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Covid explosion: It’s a rerun of 2020 as countries suspend air services with India, domestic tourists stay home

Customers have been scrambling for last-minute tickets and many are chasing airlines for refunds. In the domestic market, travel agencies are seeing up to 90 percent of their customers cancelling travel plans for the summer.

April 26, 2021 / 10:49 AM IST
A child wearing a protection mask and gloves is seen at Indira Gandhi International (IGI) airport. (Image: Reuters)

A child wearing a protection mask and gloves is seen at Indira Gandhi International (IGI) airport. (Image: Reuters)

 
 
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AN Shyam was looking forward to visiting his hometown Guntur after nearly two years. The tech professional, who is working in the US, had stayed away because of the twin fears of contracting Covid and getting stuck if a lockdown was announced and flights suspended, as happened in March 2020.

His worst fears came true when US carrier United Airlines announced it had temporarily suspended services to Delhi, citing restrictions related to Covid-19.

“How do I meet my mother, wife and two kids now,” wondered Shyam, who was to fly from San Francisco to New Delhi on May 10, and then take a connecting flight to Vijayawada. To his relief, the American carrier reversed its decision and said it would resume services from April 25.

Vignesh Nath (name changed) was not so fortunate. He was to fly back to Toronto from Mumbai on May 14. But on April 23, Canada joined a list of countries suspending air services to India. The North American country has imposed the restriction for 30 days.

“I now fear losing my job. This (getting stuck in India) is what happened to a colleague last year. He just about managed to keep his job,” explained Nath.

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COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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Suspensions rising

Nearly a dozen countries, including New Zealand, the UAE, Hong Kong and the US, have announced either a suspension of air services, or have advised citizens against travelling to India.

This also led to last-minute scramble to get out of, or fly into, India. Fares to London, New York and Dubai, among the most popular destinations for Indians, nearly trebled.

“Many flights to the UK, Middle east and Canada have been cancelled. With the rise in Covid-19 cases, we can expect more international locations to close flights. The majority of airlines are giving full refunds for cancelled flights, but a few airlines are not processing refunds and are giving the option to reschedule,” says Rikant Pitti, co-founder of online travel agency EaseMyTrip.

Twitter already has many customers asking for refund details from airlines. These also include those who are yet to get their money for bookings done last year.

 Trouble at home

The chaos is not limited to international travel.

In Ahmedabad, Ankit Bajaj could just sit back helplessly and see nearly 90 percent of his customers cancelling their travel plans in the domestic market. Many of them had booked tickets in advance to travel during the summer, a favourite time for Indians to visit relatives and friends.

“There is no booking at all. Most of the customers are cancelling tickets instead of re-scheduling, as they are unsure when things will get better. There is a fear now,” says Bajaj, a Director at Chiky Travels.

As Jyoti Mayal, President of Travel Agents Association of India, told Moneycontrol in a recent interaction, customers had gotten used to travelling amid Covid-19. By February, passenger traffic in the domestic market had improved enough for some airlines to ask the government to completely remove the cap on capacity utilisation. Right now, the cap is at 80 percent.

Not anymore. ”People are worried about falling sick, and then not being able to get admitted to hospital, or running out of medicines and oxygen,” said Mayal. The uncertainty is dampening the appetite to travel.

Relentless wave

On April 25, India again reported nearly 3.5 lakh fresh cases, with many States still reporting a shortage of beds as well as oxygen in hospitals.

While airlines have pulled back capacity — up to a quarter by the beginning of April — cancellations are not high. “We haven’t seen a huge spike in flight cancellations so far,” said Pitti of EaseMyTrip. And even if they are cancelling, he added, the airline will have to give passengers a full refund. “There is no new direction yet from the airlines till now,” he, however, noted.

The hope for revival firmly sits on a speedy vaccination drive. “We are looking at the trend of Covid-19 cases. It may peak by mid-May,” says Bajaj. A scaled-up vaccination drive from May 1 may help in that, with anyone above the age of 18 eligible to take the jab.



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Prince Mathews Thomas heads the corporate bureau of Moneycontrol. He has been covering the business world for 16 years, having worked in The Hindu Business Line, Forbes India, Dow Jones Newswires, The Economic Times, Business Standard and The Week. A Chevening scholar, Prince has also authored The Consolidators, a book on second generation entrepreneurs.
first published: Apr 26, 2021 10:49 am
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