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What does ethical travel look like now?

  • September 14, 2021

A recent UK study shows that the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines both protect slightly less well against symptomatic disease caused by Delta than against that caused by Alpha. 

“This could also mean a drop in how well they protect against transmission of Delta, but there is still a lot of uncertainty,” said Dean. 

Access to vaccines

While many richer Western nations have high levels of vaccination and access to good healthcare, the same can’t be said for people living in many less economically developed countries around the world.

As The Washington Post noted, only 6% of the world’s population has been fully vaccinated, “leaving billions waiting for doses”. 

And worldwide vaccination disparity is likely to continue for some time, according to Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Arizona and George Mason University.

“Until you have worldwide access and adequate distribution of vaccines, then it’s going to inherently create inequity,” Popescu told the paper. 

Travellers should therefore consider how well vaccinated their destination’s population is, and the robustness of its healthcare infrastructure. 

Becoming ill, sick or injured while abroad could “add a potential burden” to already struggling or overloaded healthcare systems, warned Henry Wu, an associate professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine, in the same paper.

Direction of travel

Overall, the ethics of travel “depends on where you live”, and where you are travelling to, argues Kelly Hill, a bioethicist and co-founder of the bioethics consulting firm Rogue Bioethics, in The Guardian.

If you are living and travelling from a country where “80% or more of the eligible population are fully vaccinated, and there is low overall incidence of Covid-19 both where you live and where you are travelling to” then, Hill argues, “it isn’t unethical”. But many countries around the globe are still struggling with high rates of infection. 

Perhaps the best way to view travel is not as an ethical question, but rather as a “public health question of how best to minimize risk to yourself and to others”, said Dr Thomas Tsai, a surgeon and health policy researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the same paper. 

This includes being considerate of, and following, local rules around testing, masks and social distancing, even if you’re fully vaccinated. 

And then there is climate change

Famously, climate activist Greta Thunberg renounced air travel in 2019, crossing the Atlantic Ocean by boat to attend a United Nations global warming summit in New York. Should we all follow her example? 

“Consider the aviation industry that produces between five and eight per cent of global emissions and impacts the climate most significantly,” wrote Matt Harker, a PhD candidate in theory and criticism at Western University, Canada, on The Conversation. Other estimates, however, put the aviation industry’s share at just 2%, meaning flying certainly isn’t the worst offender when it comes to carbon emissions.

What the break in global travel should allow us to do is rethink our “consumption behaviours, which includes where, when, how and why we travel”, argues Harker.

But if you’re concerned about reducing your own carbon footprint, then reducing the number of flights you take – or stopping altogether – is one of the most effective things you can do. This is because “more than 80% of the world’s population never fly at all” said the BBC – and so proportionally, flying contributes far more greatly to travellers’ carbon footprints.

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