Now a pandemic, coronavirus will hit medical tourism hard

As medical tourism faces its worst crisis ever from the impact of COVID-19, IMTJ will seek to update you on relevant news.

But between writing this article, and you reading it, the situation relating to COVID-19 will have undoubtedly changed.

On 12 March there are 125,326 confirmed cases worldwide in 118 countries with 4,625 deaths worldwide.

Frustrated and annoyed by the slow reaction, complacency and inaction of too many national governments, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic.

The WHO director-general explains; ‘”WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterised as a pandemic. Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death. We have never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus. This is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus. And we have never before seen a pandemic that can be controlled, at the same time. We are deeply concerned that some countries are not approaching this threat with the level of political commitment needed to control it. This is a controllable pandemic. Countries must strike a fine balance between protecting health, preventing economic and social disruption, and respecting human rights. There are still 77 countries and territories with no reported cases, and 55 countries and territories that have reported 10 cases or less. This is a new virus and a new situation. We’re all learning and we must all find new ways to prevent infections, save lives, and minimise impact. All countries have lessons to share. ”

The virus that causes COVID-19 infects people of all ages. However, evidence to date suggests that two groups of people are at a higher risk of getting severe COVID-19 disease. These are older people (that is people over 60 years old); and those with underlying medical conditions (such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer). The risk of severe disease gradually increases with age starting from around 40 years. It is important that adults in this age range protect themselves and in turn protect others that may be more vulnerable.

According to the World Economic Forum, “Pandemics top national risk-management frameworks in many countries and each outbreak of a potentially dangerous infection prompts authorities to ask a rational set of questions and dust off the menu of response options that can be implemented as needed in a phased manner. Reality is generally more disruptive, as national governments and supranational agencies balance health security, economic and social imperatives on the back of imperfect and evolving intelligence. It is a governance challenge that may result in long-term consequences for communities and businesses.”

While the virus is deadly for some, many who have it experience mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, making it much harder to detect and contain. More than 70 governments have responded by banning entry to travellers who have been to affected regions, barring flights to certain countries and changing visa requirements, and others have recommended that no citizens travel to another country.

The restrictions and virus fears have hit tourism hard, and medical tourism is expected to be hit the hardest.

While many hospitals and clinics will have more income and more customers locally, those heavily dependent on medical tourism may struggle or even close if finances are already tight. Small medical tourism agencies will lose business and may not reopen. Many hospitals will simply now not have spare capacity for medical tourists.

Pandemics have nothing to do with the severity of a disease but are to do with its geographic spread. A pandemic is declared when a new disease for which people do not have immunity spreads around the world beyond expectations. Once a pandemic is declared, it becomes more likely that community spread will eventually happen, and governments and health systems need to ensure they are prepared for that.

The USA is banning travellers from all Mainland European countries to the USA for 30 days with exemptions for Americans, permanent residents and family of US citizens who have undergone screenings. Travellers to the USA from other on-Schengen countries, Ireland and, curiously, the UK are exempt, despite the UK having a higher caseload than some other European countries. The European Union is furious that the USA announced the ban live on global television, unilaterally and without consultation.