Sanjay Dharwadker

Somewhere between 3 and 4 April 2020, epidemiologists worldwide had counted over one million cases of the novel coronavirus on the planet and over 50,000 deaths. Cases are being reported from 175 countries worldwide, with only 18 reporting themselves as unaffected.

There has been some uncertainty about the figures, for medical, logistic and even political reasons. Also, possibly there just isn’t enough testing and understanding at the moment. After all, in earlier cases too, the full extent of epidemics were fully understood only years and even decades later. Thus, what we see in real-time are at best approximations that will undergo modifications and an “ironing out” over time. However, there is no doubt that the current pandemic is of some magnitude and has spread faster and wider than anything else in the recent past.

There is also no doubt that it will change decisively the way we do things, and one of them will be international travel.

travel coronavirus

Like the United Nations (UN) itself, The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) too has 193 member states (with one difference – Liechtenstein is a member of the former and not the latter and Cook Islands vice-versa). ICAO is indeed the body that brings nations together to establish the standards and recommended practices for international air travel. Its mandate is governed by the Chicago Convention of 1944. Even then provision was made for regulating air travel in case of epidemics, and this was enshrined in Article 14.

The governance of Article 14 falls under passenger “facilitation” the details of which are enshrined under Annex 9 of the convention document, which is also the basis for our passports and how we use them. In fact, Annex 9 is a remarkably up-to-date document that has undergone 26 amendments till date and covers machine-readable travel documents, API and PNR as well as electronic travel authorisation.

On the subject of health and epidemics, Annex 9 has a provision for diverse strategies such as: aircraft disinfection (and disinsection) as well as international certificates of vaccination or prophylaxis. There are also guidelines for setting up facilities at airports for public health, emergency medical relief as well as quarantine. Among specific topics, there is provision for: relief flights following disasters which seriously endanger human health and implementation of international health regulations. Finally, there are guidelines for drawing up a communicable disease outbreak national aviation plan. In general, these provisions address both emergency situations on flight as well as long term plans that take an integrated view of national and international situations.

For the definition of diseases, epidemics, medicine and treatment, ICAO depends on the World Health Organisation (WHO) document – International Health Regulation (2005) and its updates. 

The very last page of Annex 9 is Appendix 13 – the Public Health Passenger Locator Form. Passengers are expected to complete this and help public health officers to contact them if exposed to a communicable disease. The airline expects that the form is filled out completely and accurately and undertakes that the information is intended to be held in accordance with applicable laws and used only for public health purposes.

It is expected that all this will be the starting point for developing a new policy framework for international travel, and therefore more robust practices to combat the spread of disease such as COVID-19.

(Mike Fouque/Shutterstock)

Fortunately, ICAO has a tried and tested model for international travel documents that now encompasses machine readability, electronic chips, biometrics, high security, quick response and multiple levels of screening. Passports for individual identification have evolved into immensely sophisticated instruments for effectively managing passenger-flows across borders. These have been complemented by ground equipment such as automatic border control (ABC) gates. Pilot projects such as the “Happy Flow” are already on the way to streamline the passenger experience at airports in ways that will significantly reduce the drudgery of multiple queues and waiting for check-in, immigration, security and boarding. Travel documents are also on the way to becoming fully digital travel credentials (DTCs).

Yet, health has its own special concerns. The data can be massive and easy classification or flagging may not be feasible. A unique health identification number the world over is a young subject and unlike national identification numbers are not yet coordinated across borders (except special regions such as the EU). Most importantly, health data is associated with exceptionally high privacy concerns.

However, the COVID-19 crisis has shown that there will be times when parts of such data might need to be shared in specific circumstances. Will some of this get institutionalised as part of existing travel documents or its digital manifestations? Or will all this evolve in other ways? Many of us who travel Africa or Latam are familiar with the yellow fever certificate. During the last international flights before lockdown in the past few weeks, many of us perhaps filled locator forms multiple times. In many cases these might have saved precious lives.

As the world prepares for normalcy it will need to once again welcome billions of international passengers in the very near future. This is certainly an opportunity for the best of us to come forward and help evolve robust and long-lasting solutions that are yet sensitive to human dignity and personal privacy.


Sanjay Dharwadker is a novelist and ID policy specialist. He has over thirty years’ experience in identity and identification across Asia, Africa and Europe. He is currently engaged with various UN agencies and has recently released his debut novel Diamond in my Palm.

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