual good reasons. So do you think governments would take notice of an investigation? Do you think they would learn the lessons?

Henry Canaday:            I think they will, but they probably won't admit it. I mean, I think that's most likely. Governments were hurt by this, obviously in a large way, they're just massively into debt because of the downturn and because of the stimulus programmes. Obviously the US government got very deeply into financial trouble. It still is in financial trouble.

                                    In order to pull out of this, we had to have a stimulus package that set off the first hyperinflation in four decades. I think governments felt the pain too, and I think they probably will pay attention because I don't think they'll do things like this again, if this situation ever arises. I don't think they may admit it publicly, and that's a defect because maybe some lessons will be forgotten. But I think a lot of people learned the lessons and maybe just don't want to talk about it much.

Karen Walker:               It sort of makes grim reading, I have to say. But I thought you did an excellent job with this article, really honing into those key points and pulling that together. Did it give you some satisfaction reporting on this?

Henry Canaday:            Oh, sure, sure. I spent the first 20 years of my career as an economist, so I'm always thinking about costs. I'm always thinking about trade-offs. I'm always thinking about unintended consequences. And I had a feeling those were happening all along here, and this was a good opportunity to go to see a lot of very smart people, the work they had done on tracking all this down. And I was surprised at how much was known fairly early on that simply wasn't discussed much about the damage here.

                                    And there were some very, very smart people here in a lot of fields, the economists and health scientists and biologists, they also all rely extensively on statistics and data. So there are a lot of very bright statisticians who just were all over this from the beginning, and it was very, very impressive what they did. And it was a nice refresher of some of the things I used to know when I was an economist.

Karen Walker:               That also impressed me. Well, it both impressed me and distressed me because first of all, how much detail and data that they were getting, and as you say, fairly early on as well, about what was having an effect, what wasn't and really not being taken on board. Certainly not taken on board early enough.

                                    But Henry, thank you so much. Really fantastic working with you as always, but this really was a very good piece of work here, so congratulations and thank you for doing that.

                                    Thank you also to our listeners, you can access the full article called World in Chains at aviationweek.com/atw. We'll be posting some summaries in our Air Transport Digest newsletter and online, but if you're an Aviation Week Network or ATW subscriber, you'll have access to the full story. Again, thank you to our listeners, and thank you also to our producer Corey Hitt. Make sure you don't miss all our podcasts by subscribing to Window Seat on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. This is Karen Walker disembarking from Window Seat.

Karen Walker

Karen Walker is Air Transport World Editor-in-Chief and Aviation Week Network Group Air Transport Editor-in-Chief. She joined ATW in 2011 and oversees the editorial content and direction of ATW, Routes and Aviation Week Group air transport content.