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Trapped in a foreign country

22 April 2020 Old Mutual Insure

Insurance and survival in global lockdown

Sitting at home negotiating refunds, postponements or travel cover pay-outs for COVID-19-cancelled trips is one thing. Being stuck in a foreign country unable to get home is another order of stress entirely.

As frustrating as having to cancel or postpone travel arrangements is, “spare a thought for the tens of thousands of people trapped around the world when the countries they were travelling in went into lockdown,” said Christelle Colman, Insurance Expert at Old Mutual Insure.

Unprecedented situation

Colman recently dealt with a couple from the Eastern Cape trapped in Australia.

The couple were booked to return to South Africa on an SAA flight which, together with all international airlines, is now not permitted to operate in Australia under lockdown. While the couple had purchased travel curtailment cover, they could only rely on this cover if they proved that their airline did not offer compensation. Since SAA was offering to compensate the couple with a credit to fly at a later date, “they needed to decline this offer – in writing to their insurers – before they could prove financial lose and activate their curtailment cover,” said Colman.

While the offer of a future flight was compelling, the reality was that the couple was trapped, “deciding to decline SAA’s compensation offer in order to activate their travel insurance cover and get home,” said Colman.

Unfortunately, the travel curtailment cover that the couple purchased was capped at R 20 000 per policy holder. Under normal circumstances this would be more than adequate for a one-way economy class ticket. At time of purchase, however, no one could have predicted COVID-19 global lockdown, still less the possibility of all flights being grounded.

While, at present, no emergency flights are scheduled, the Australian government is planning to arrange special flights to return foreign nationals trapped in Australia to their home countries, including South Africa. Unfortunately for our couple from the Eastern Cape, said Colman, “all indications were that when an emergency flight was authorised to South Africa, tickets would cost around R20 000 - each.” And this would only get them to Johannesburg where they would most likely, “have to fund 14 days in quarantine and then pay for their onward journey to the Eastern Cape,” said Colman. Since no domestic flights are operating in South Africa under lockdown, getting government permission to drive across provincial borders at their own expense would be their only option. “The fact that car hire companies are no longer operating only complicated matters,” she added. In the meantime, the couple were trapped in Australia indefinitely, “covering their own accommodation in foreign currency,” said Colman. And, to top it all, their Australian visas needed to be renewed, “at around R4000 a pop,” she added.

This situation is not an isolated case. Thousands of travellers around the world find themselves in similar predicaments,” said Colman. It is simply not a situation that the insurance, airline or travel industries could anticipate or imagine six months ago.

Insurance policies designed prior to COVID-19 simply did not contemplate – or cover - the risks associated with a global pandemic.

What to do?

The best that people can do is to be as proactive and informed as possible.

“Do not just sit around waiting for the airline, the insurers, your host government or the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation to get you home,” said Colman. “There is a lot you can, and should, be doing,” she added.

• Keep abreast of repatriation efforts by the South African Government. Contact details of South African missions abroad are available on the DIRCO Directory: http://www.dirco.gov.za/webmissions/index.html.

• Contact the South African High Commission or Embassy in the country you are trapped in. Make sure they know you are trapped, your address, contact details, and that you need to get home. Find out what they know about flights back to South Africa, where you can perhaps stay, whether you need to extend visas, or even, “whether they can negotiate an extension or visa waiver for you,” added Colman.

• Do the same for the host country. Keep abreast of what your host country’s government is doing to get foreign nationals’ home. “There will be contact people and websites. Find these”, advised Colman.

• Contact your travel insurance company and find out what extensions you can apply to your policies. Also, “confirm all the benefits that your policy might offer whilst stuck abroad, like medical expenses, additional accommodation and help with transport,” said Colman.

• Stay in touch with your airline – and all other airlines - continuously checking for flights back to South Africa. As limited as flights are, said Colman, “specially scheduled flights are happening and there is some, highly controlled and sporadic, traffic on certain routes,” she advised. Also, be sure to understand what compensation airlines can provide, whether this be monetary, deferred travel offers or even emergency accommodation or alternate transport.

Home safe

Fortunately, the couple from the Eastern Cape will return to South Africa early May on an international flight via the Middle East, “arranged and facilitated by Old Mutual Insure and our international travel assistance partners Europ Assistance,” concluded Colman.

Quick Polls

QUESTION

Do you believe this is the toughest period for financial advice in many years?

ANSWER

Yes, it’s hard to navigate the challenges and difficult to adapt. I’m struggling.
No, I have managed to navigate the challenges and have adapted. I’m good.
50/50. I just feel like whether we like it or not, we have to ready ourselves for change… be resilient and scale for the future. It’s not about survival of the fittest anymore but survival of the quickest. We just have to move on with life.
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