Let me preface this entire article by stating that by the time you read this, it’s likely most of the information will be stale — that is how fast things are developing, and why it’s so important to stay up-to-date with the sources of information from those on the front lines, namely, the World Health Organization (WHO), Center for Disease Control (CDC), and other governmental and NGO health agencies.
In the meantime, what the rest of us can do is stay informed, understand the situation and facts, and learn about what we can do to lessen the risk of exposure. If you have travel plans, you’re also probably wondering if you should be postponing (or outright cancelling) until more is known. More on that and your options further below.
What is COVID-19? Is it different than Coronavirus?
COVID-19 is the name given to an infectious disease caused by the most recently discovered ‘novel coronavirus’ that began with an outbreak in Wuhan, China in December 2019.
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses which may cause illness in animals or humans. In humans, several coronaviruses are known to cause respiratory infections ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) and the more widely known SARS outbreak (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003.
What are the Symptoms?
According to experts, COVID-19 first manifests with a fever, followed by a dry cough not unlike a typical flu. After a week, it has lead to shortness of breath and some patients requiring hospital treatment.
The incubation period — between infection and showing any symptoms — lasts anywhere between a week and up to 14 days according to the WHO, but some researchers say it may be as long as 24 days which is what poses the greatest risk as undiagnosed individuals may spread it unknowingly during this period of time.
How Does it Spread?
This virus was first detected in December 2019 in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China. The first infections are thought to be linked to a live animal (“wet”) market, but the virus is now spreading from person-to-person. Like the common flu, COVID-19 can be spread:
- Between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet)
- Through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, or touches things with their contaminated hands
These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. How easily the virus spreads from person-to-person can vary. Factors like weather, environment, the stage of infection, and immune systems of those at risk, all influence how it may spread.
According to the CDC, it may also be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.
How worried Should I Be?
If you are a healthy adult with a normal functioning immune system — experts are saying “Not that much” despite the stigma and current state of hype in the news. The elderly, unwell, and young children are most at risk due to weaker immune systems, however the impact of the virus on healthy adults aged 25–64 is very low. Based on data from 44,000 patients with this coronavirus, a WHO study found:
- 81% develop only mild symptoms
- 14% develop more severe symptoms
- Only 2-5% become critically ill, with other factors being highly correlated in these cases
The proportion actually dying from the disease appears very low as well (various sources peg the fatality rate between 1.4% and 2.9%) — and the cases of those who succumbed to the disease are highly associated to elderly patients or those with compromised immune systems or pre-existing medical conditions. As mentioned above, both the coronavirus and influenza are most dangerous to people who are older than 65, children, or adults who have chronic illnesses or a weak immune system.
To put this into context, about one billion people catch influenza every year, with between 290,000 and 650,000 deaths. The severity of flu changes every year.
If you are not in an area where COVID-19 is spreading, or if you have not travelled from one of those areas or have not been in close contact with someone who has and is feeling unwell, your chances of getting it are currently low. However, it’s understandable that you may feel stressed and anxious about the situation and it’s a good idea to get the facts to help you accurately determine your risks so that you can take reasonable precautions. If you or a loved one do develop any of the symptoms mentioned above — reach out to a healthcare provider immediately (by phone, from your home ideally) for further advice and instructions on what to do.
Can It Be Cured or Treated?
Unlike seasonal flu, for which there is an annual vaccine to protect against infection, there is currently no vaccine to protect you from COVID-19. However, researchers at the U.S. National Institutes of Health are in the early stages of developing one. Officials plan to launch a phase 1 clinical trial of a potential vaccine for COVID-19 within the next three months.
Right now, treatment relies on the basics — keeping the patient’s body functioning optimally and boosting their immune system through vitamins and lots of fluids, until their immune system can fight off the virus. However, the work to develop a vaccine is under way and it is hoped there will be human trials before the end of the year.
Hospitals are also testing anti-viral drugs to see if they have an impact.
What is the Scale of the Outbreak as of Today?
The WHO recently upgraded the global risk of the coronavirus outbreak to “very high” — its top level of risk assessment. However the UN body also remained positive stating there was still a chance of containing the virus if its chain of transmission were broken. WHO head Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also stressed that fear and misinformation were the biggest challenges to overcome.
“Our greatest enemy right now is not the virus itself, it’s fear, rumours and stigma,” Dr. Ghebreyesus said
Globally, more than 80,000 people have been infected with about 2,800 have confirmed dead — the vast majority in China’s Hubei province where it began in the city of Wuhan in December.
The WHO has said proper containment, with the help of an “all government, all society approach” will help slow down rates of infection, break chains of infection and take pressure off healthcare systems around the world.
What are the Latest Developments? Is There Light at the End of the Tunnel?
China has shown positive signs of containment and controlling the spread seems to be on the horizon, at least in China where it began. It has reported it’s lowest daily increase figure this past week since the initial outbreak in December:
Take this as positive news that we may have seen the peak infection rate in at least China, though how the virus could spread in the rest of the world remains to be seen and we can only wait and observe as the situation evolves.
How Has It Impacted the Travel Industry Thus Far?
There have been major disruptions to the travel industry thus far. Tens of thousands of people from around the world that had planned vacations or business trips for the beginning of 2020 have been forced to reconsider their travel plans, particularly to countries like China, South Korea, Italy, and even other countries in Europe, due to fear of catching the coronavirus.
Airlines and governments have also played a role, introducing Travel Advisories cautioning citizens from non-essential travel to certain countries, or cancelling flights in and out of high-risk countries altogether. Cruise Lines and major tourist attractions like Disney World have also felt the impact, running on limited schedules or shutting down entirely until the situation improves.
Media is also having a major impact in disrupting the travel industry, as news outlets and opinion editorials around the global news outlets spread information which is not always accurate. Unfortunately fear-mongering headlines tend to get the most clicks, so it’s best to focus on the facts and sort through reputable sources like the WHO or CDC to get the most accurate information.
Self-Imposed Travel Restrictions
Countries with high numbers of cases continue to ramp up measures to battle the disease’s spread within their own borders as well. Many have advised their citizens to avoid all non-essential travel to other regions, cancelled intra-country mass transit like train and bus services, while others have announced enhanced screening measures for passengers at airports and other ports of entry.
The business world has also made some decisions to mitigate the risk of exposure to employees and customers alike. A number of major international conferences like the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Facebook’s F8 conference, and international companies like Nestle and L’Oreal have temporarily introduced travel bans for their global workforce.
Does my Travel Insurance Cover COVID-19 Related Cancellations?
“The devil is in the details” — and Travel Insurance is no different.
You will need to check the fine print on your policy to see if you’re covered, and exactly what for. In the eyes of your policy insurer, there is a significant difference between you being forced to cancel your trip due to Government or Airline restrictions being enforced on you, or because you voluntarily want to cancel as you don’t feel like taking a risk.
The Canadian government recently issued a Level 3 advisory for China, recommending Canadians avoid all non-essential travel. There is only one higher level, which advises travellers to avoid all travel entirely. As soon as the Canadian government declares a Level 3 or 4 travel advisory for a country, a person may cancel their upcoming trip and their insurance should cover any lost expenses, according to Joan Weir, Director of Health and Disability policy for the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association (according to its website, the CLHIA represents 99 per cent of the country’s life and health insurance companies).
Trips booked before the government issues these advisories are often covered by travel cancellation insurance. People travelling to China whose trip cancellation benefits kick in if the government issues a Level 3 advisory would be eligible to submit a claim if they purchased insurance before Jan. 29, when the government issued its advisory, according to the CLHIA. “You’d have to submit receipts,” Weir states, but travellers should receive refunds for flights, hotels and other costs.
“Trips booked after this point are not eligible for medical coverage or trip cancellation/interruption coverage”, however.
Even with cancellation insurance in place, the destination matters. While 24 countries have confirmed coronavirus cases, Canada’s travel advisory applies only to China as of March 1st. That means a person who feels uncomfortable travelling to any of the other countries on Health Canada’s impacted countries list won’t be able to get a refund for cancelling their trip, unless the advisory level is upgraded in the near future.
There is one exception however — if you purchased what’s known as “Cancel-for-any-Reason” insurance, which does exactly what the name implies.
There is an additional Travel Insurance benefit that is available by most insurers that allows you to cancel if you decide you just don’t want feel like going on your trip. This is known as a “Cancel For Any Reason” (“CFAR”) rider, which lets you off the hook up to 48 hours before departure. Buying the CFAR benefit costs extra — expect to pay about 30–60% more than a typical travel insurance policy, however in return, you’ll get about 50%-75% of your trip reimbursed with no questions asked. Before you get your hopes up, it also would have needed to be purchased at the time of the original policy (before news of COVID-19 arose), otherwise it’s too late to retroactively purchase and apply now.
Other Options For Those Without Travel Insurance
For those who haven’t purchased any travel insurance, don’t write off the cancellation just yet — there may still be other ways to secure a refund or get a portion of the cost reimbursed:
Credit Card Policies
Many major credit cards offer some kind of coverage for travel purchases as part of the perks and benefits offered to premium cardholders. This will depend entirely on whether you (A) purchased your ticket and travel arrangements on the credit card, (B) the date you made the reservations, and (C) what the benefits that are offered by your particular card and whether they would apply in a scenario like this.
In any case, there’s no harm in contacting your credit card provider and investigating your coverage, and that would be the first alley I would suggest to look into if you didn’t pre-purchase travel insurance.
Government Advisory Intervention
If the Foreign Affairs authority in your country of residence advises not to travel to a particular country, the travel insurance may be obliged to cover your material loss, if you have booked the trip in advance of the “do not travel” advisory issue date. You may be eligible to even get a full refund, but again — this will depend on many factors but worth looking into.
Try Postponing Travel, Not Cancelling
If you can’t get out of the trip, call and check if the hotel or airline you booked with has made an exception due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and whether they would be willing to offer a partial refund or allow you to simply postpone your flight/stay to a date further in the future when the situation may have passed. Some hotels may by sympathetic to the situation, and as long as you agree to keep your money in their coffers by simply moving the stay, they might be agreeable to a date change.
As per some airlines policies, they often permit you to reroute a trip (at a fee, of course) in what is known as a ‘deviation request’. Under this approach, you can look into changing your destination to a place where there are fewer risks of coronavirus infections instead, and hopefully if your hotel is part of a global chain, have them transfer the credit to a different property in the new destination for the new stay.
Pre-Existing Conditions Pose a Heightened Risk
Finally, if you have another major health condition (e.g. a weaker immune system, or develop a chronic illness or injury prior to your trip), there may be a possibility to get a refund even if your destination country has only detected a few cases of people infected with the coronavirus. A note from a doctor stating you are ‘not fit for travel’ or that doing so would pose a significant risk to your health would be the start. Passing this along to your general liability insurance company in such scenarios may provide a solution.
Setting Realistic Expectations
It’s Not Likely You’ll Get A Refund
Let’s face it — Insurance companies aren’t in the business of paying out policies. The reality is they will likely do everything in their rights to find ways to reject claims and minimize payouts.
Unfortunately, travel insurance companies tend to exclude epidemic diseases from their Force Majeure (“Acts of God”) policies, and most travel insurers will reject trip cancellation claims with ‘fear of catching a disease’ as the justification, as they do not consider it a valid reason for trip cancellation.
The sad reality is almost every existing travel insurance policy excludes epidemics and pandemics on purpose, as insurance companies recognize that an epidemic or pandemic by nature could put these companies out of business if they had to pay out millions of dollars for all their policies, and therefore avoid doing so to protect themselves from the unlikely scenario.
With new details emerging on a daily basis, it is important to stay abreast of the latest updates and how they may impact your exposure risk and travel plans. For now, if you are a healthy adult with a normal functioning immune system, living or traveling in an area where there are few reported cases — the risk of infection remains low, and the probability of infection leading to critical illness even lower. However, you should still take all appropriate measures to reduce your exposure as outlined above. If you are in a country with low-infection rates, you are probably safe (for now), however do your due diligence and research the situation before making any decisions.
Where can I go to keep up to date on information?
Your best sources are government and NGO websites to stay on top of the most recent developments and facts behind the disease:
- World Health Organization (WHO) — Situation Report (Feb 27, 2020)
- Health Canada — COVID-19 Outbreak Updates
Resist the temptation to rely on news outlets and editorials, as they may sensationalize the facts and figures of the situation and cause unnecessary fear.