(CNN) — Countries around the Asia-Pacific region have closed borders and imposed strict quarantine requirements, essentially sealing themselves off from the world.
But in many jurisdictions there's a key exception to those rules: flight crews.
For months, flight crews in a number of places -- including Taiwan and Australia -- have been able to avoid the tough quarantine rules imposed on other international travelers. But rule breaches by airline staff in both places in December have prompted questions about whether exemptions for aviation workers are creating an unnecessary risk to the public.
Taiwan has now tightened its quarantine rules for flight crews, something two Australian states did in December.
But it's a tricky predicament. While health experts say that treating flight crews differently is a loophole in an otherwise tough border approach, aviation industry officials say exemptions are needed to keep the industry operating -- and avoid jeopardizing flight crews' mental health.
What happened in Australia and Taiwan?
When Taiwan reported its first locally-transmitted case in more than 250 days on December 22, authorities quickly pin-pointed a foreign pilot as the source of infection.
Authorities said a New Zealand pilot in his 60s infected a woman in her 30s after completing the required three days of quarantine required for pilots, Taiwan state media CNA reported. That pilot has now been fined by Taiwanese authorities for not disclosing his complete contact history and fired by his company. Although the self-governed island reported its first case back in January, it managed to avoid a major coronavirus outbreak -- in total Taiwan has reported just over 800 coronavirus cases and only seven deaths. That success was largely due to its strict border approach: it closed borders in March to almost all non-residents and required international arrivals to quarantine at home for 14 days. Except, that is, for air crew. Under Taiwan's previous rules, pilots only needed to quarantine for three days while flight attendants needed to quarantine for five -- reportedly the difference is that the latter group has more person-to-person interaction. As of January 1, crew need to spend seven days in quarantine after a long-haul flight and need to test negative before they are allowed to leave, Taiwan's Centers for Disease Control announced on December 28.
Other places -- including Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australia -- also gave flight crews an exemption to their otherwise tough border policies.
Australia's rules differed state by state, but previously, Australia-based flight crews flying into New South Wales were allowed to quarantine at home rather than in the state-run hotel quarantine facilities, while international crews were required to quarantine in one of around 25 hotels until their next flight, although they were not monitored by authorities like other international travelers.
It was strict by international standards, but still much more relaxed than what other incoming travelers faced -- two weeks in a state-run hotel quarantine at their own cost.
But a series of incidents in December prompted questions over whether that was the right approach. A Sydney van driver who had transported international flight crews tested positive at the start of December. Later that month, New South Wales Police fined 13 international air crew members 1,000 Australian dollars ($760) each for going to a number of Sydney venues when they should have been quarantining. And just before Christmas, a Qantas crew member tested positive after flying into Darwin from Paris and then boarding a domestic flight. New South Wales now requires international crews to be quarantined at two designated airport hotels where they are monitored by health authorities and police. Crew based in New South Wales need to be tested before leaving, but can still isolate at home. "We've said all along that it's a huge risk for us, but it's a risk we take because we want Australians to come back home ... and we want freight to come back," New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said in December as she tightened rules around crews. "It's the breach of the guidelines that's the problem, it's not the guidelines themselves, and we can't risk that."
Why flight crews are treated differently
Even with the tightened restrictions in Australia and Taiwan, flight crews still get treated differently than other travelers. And in a number of jurisdictions, many crew still don't have to quarantine at all.
In New Zealand, for instance, most air crew are exempt from the mandatory 14-day government-run quarantine due to the "importance of maintaining international air routes." In Hong Kong, air crew who have not visited a high risk place, including the US and the UK, can test on arrival and are free to go once they test negative -- much more lenient than the three-week hotel quarantine at their own cost that other international arrivals face. Part of the reason flight crews have been given an easier ride is that they are needed to keep economies going and supply chains running. As Hong Kong's government put it: "The exemption arrangement was essential for maintaining the necessary operation of society and the economy, and for ensuring an uninterrupted supply of all daily necessities to the public."
Albert Tjoeng, a spokesperson for the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents 290 airlines, said crew were different from regular travelers -- they are making repeated trips, they aren't waiting to get out of quarantine to achieve the aim of their trip, and they are well informed about the risks and requirements. "(The aircrew are) acutely aware of the vulnerability of their livelihoods to any lapses in infection control," Tjoeng said.
The exemptions were also out of concern for crews' mental health. Unlike regular travelers who might be just making one trip home this year to see their family, flight crews would be making international flights often. That meant they could spend entire weeks or months effectively in quarantine.
That's been the case for a China Airlines captain based in Taiwan who estimates that he has spent around 50 days in quarantine this year. He flies between Taipei and Sydney about once a month, and each time he's required to quarantine for three days on each end.
The captain, who asked to be anonymous as he is not permitted to speak with media, says he has coped with quarantine, but that it is a concern for both mental health, and for people being able to be with their family and look after their kids. The days he spends in quarantine are unpaid.
"I don't think the whole society, or the company, or even the (Taiwanese) CDC really care about our mental health, they only care about the public health, they don't really care about this part of us," he said.
Should the quarantine rules be tightened?
Health experts argue that the exemptions create a potential loophole for coronavirus to creep in to places that have been otherwise successful at keeping it out.
"It seems to me that the risk of airline crew being infected is no lower than the risk of an arriving passenger," Burnet Institute epidemiologist Mike Toole told Australian state broadcaster ABC in December. "It is a potential loophole in the system, and we can't afford that."
Hong Kong, New Zealand, Taiwan and Australia have all been otherwise relatively successful at containing their outbreaks, in part thanks to the tough border policies.
But IATA has called on governments to give flight crews who don't interact with the public an exemption from quarantine requirements to ensure cargo supply chains can continue. Back in March, the association's general director and chief executive said delays to global supply chains "are endangering lives."
"Air cargo is a vital partner in the global fight against Covid-19," said Alexandre de Juniac.
IATA's Tjoeng said that strict requirements "certainly make it difficult for aircrew operating into those destinations."
ICAO, a specialized agency of the United Nations, has also called on governments to exclude crew members of cargo flights from quarantine.
"There is an urgent need to ensure the sustainability of the global air cargo supply chain and to maintain the availability of critical medications and equipment such as ventilators, masks and other health and hygiene items which will help reduce the spread of Covid-19," ICAO Secretary General Fang Liu said in March.
For the China Airlines pilot, he understands that Taiwan needed to extend quarantine to make the public feel comfortable. But he wants the rules to be consistent.
Under the new requirements, pilots undergoing their seven-day quarantines can go back to work on long-haul flights if they have quarantined for three days. In the case of flight attendants, they need to have quarantined for five days, CNA reported. To the China Airlines pilot, that appears to put him at risk of infecting colleagues -- or being infected, something he has been afraid of during the course of the pandemic.
"They don't want us into the public or into society, they don't want us to infect others. But it seems like if I infect colleagues, it's OK," he said.