Cover,Travel Warnings

Coronavirus, Australian Travel and Travel Insurance – Here’s what we know

11 February 2020

Like an epic domino effect, the coronavirus has impacted everything from animal welfare awareness and human health, to the global economy and of course travel.

Find out what we know to date, how the coronavirus may affect Australian travellers, and how the coronavirus impacts travel insurance claims. 

What is coronavirus?

Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause illness from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV).

A novel coronavirus (CoV) is a new strain of coronavirus that has not been previously identified in humans. The new, or ‘novel’ coronavirus, now called 2019-nCoV, had not previously been detected before the outbreak was reported in Wuhan, China in December 2019.

Most troubling was the fact that the virus could be spread from person to person, and that cases were being reported around the globe.

On 30 January 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

Where did the virus come from?

At the end of December 2019, Chinese public health officials informed the WHO that an unknown, new virus was causing pneumonia-like symptoms in the city of Wuhan. The illness was identified as a new strain of coronavirus.

Coronaviruses are zoonotic diseases, meaning they first spread to people from animals. A ‘wet market’, the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, is thought to be where the 2019-nCov originated . The market was shuttered on 1 January.

At wet markets, butchered meat and carcasses are sold alongside live animals. The produce can include poached wildlife and endangered species. Animal cruelty, unhygienic conditions  and cross-contamination are commonplace.

Reports indicated that before the Huanan market closed, vendors there sold processed meats and live animals, including bats, badgers, bamboo rats, chickens, camels, donkeys, foxes, hedgehogs, pigs, sheep, and snakes.

Wuhan authorities have since banned the trade of live animals at wet markets, for the time being. In the wake of the Wuhan wet market closure, the Chinese government has announced it will ban the trade in wild animals and tighten supervision on wet markets. Animal rights activists are watching the situation closely.

How did it spread to humans?

It is thought that 2019-nCov may have spread from bats, to snakes, to people at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan.

On 20 January, Chinese authorities announced that the novel coronavirus is spreading person-to-person, with medical workers in Wuhan confirmed to have contracted the disease from patients they had been treating.

What are the symptoms?

To work out how ‘bad’ a virus is, epidemiologists – scientists who study diseases, need to weigh up both how severe an illness is and how easily it can spread. With the novel coronavirus, researchers are still trying to understand the symptoms, which have ranged from mild, like those in a cold, to severe, leading to death.

So far, approximately 20% of confirmed cases have been severe, according to the WHO. The fatality rate  is around 2 to 3%, a number which could change as the outbreak progresses. The fatality rate for SARS was about 14 to 15%, but less people were reported to have been infected. To date, there have been 43,143 cases reported, and 1,018 deaths. These numbers are changing every day, and can be tracked here.

Most coronavirus fatalities have been in older people who have underlying health issues, including diabetes and  heart disease.

What can you do to prevent infection?

Experts at the US Centre for Disease Control say that washing your hands frequently is the best way to prevent the spread of infectious illnesses like coronavirus. The CDC advises washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol, when soap and water are not available.

You should also avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands, avoid contact with sick people, and cough and sneeze into your elbow.

Can wearing a face mask protect you from the new coronavirus? If it’s a regular surgical face mask, the answer is no. A more specialised mask, known as a N95 respirator, can however offer protection. The respirator is thicker than a surgical mask, but wearers require training on how to correctly fit and handle the mask.

How quickly is the coronavirus spreading?

Early evidence suggested that, like other coronaviruses, the virus jumps between people who are in very close contact with each other, and probably spreads when an infected person sneezes or coughs. It is not yet definitively know whether asymptomatic people or only symptomatic people can infect others. The incubation period of the virus is thought to be roughly 14 days.

According to WHO, early research suggests that each infected person will go on to infect, on average, between 1.4 and 2.5 additional people.

Quarantines and other actions taken to control outbreaks of a virus can bring down the number of people a sick person infects. Thanks to the united response shown globally, the spread of the disease could well be limited – but only time will tell.

What is China doing to halt the spread?

2019-nCoV is thought to have originated in Wuhan of Hubei province, a city in mainland China and home to over 11 million people. On January 22nd, officials shut down all transportation in the city, including local public transport, and all flights and trains in and out of the city. Citizen have been asked to remain at home until further notice. The director general of the WHO commended the decision, saying that it would help control the outbreak and slow the spread into other countries. The ‘Wuhan Lockdown’ were eventually imposed on all 15 cities in the province of Hubei, affecting a total of about 57 million people.

Major cities across the country cancelled Chinese New Year celebrations –  China’s biggest holiday and a key period of travel to and through China.

Wenzhou, a port city in the eastern Zhejiang province more than 800km by road from Wuhan, is also under lockdown. Though far from the epicentre of the virus, the province has the highest number of confirmed cases outside Hubei.

How is Australia handling the coronavirus?

Australia is taking stringent steps to combat the spread. As of 1 February, Australia has temporarily banned entry into the country to anyone travelling from or transiting through mainland China. With the exception of Australian citizens, permanent residents or their immediate family members, as well as airline crews who have taken precautions.

Regarding travel from Australian to China, the advice from Smartraveller reads as follows: “On advice from the Australian Chief Medical Officer, we now recommend Australians do not travel to China due to the increased risk from novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV). The Australian Government has directed non-essential Australian-based Embassy and Consulate staff and their dependants to return to Australia from mainland China posts. If you are currently in China, leave as soon as possible by commercial means. Many airlines have temporarily reduced or stopped flights.”

For Australians travelling by air, The National Geographic offers some advice regarding where to sit on the airplane.

“Passengers seated next to the window may be the least likely to pick up the virus from an infected person onboard, as people in the window seat move about the cabin less often and come into contact with fewer people passing in the aisles.”

Australian citizens and residents returning from China have been told to self-isolate for 14 days.

Evacuation missions are underway for approved Australians, with two Australian government-funded flights out of China thus far.  The second flight to assist the departure of Australians from Wuhan arrived in Darwin on 9 February.

Australian coronavirus patients

The Australian Government Department of Health is monitoring the spread of coronavirus in Australia, with daily updates published here.

As at 06:00 hrs on 10 February 2020, the Australian Government Department of Health had confirmed 15 cases of novel coronavirus in Australia.

All of the cases in Australia have come from Wuhan except one in NSW who had contact in China with a confirmed case in Wuhan. Of the previously reported cases, 5 have recovered. The others are in a stable condition.

For Australians in affected areas

The Australian Government advises that Australians who find themselves in China, or any location with confirmed Coronavirus cases, do the following:

  • Monitor your health closely. See a healthcare professional immediately if you start feeling unwell.
  • Keep a distance from sick people, especially if they have a fever, cough, or difficulty breathing.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. Carry hand sanitiser with you and use it often.
  • If you come into contact with any animals or animal products. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth until you have thoroughly sanitised your hands.
  • Follow the instructions of local authorities and monitor the local media.
  • If you need urgent consular assistance, contact the Consular Emergency Centre on +61 2 6261 3305, text or whatsapp +61 420 269 080, or use Smartraveller’s crisis contact form.

Am I covered by my Australian travel insurance?

The coronavirus has had an unprecedented impact on global travel. For Australian travellers, there’s a range of ways that the outbreak could affect your upcoming travel plans, or trip back home to Australia.

As the Australian Government’s travel advice for China has been upgraded to ‘Do not travel‘, you may want to cancel an upcoming trip to China, or cancel a portion of your trip including flights, tours and accomodation.

You may also need to cancel or rebook air travel or other arrangements due to being quarantined or instructed to self-isolate.

Or, you might need to claim medical costs due to being treated for Coronavirus.

Remember travel insurance is there to cover unforeseen events, emergencies, mishaps and accidents, so your eligibility to claim depends on whether you knew about the virus or not. Insurers need to draw a line in the sand, and 20 January has been determined as the date by when Australian’s should have been sufficiently aware of the epidemic.

By 20 January, the virus outbreak was widely publicised, and government and health authorities had advised that travellers take all necessary precautions, including avoiding travel to China all together.

When you can claim

Will your travel insurance will cover coronavirus cancellation and medical claims? The short answer is yes – if you purchased a policy with adequate cover for cancellations, prior to 11.59am on 19 January. Travellers who bought policies at this stage are considered to have not yet known of the risks to travel that the coronavirus represented. Claims made by these customers are likely to be supported, provided that the usual conditions are met.

When you can’t claim

Policies bought from 20 January however, are considered to have been bought in full knowledge of the virus, and the travel warnings that went along with it. Unfortunately, cancellation claims related to coronavirus, from here on in, are viewed as a ‘change of mind’, and are therefore not covered.

Equally, claims related to medical treatment or expatriation costs will not be covered, as customers travelled in full knowledge that they may become unwell.

For more, see: Your questions answered. Can I claim for the coronavirus?

Last updated on 11 February

Image credit: Photo by Amien from Pexels

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