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It is time for hotels and airlines to revise their anti-Covid protocols

Next month it will be a year since the pandemic crippled the hospitality industry.

I don’t want to jinx the recovery but there are signs that things are finally getting better.


For a start, India has been fortunate enough not to have a very high fatality rate. There is no agreement over why most Indians who get Covid seem to recover. I have read several explanations. It could be because we have a younger population than, say, Europe. It could be because we have acquired an immunity living in Indian conditions that doctors don’t fully understand yet. Or it could be that the BCG vaccine, which most of us take when we are young, helps in fighting Covid. Nobody really knows: it could even be a reason that we have not considered yet.


   But the relatively low fatality rate (compared to Europe and America), the sharp decline in the number of cases and the availability of a vaccine (which should soon be available on the open market, given that we have so much of it that we are sending doses to foreign countries) make us all more confident about facing the future.


   The bad news is that this will not help restaurants that have already shut down. The airline industry will never recoup its losses. And hotels are stuck with a sea of red ink on their balance sheets.


   The good news is that this year will almost certainly be better. The economy may not fully recover but hotels and restaurants will finally start making money again.


   So as we enter this new phase, how should the hospitality industry cope?


   Here are some ideas.


Surfaces: It is now clear that doctors and even the WHO got it wrong in the early weeks of Covid. The emphasis should have been on masks but we wasted too much time because authorities including the US’s much-lauded Dr. Anthony Fauci did not emphasize how important it was for us to all wear masks. (Dr. Fauci says they knew that masks were useful but did not tell us this because they wanted all the available masks to be earmarked for health care professionals...Sure.)


   Instead, authorities focussed on surfaces. The virus could survive on any surface for days, we were told. Our priority should be to sanitise all surfaces so that we did not pick up the virus on our hands.


   Some of this is true. It makes sense to wash your hands regularly in the Covid era. But the over-emphasis on surfaces led us to forget that the most efficient method of transmission for Covid was through the air. Social distancing alone was not enough. Surfaces were a sideshow.


   In the early days of the Pandemic, fed with such skewered advice from doctors, our hotels and restaurants paid far too much attention to sanitisation. They began wrapping crockery and cutlery in paper after sanitising it. They emphasised the sanitisation of hotel rooms.


   They believed the conventional wisdom that if you did not have a fever, you were unlikely to spread Covid and offered a false sense of security by installing body-temperature scanners at their doors. (You can have Covid even you have no fever and you may be spreading it even if you have no symptoms, as we now know). 


"Hotels and restaurants should divert part of their sanitisation budgets to pay for testing of employees."

   With the benefit of today’s knowledge I think it is time for hotels and restaurants to push back from the over-emphasis on sanitisation of surfaces. Sure, it is good to have a clean kitchen or a sanitised hotel room. But that’s not really the best way to avoid the spread of Covid infections.


Air: Because we have discovered that Covid spreads through the air, two consequences follow: One: we must all mask up. And two: as much as possible we must follow social distancing.


   Sadly, even as it is busy sanitising its spoons, the hospitality industry has not paid enough attention to these factors.


   If I ran a hotel chain or managed a restaurant, I would penalise staff members who did not follow a mask protocol. All too often I have seen staff at hotels and restaurants wear their masks too low, leaving their noses uncovered. Somebody seems to have told them that there is no need to cover their noses. Ultimately a server who does not wear a mask properly is more likely to infect guests than a plate that has not been fully sanitised.


Testing: In the early days of the Pandemic, the government and its medical establishments controlled testing and made it difficult for most of us to get Covid tests. Fortunately, Covid tests are now available on demand.


   Hotels and restaurants are still mired in the old mindset when testing was hard to do. They do not test staff often enough and usually ask for tests only when employees display symptoms.


   But given the recent Serological Survey data which suggests that the majority of Indians who got Covid, got an asymptomatic version of it, it is foolish to wait for symptoms. People with asymptomatic Covid can spread the virus.


   Hotels and restaurants should divert part of their sanitisation budgets to pay for testing of employees. Every staff member should be tested every ten days or so. That’s not perfect. But it offers a far greater degree of safety than sanitising surfaces.


Airlines: Aeroplanes pose a particular problem in the fight against Covid. Most airlines no longer insist on any kind of social distancing inside the aircraft and try to sell as many seats as possible.


   Nor does the fuss about masks and shields make any sense. The rule is that you must mask up unless you are eating or drinking. But most airlines serve food and drink, so passengers cheerfully take off their masks for much of the journey.


   Airlines respond by saying that on many routes, all passengers have been tested so this is quite safe. And that ventilation in aircraft is such that the virus is ejected into the atmosphere by streams of air. (Okay: maybe.)


   But it is still worrying. And what is of even most concern is the lax level of Covid protection at airports. I have taken only one return flight during this pandemic (Del-Bom-Del) but I was surprised to find that while cabin crew were required to wear PPE kit (not really necessary, I think), ground staff at airports either took off their masks or wore them too low. Nobody upbraided them. Somebody even tweeted a photo of a huge closely-packed queue at security at Mumbai airport. That kind of crowding poses a real health hazard. I only hope that it was a one-off event.


   But the lesson is: even if we are fighting Covid in the air, we are certainly not fighting it at the airports.


   And now: It is time, I think, for hotels and airlines to revise their anti-Covid protocols. Things have changed. We have learned much more about the virus. And if we are careful, we can avoid a UK-style relapse.


    But it is up to us to be careful. Only we can fight the virus.



Posted On: 09 Feb 2021 11:22 AM
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