Malaysia Dateline

Covid-19: The world is ‘temporarily’ not your oyster

Travelling used to be a luxury reserved for the haves and not for the have nots. However, the development of the aviation industry has made it possible for more and more people to travel. In recent years, budget airlines have experienced rapid growth. Malaysia’s Air Asia, Singapore’s Scoot and Thai’s Nok Air have transformed the aviation scenario of Southeast Asia.

As a result, Bangkok, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur have been consistently listed as three of the most visited cities in the world in any travel magazines. Furthermore, many nations in Southeast Asia have made it convenient for travellers to come in by easing visa requirements. Malaysians too, possess one of the strongest passports in the world and Malaysians may visit 164 nations visa free or obtaining visa upon arrival.

If one browses through the Flightradar24 website, one could easily witness that our airspace are filled with planes flying from one place to the other and the density of flights are particularly high in Europe, North America, Southeast Asia and East Asia.

International law dictates that each nations possess sovereignty and have rights to allow or disallow foreign conveyances, such as ships and aircraft, docking and landing rights at their respective ports. Nations have made this less complicated today through international agreements and treaties.

Subject to certain visa requirements (if any), one may travel just with a valid ticket and a passport, without really thinking on how international law works to allow him or her to move from one country to another. Travelling is convenient and international borders are always opened as long as the traveller is not persona non grata.

This was how it was until January 2020 kicks in. The Chinese city of Wuhan witnessed the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) that soon became a pandemic and spread across 203 countries around the world.

Initially, China was the epicentre of the Wuhan Virus and now, the United States of America (USA) has claimed the title with more than 200,000 active cases and more than 5000 deaths.

The virus has caused repercussions on the global economy paralising Europe creating chaos in mainly first world nations that possess superior health and medical facilities. USA, Italy, Spain and Germany are now the world’s COVID-19 most affected nations outside of China.

COVID-19 was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 30 January 2020 by the World Health Organization (WHO). On Wednesday, 11 March 2020, it was characterised as a pandemic by the Director-General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Despite these warnings by the WHO, tourists still travel abroad and took advantage of the cheap tickets to visit even the most COVID-19 affected countries. Things began to get really ugly when countries are beginning to close down their borders for international travellers.

Malaysia for example, enforced the Movement Control Order (MCO) on 18 March 2020 until 31 March 2020. It was later extended to 14 April 2020. During this period, no Malaysians are allowed to leave the country and foreigners are not permitted to enter. Other nations like Italy, Spain, India, Australia, Thailand and Russia have also taken the similar approach in their attempt to disconnect the transmission of the deadly Wuhan Virus.

Travelling is easy and convenient when situations are normal and safe. International borders are opened to allow visitors to enter and leave. However, when States around the world began to shut down their borders to face this pandemic, airlines would have to cancel their flights to airports located in these countries. As of 1 April 2020, Pew Research Center reported that 7.2 billion people worldwide live in countries with travel restrictions amid COVID-19.

This is the reason why it is important to take heed of warnings issued by the WHO and travellers should refrain themselves from travelling during this period of time. But then again, some took this with a pinch of salt and travelled anyway. As a result, hundreds of thousands of stranded travellers of all nationalities around the world are now sleeping on airport floors, holed up in one of the last hotels open in a foreign city or put in mandatory quarantine for 14 days with limited cash and little hope of returning home. About 841 Malaysians are grounded in 20 countries namely India, Austria, Sweden, Spain and many others as lockdowns were imposed and scheduled flight were cancelled.

International law has been regulating international travels and often travellers took it for granted. COVID-19 has forced many nations all around the world to shut their doors causing many to be left stranded. COVID-19 infections are getting worse particularly in Western countries and it will remain as such for the time being.

One thing for sure – The world is temporarily not your oyster. It is better to stay at home rather than being stranded in foreign airports due to travel restrictions. Stay safe and hopefully the world community would be able to disconnect the chain of transmission of the virus, if not now, soon.

* Dr. Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli is associate professor at the Faculty of Syariah and Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia. Dr. Roman Dremliuga is associate professor at the School of Law, Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok, Russia.