29 March 2020
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Ashley Landis/The Dallas Morning News via AP

Clearing up some common coronavirus concerns

Sophia Katsinas
13 March 2020

If you came here for a break from the “we are all going to die from coronavirus” headlines, we extend our apologies. Truthfully, the conversation surrounding coronavirus is in no way comforting. Each day, the news gets more intense, as death tolls are rising, the virus spreads to more countries and the stock market is in a period of limbo. Despite the unnecessary ‘coronavirus’ comment any time someone in the office coughs, sales of Corona beer going down, and of course, the famous toilet paper shortage of 2020, experts in all industries – from finance to medicine – have taken a certain stance on the topic. Though, with travel bans rising, the stock market fluctuating, and Aussie households stocking up on rations like it’s the apocalypse, what do Australians really need to be worried about when it comes to the coronavirus?

Let’s put this pandemic into perspective

According to smarttraveller.gov.au, we are on high alert. With coronavirus splattered across its homepage, and a yellow banner with the words “ALERT!” splattered across each page, authorities aren’t doing a fantastic job of keeping the panic to a low. The WHO’s official declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic sent Wall Street, and the streets of the world, into crisis mode. When really, a pandemic just means the virus is spreading across the world, which we knew anyway.

Global announcements, travel bans and other precautions are being announced so regularly that whatever we publish at the moment could change in 24 hours.

As of March 5th 2020, China, Iran and South Korea are on Australia’s travel ban list, and Japan, Mongolia and Italy have been deemed “high risk”.

The word has sent a pandemic of goosebumps across the globe, but it still doesn’t mean it’s the end of life as we know it. In fact, HIV/AIDS is still considered a global pandemic, which is popularised to have started in 1981, but scientists speculate may have been circulating since the 1920s. The WHO believes 32 million people have died of HIV, and this number is still growing. But because of the way HIV was presented in media at the time, no one was that worried because they didn’t fit the “category of people it could effect”. Even when it was becoming more clear that HIV was not simply a “gay disease”, the hysteria was not as large scale as it has been with COVID-19. Despite the difference in transmission, HIV is a virus of a much larger scale than COVID-19, has a dramatically larger fatality rate, and is still considered a pandemic after so many years.

How worried should we be?

There’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus, and a lot of “industry experts” who have been willing to get on the record and claim either: we are all overreacting, or, the end of humanity is nigh.

One of our industry experts (without the sarcastic quotation marks), Dr Ross Walker, is one of those who has labelled the coronavirus “hysterical nonsense”.

“Of course it can be a serious illness, let’s not demean the illness. But also, let’s put it into perspective. As I said there’s about a 3% death rate…the cases in China appear to be slowly down,” said Dr Walker.

“In fact, there’s minor versions of coronavirus that two thirds of children have had. This is probably why we’re not seeing much infection in children, because they’ve already had a similar version of coronavirus in a benign sort of way that’s given them immunity.”

Ultimately, one thing is certain, and it’s that no one actually knows what the future holds. But even if you are the kind of person who is blocking their ears and staying out of the coronavirus hysteria, it will likely still impact us all in some way – particularly in the area of travel.

So what does the coronavirus mean for travelers with holidays booked later in the year?

From a medical perspective, Dr Ross Walker notes, “I think as things start to heat up in Europe and China, so as the northern hemisphere goes into summer, or at least into spring, we’ll see the virus start to die off before many more people will.”

But as European summer approaches, a lot of angsty Australians are questioning just how much the coronavirus outbreak will impact their travel plans.

Anna Burgdorf from Travel Associates recommends that Australians with booked holidays stay up to date with the https://www.smartraveller.gov.au/ and key international resources, such as WHO.

“If countries are listed as high risk or do not travel, then we do recommend cancellation. WHO is regularly updating its recommendations and as at 29 Feb have recommended prudence in some cases: It is prudent for travellers who are sick to delay or avoid travel to affected areas, in particular for elderly travellers and people with chronic diseases or underlying health conditions,” said Anna.

When it comes to cancellations, Travel Associates recommend waiting until closer to travel dates to decide on trip cancellations.

“Many suppliers are transferring bookings up to two years in advance to support travellers which is why it can be a good idea to wait until closer to your travel date before making your final decisions…This is a rapidly changing situation and clients are generally not disadvantaged by delaying cancellation until the last minute,” said Anna.

Though, ultimately, unless you are planning on visiting a high-risk country (China, Iran, South Korea, Japan, Mongolia and Italy) which is not recommended, travel outside of these destinations is entirely up to the travellers discretion.

“The situation with COVID 19 is changing daily and we simply do not know what will happen by mid-year. However if clients have serious concerns then we do recommend delaying travel or rebooking to safe destinations for peace of mind. There are also many countries still safe for travelling and so if clients have concerns, we can recommend close-to-home or local options,” said Anna.

“Travel is such an important part of personal wellbeing that we can support our clients with recommendations for low risk countries or options like the South Pacific, Cook Islands, Seychelles, Australia, New Zealand etc. Antarctic expeditions, Tahiti and Hawaii are also strong options.”

 Does quality insurance mean quality assurance?

According to finder.com.au, most travel insurance companies will not cover any coronavirus related claims if you buy a policy today.

Anna from Travel Associates believes “this will depend entirely on the insurance they have taken out.”

“If a client has Cancel For Any Reason cover (CFAR), then they are covered for 75% up to $10,000 per person UNLESS the supplier or provider has cancelled the tour, cruise etc in which case, the client is entitled to a full refund…However many 'standard' insurance policies do not cover viruses or pandemics.”

“Travel Associates ALWAYS recommends travel insurance with every booking and our preferred partner is Cover-More,” said Anna.

The implementation of Cover-More’s Cancel For Any Reason cover (CFAR) in 2018 has made them a highly recommended travel insurance provider, particularly during the coronavirus outbreak.

According to Cover-More, enquiries into their travel insurance packages, particularly CFAR, have increased throughout this period. CFAR insurance can be purchased as an add-on before travel is booked, which ensures travellers can “cancel for any reason”, including coronavirus fears.

“The vast majority of our policies provide cover for medical expenses if you travel overseas and contract the coronavirus. And yes, if they purchased our CFAR add-on before they paid for their travel, there is cover available for cancellation. See more about CFAR,” a Cover-More spokesperson told Switzer.

In regards to cancelling upcoming trips, Cover-More recommends that Australians follow the health and travel advice from the Australian Government. Daily updates of travel advice are refreshed on smarttraveller.gov.au.

Ultimately, unless you are travelling to China, South Korea, Japan, Mongolia, Iran or Italy, which have been deemed “high-risk zones” by the government, at this stage, you must use your own discretion to decide whether you wish to pursue travel. At this stage, if you choose to cancel a trip, and you haven’t purchased travel insurance or your insurance is a “standard” policy, it’s likely you won’t be reimbursed for cancellation. If you are planning to travel later in the year, it’s recommended that you purchase travel insurance, and if you want to be really safe, Cover-More’s CFAR policy is the most recommended by industry professionals.

So what if I already have a trip booked to China, South Korea, Japan, Mongolia, Iran or Italy?

The countries that have been deemed “high-risk” are also common and popular travel destinations for Australians. Most Australians book their holidays several months, or even up to a year in advance. So what if you have a holiday booked to any of these high-risk zones? Who should your first point of contact be?

Obviously, we all book our holidays through different avenues. Some go through a travel agent, others book themselves directly through the airline company, others book through middle-man booking agents, and the list goes on. This makes it difficult to suggest one uniform or “go-to” contact person for all travellers.

Anna from Travel Associates says “airlines have cancelled flights into these destinations so travellers are asked to check in with their booking agent or airline if they booked direct to confirm if their flights have been cancelled”.

According to Anna, the first point of contact is your booking agent.

“If you have booked direct with an airline you would contact them directly. If you have purchased your travel online you will need to check your booking itinerary and contact their online support team. If you have booked through your trusted adviser they will be able to assist you.”

The next step from here would be to check in with your insurance company.

“Once your booking has been cancelled you can then contact your insurance company to submit your claim. It is recommended that you check with your insurance company prior to cancelling your booking to confirm what you are covered for. If you have purchased your insurance through your travel adviser they will be able to guide you through the process for you,” explains Anna.

Cover-More travel insurance recommend contacting the Department of Foreign Affairs as a first point of contact for guidance on what to do if you are planning to travel to these destinations.

“We recommend you contact DFAT for information on DFAT assistance and advice available to Australian travellers, while we encourage our customers to contact our customer service team for specific details of their policy coverage,” said a Cover-More spokesperson. Cover-More customers are encouraged to call 1300 72 88 22 between 8am and 7pm Monday to Friday (AEDT).

*Since publication, Cover-More Travel Insurance has suspended their Cancel For Any Reason (CFAR) add-on product in Australia and New Zealand, as of EOD 13 March, 2020. “We are in unchartered waters and unprecedented times for the travel industry with the global impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak and we will continue to do everything we can to support our travel agents and partners and Australian and New Zealand travellers,” said Cover-More's Asia Pacific CEO, Ms Judith Crompton.

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