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22 May 2023

Learning COVID’s lessons to be ready for the next health crisis

Conrad Clifford, IATA’s Deputy Director General, has three ‘asks’ of governments concerning lessons from the global pandemic.

It is very encouraging to see international air traffic returning almost to pre-pandemic levels, even though at end April 2023 the two largest international air travel markets pre-pandemic, the United States and China, still have vaccination requirements in place that have been largely removed by other markets. Nevertheless, as we are almost at the point where we can put the COVID crisis behind us, it is important to take stock of the lessons that need to be learned before memories start to fade.

The first lesson is that governments should follow the science and not the politics. It was disappointing to see restrictions applied for political rather than scientific reasons. It is difficult to remove restrictions once applied, particularly where the reason for the restriction was not clear in the first place.

IATA has been studying these issues in detail and there are three elements that we would recommend governments to take note of to ensure a better response to future global health crises.

  1. Recognize that border measures that restrict travel and trade come at a huge economic and social cost for at best a marginal and temporary health benefit
  2. Move quickly to implement a set of proportionate, risk-based, and time-limited health measures
  3. Enable passengers to demonstrate their health status via a government portal, using one of the major digital health credential standards (which are all mutually recognized).

Economic understanding

Firstly, governments need a greater understanding of the economic and social disruption that COVID travel restrictions caused, not just to the aviation industry, but to the wider economy and society at large.

In 2020 alone, COVID caused a loss of nearly 7% of global GDP. Against these very severe negative consequences, COVID largely confirmed the belief before the pandemic that border measures offer only a temporary benefit in delaying the spread of a pandemic. Modeling carried out by OXERA, a consultancy, found that with the Omicron variant, due to the high transmissibility of the infection, additional measures such as testing or quarantine bought at most two days’ time in terms of delaying the peak of infections. And it had virtually no impact at all on the scale of the peak. It is vitally important that governments carry out reviews of the evidence and learn the lessons so that the instinct in future is not to simply pull up the drawbridge.

That should logically lead to our second point: development of a set of proportionate, risk-based, and time-limited health measures.


The ICAO Council’s Aviation Recovery Task Force put together its Take-Off Guidelines, based on a set of multi-layered protection measures, in record time, which was a welcome new development. But we now know that some of those measures were ineffective and disruptive. We need to learn lessons so that we do not dedicate time and resources to measures that don’t work. As part of that process, we are supporting ICAO in delivering a science-based review to establish what worked well, what could work better, and what should be disregarded in future health emergencies. In doing so, it will be important not to fall into the trap of only preparing for a COVID-like pathogen. The next outbreak might be very different, and it is critical that we aren’t taken by surprise.

The international response to COVID, especially as related to travel, was fragmented, with a lack of coordination between States and their health authorities. Governments need to be more open about their risk assessments and decision-making criteria. It is important for the industry and consumers to understand the basis of government decisions to plan schedules or prepare travel with confidence and certainty.

Enhancing capabilities

Thirdly, we need digital health credentials. These were undoubtedly a COVID success story. Now is the time to build on that success. The first part of that is to maintain and enhance the capabilities developed during the pandemic. Critically, the three main certificate standards that have emerged—EU DCC, ICAO’s VDS, and VIDOC—should work to ensure mutual recognition.

And the World Health Organisation should continue work on a digital Certificate of Vaccination of Prophylaxis—the so-called Yellow Card—to provide a universal and global document. Where governments determine that they require health information in advance of travel, this information should be collected directly from travelers through dedicated web portals. Using portals avoids the need for airlines to handle, interpret, and store sensitive health information.

The COVID pandemic profoundly shocked the world, and the implications of the responses by governments are only beginning to be understood. What we do know is that there are already some clear lessons that can be learned and applied to ensure a better response to the next global health crisis.

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