Emergence of Omicron New Nightmare for Travel Industry

Just as things were getting back to normal with people travelling around the globe, businesses were picking up pace, social gatherings were organized, the world was yet again hit by a new variant of Covid-19. This B.1.1.529 variant originated from South Africa and its first sample was collected on 9th November, 2021 and is considered to be heavily mutated. On 26th November, 2021, the World Health Organization announced that the new variant is heavily mutated and it is a “matter of concern” and is named Omicron.

Although, not much information is available on the new variant, experts say it could cause a sudden hike in some cases. The director general of WHO said “the new variant is yet another reminder of the fact that we might think we are done with the virus but Covid-19 is not done with us.”

What Do We Know About The Omicron Variant So Far?

There is a lot of information about Omicron that we don’t know. Researchers are rushing to know as much as possible about the variant including whether it causes severe illness than previous strains and the transmissibility compared to other other variants including Delta. However, the statistics of people getting infected are climbing but the cause is yet to be known if it is due to Omicron or other factors.  

According to a published report by WHO, It is evident that the rate of hospitalization is increasing in South Africa due to people becoming infected but there is no confirmed source as to why these cases are on surge. Moreover, there is no information to suggest symptoms related to the Omicron variant differ from the previous variants. Preliminary data suggests that Omicron is less lethal but more contagious than the former variant, Delta. The ones who got the infection experienced mild symptoms or were asymptomatic but the level of ferocity of Omicron will take time and extensive research before coming up with reliable information. Experts reveal that there is a high chance that people who were previously infected by former variants of Covid-19 may end up getting reinfected more easily with Omicron. Studies are underway that will reveal more information about the heavily mutated virus and will take time before reaching any final conclusions.

Role of Vaccines and Current tests

WHO has strictly advised people to get vaccinated as they are a major source of prevention from Covid-19. Vaccines have worked as lifesaver in this critical time as it has successfully prevented hospitalization rate and death toll to climb up. PCR tests are a widely accepted medium to detect all the strains of Covid-19 including Omicron. However, studies are ongoing to find out whether any other tests will be effective or not. 

What Necessary Precautions One Might Observe?

It is strongly advised that the people must maintain social distance and should adopt it as a norm to avoid getting infected with the new variant. Moreover, use of sanitizer and wearing a mask at all times has a high chance of saving you from the new strain. Prevention is extremely important as it is the key to avoid getting infected. All variants including Delta were dominant and have led millions of people either getting hospitalized or dying. Hence, prevention is always better than cure. 

Studies Underway

At the moment, several detailed research and studies are underway to find out more about Omicron highlighting symptoms one might experience, how contagious it can be, severity of the disease and the rate at which vaccines might work against the virus. WHO is constantly monitoring the hospitalized patient date through WHO Covid-19 Clinical Data Platform to study characteristics and patient outcomes. The evaluation of data will lead to clarity as to how Omicron mutation will impact the pattern of the virus. 

Spread of Omicron: Pakistan To Tighten Up the Protocols

The world has been shaken to the core since the start of pandemic by impacting every industry. People got laid off and many businesses crippled while others were striving hard to survive. The world suffered a financial crunch due to the pandemic. To sum up in a nutshell, Covid-19 has been nothing less than a nightmare and changed the way the world used to function. Every industry faced huge losses and is still in recovery mode. The travel and tourism industry suffered greatly as flights were banned, hotels closed, tourist spots were empty and there was hardly any traveling. Every country closed its borders and no inbound or outbound travel was allowed which led to huge losses for the tourism and travel industry. Though, now the world has started to get back to normal but with the latest development in the coronavirus, things are changing again.

In comparison to other territories, Pakistan has been lucky as it has experienced a relatively mild version of coronavirus so far. Although, concerns regarding public health infrastructure remain if the cases start to climb up. The National Command and Operations Center (NCOC) of Pakistan has declared to ban several countries completely and place them in Category C amidst the spread of the new strain. Countries listed under this category are completely banned which indicates that travelling is not encouraged from these nations until any further notice. The list include the following countries:

(1) Croatia (9) South Africa

(2) Hungry (10) Mozambique

(3) Netherlands (11) Lesotho

(4) Ukraine (12) Eswatini

(5) Ireland (13) Botswana 

(6) Slovenia (14) Zimbabwe

(7) Vietnam (15) Namibia

(8) Poland

However, people travelling from these countries will only be allowed on “extreme emergency” grounds provided if they fulfill these conditions:

  • A negative PCR test before boarding is required. All passengers (local/foreigners) over and above 6 years of age must present a negative PCR test report (maximum 48 hours old).
  • 100% vaccination for all travellers.
  • Anyone who is 18 years or above (Locals/Foreigners/Diplomats) needs to present a proof of completion of vaccination while entering in Pakistan. This is effective from 1st October, 2021.
  • RAT on arrival for all inbound passengers over and above the age of 6 years travelling directly or indirectly from above listed countries.
  • RAT negative cases will be allowed to proceed but RAT negative cases from omicron stricken nations will be quarantined for 3 days followed by PCR test to be conducted on the 3rd day by civil administration.
  • RAT positive passengers need to be quarantined for 10 days and all passengers must undergo PCR test on the 8th day of their quarantine period. If declared negative, they can proceed but if declared positive, they must quarantine for some additional time period and will be transferred to a hospital as per advice of healthcare professionals. 
  • If any passenger is coming to Pakistan from the category C countries, they need to submit an application explaining the reason for their travel along with all the documents required:

o   Valid Passport

o   Valid Visa

o   Travel Itinerary

o   Proof of completion of vaccination

Category B countries are as follows:

(1) Croatia (2) Trinidad & Tobago

(3)  Azerbaijan (4) Mexico

(5) Sri Lanka (6) Russia

(7) USA (8) UK

(9) Thailand (10) France

(11) Australia (11) Afghanistan

(12) Turkey

People who are travelling from the above countries need to fulfill the below requirements:

  • Proof of completion of vaccination.
  • RAT tests will be randomly conducted on passengers coming from category B countries. 
  • A negative PCR test before boarding is required. All passengers (local/foreigners) over and above 6 years of age must present a negative PCR test report (maximum 48 hours old).
  • RAT positive passengers need to be quarantined for 10 days. All passengers must undergo a PCR test on the 8th day of their quarantine period. If declared negative, they can proceed but if declared positive, they must quarantine for some additional time period and will be transferred to a hospital as per advice of healthcare authorities.

Category A countries are those nations not included in the above categories with following health protocols to be followed by inbound travellers:

  • 100% vaccination for all travellers.
  • A negative PCR test before boarding is required. All passengers (local/foreigners) over and above 6 years of age must present a negative PCR test report (maximum 48 hours old).

On 1st December, 2021, five Pakistani nationals were tested positive for Omicron variant of Coronavirus at Karachi airport arriving from Saudi Arabia. The authorities had to shift them to the quarantine facility and samples were sent to laboratories to identify the variant they were tested with. All these developments have spread havoc and Pakistan is trying its best to cope up with the new stain. To counter the virus, a random RAT on arrival will be done for flights coming from KSA, Qatar and UAE to prevent Omicron entering the country through transit flights. However, stranded Pakistanis are being rescued by providing some relaxation. Stranded Pakistanis can travel without exemptions from Category C territories until 31st December, 2021 but the rule of negative PCR (48 hours old) is still applicable. Moreover, those who travelled to category C countries on short term visas and deportees are allowed to travel back. Lastly, people who could not get vaccinated due to the following reasons can also travel after providing evidence to airlines or at immigation counter:

  • Pregnant women
  • Partially vaccinated from Pakistan
  • Deportees/expired visa/or illegal residents
  • Pending court cases
  • Medical conditions

What is the Vaccination Policy in Pakistan?

Passengers entering into Pakistan aged 18 years and above coming via any channel (Air/Land/Sea) needs to provide proof of vaccination with following exceptions:

  • Foreigner passport holders below the age of 18 years are allowed to enter into the country without vaccination. 
  • Pakistani nationals below the age of 15 years are allowed to enter into Pakistan without being fully vaccinated. 
  • Pakistani students below the age bracket of 18 years studying in a foreign country can come without a vaccination certificate. But, they must be vaccinated prior to their return. 
  • From 1st November, 2021, Pakistani passengers between 15 to 18 years coming through any means need to show a vaccination certificate which confirms their status as partially vaccinated. However, from 31st January, 2002, they must be fully vaccinated.
  • Any passenger with a medical condition must provide a certificate from a doctor which will exempt them from showing the vaccination certificate. 
  •  People who have travelled outside of Pakistan before 1st October 2021 are allowed to enter Pakistan from Air/Land/Sea without a vaccination certificate. In addition, people coming through a connecting flight after entering Pakistan will be allowed to continue their domestic travel. 
  • Vaccination regime is not applicable on deportees coming through any means.
  • Afghani Inbound pedestrians can enter Pakistan via Border Terminals without a partial / full vaccination certificate. However, they will undergo stringent testing / quarantine protocols as already in-placed.

Pakistan to Strengthen Domestic Travel Policies

Pakistan has been continuously updating its policies in order to make traveling easy for the people. There are few protocols that must be followed while travelling within the country by all domestic airlines; PIA, Airblue, Sereneair and Airsial. From 1st October 2021, only fully vaccinated people (locals/diplomats/foreigners) from 18 years and are eligible for domestic air travel with some exemptions:

  • Foreigners less than 18 years are allowed to travel domestically without a vaccination certificate.
  • Locals below the age of 15 years are allowed to travel without a vaccination certificate.
  • From 1st December 2021 onwards, people between 15 to 18 years of age must present a proof of full vaccination.
  • People with any sort of medical condition must present a certificate with a valid reason for exemption of vaccination issued by medical authorities and are allowed to travel without a vaccination certificate.
  • Foreign passport holders who have travelled to Pakistan before 1st October 2021 can continue with their travel plans without a vaccination certificate. 

With the significant discrepancies in vaccination statistics that can be found between nations, this new strain has sounded an even louder alarm to boost up the vaccination rates around the world. In the wake of the discovery of the latest variant, it is extremely important to emphasize on the fact that nobody is safe until everyone is fully protected. Covid-19 will continue with its mutations and spread over time. Therefore, it is vital that everyone must get their vaccination shots. The only way of winning against this deadly disease is to work together and follow all the safety protocols. 

Emergence of Omicron New Nightmare for Travel Industry