Just how catastrophic is the coronavirus?

The horrifying speed of the coronavirus spread has taken everyone by surprise. While the world grapples with pandemic – with more and more countries adopting lockdown containment measures – it is clear that the catastrophic consequences will be felt for years to come.

The transport and mobility sector is already hugely affected by COVID-19. As one of main vectors of the disease, it was curtailed early on: China’s draconian measures to contain the virus meant citizens had to stay at home under an effective martial law – with harsh penalties for those who broke the curfew. At the same time, other countries implemented travel bans on China.

Widespread Lockdown

Now that it has spread to Europe and the rest of the world, lockdowns and travel bans have become more widespread. The European Union has imposed a ban on entry into the passport-free Schengen zone, and many individual members have sealed borders with their neighbours. “The less we travel, the more we can contain the virus,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. Yet, while EU leaders have pledged to ensure food, medical supplies and other essential goods keep flowing, all movement within the bloc has clogged up.

The lockdowns differ, but the message is getting through: people are recognising that almost every form of shared travel spreads the disease. Planes, buses, trams, trains: they all cram people into relatively small places where the virus can land on surfaces and contaminate us. As a result, there has all seen a dramatic collapse in movement.

Automotive production stopped

Airlines are some of the hardest hit by the outbreak, and are appealing for support from governments. The EU has already issued a waiver for air slot rules so they no longer have to keep empty ‘ghost flights’ in the air. Meanwhile, Italy’s government has moved to renationalise flag-carrier Alitalia – and the Europan Commission has indicated it will ease the state aid rules that might otherwise have prevented such a move. The Commission also says that since the coronavirus is “an extraordinary circumstance”, it should excuse airlines from paying passengers for canceled or delayed flights.

The car industry is suffering too. Most lockdowns include measures obliging businesses to guarantee ‘social distancing’ inside factories – and ordering them to shutter if they cannot. Many major car- and truckmakers have already been forced to halt production at their facilities.

Rail links in Europe have been hit: the Czech Republic and Poland stopped all international services, and other countries have drastically reduced schedules. In Britain, there are suggestions that airlines, bus companies and train operators could be brought under public ownership to preserve transport links: UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the government could step in to “prevent companies from going bust” during the pandemic (although any period of public ownership would be temporary).

Weeks to go…

There is no end in sight yet. While many EU countries are under lockdown, many others are not – and the grim statistics recording the daily spread of the disease indicate that the rate is increasing. China was the first country to impose a lockdown, on January 23, and although it is now reporting no new domestic cases of the virus, there are only limited plans to lift the restrictions. In Europe, officials say schools may be closed until summer. A vaccine is 18 months away. As we adapt to this lockdown life, we may look back at the pre-2020 era as the high point of global transport and mobility.