The New Today

Commentary

Could a failure in planning do us all in

It was late November over one hundred years ago that the first major global pandemic, the Spanish flu, struck Grenada.

The island was affected in the second wave of the pandemic that first surfaced in the larger islands. To date, the current Covid-19 pandemic has taken a similar trajectory to that of the Spanish flu.

Although islands recorded small numbers of imported infections during the first wave in March, the impact in this second wave is much more serious and has the potential to do real damage similar to that of the Spanish flu, if the region is not careful. We must not forget that history has a way of repeating itself.

Since April it was advocated that government should be astute and pragmatic in planning for reopening of the economy. The importance of SGU, the need to strike the right balance, and identify the best trade-off of activities when reopening the economy. However, from all indications the planning was more ad-hoc and reactive rather than astute and pragmatic.

The government must be commended for the manner in which it implemented the lockdown and income support program notwithstanding the many hiccups. It was always felt not enough thought and consideration was given to the reopening process and the government repeatedly dropped the ball.

The situation that currently confronts the island is a reflection of the nature of the planning that took place prior to the economic reopening. It appear that local planners overlooked what the models were indicating for a second wave in the United States and Europe, the island main source markets for tourism.

As early as July the Institute for Health Matrix Evaluation (IHME) of the University of Washington had indicated a severe spread of the virus in the winter months. Yet planners and policy makers acted as if the reopening will be ‘business as usual’ and the island could return to the pre-Covid normal.

The minister in referring to the tourism sector, loudly pronounced it is open for business. The focus was on reopening our borders and hotels to attract visitors to the island.

The health professionals either didn’t explain this or the planners and policymakers failed to listen to the fact that infections during a pandemic occur in waves and normally the second one is more severe than the first.

They failed to consider that by its very nature a respiratory virus like Covid-19 will spread more quickly in the cold winter months much like the common flu.

They failed to notice the anti-science movement in America and the madness that was President Trump election campaign that further fueled the spread of the virus.

They failed to realise that once the models hold true and the virus starts to rage again the demand for travel will decline and airlines will cut back on flights. Some countries in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus will shut down economic activity and curtail travel.

Well unfortunately, what the models said has now come to pass, as the virus rages like wildfire across Europe and America. England and other European countries are currently back under lockdown. International travel to and from these countries are drastically curtailed and additional health protocols instituted to stop spread of the virus, making travel more difficult.

This is a serious blow for the restart of tourism in Grenada. Although, we might not see a nationwide lockdown in the United States the catastrophic rate at which the virus is spreading will negatively affect an already weak travel market.

The passenger load on flights to the island is expected to decline further from the already low Covid levels seen since the borders reopened. Airlines and local hotels are burning cash and no one knows how long this could be sustained.

Cancellation of SeaDream cruises following an outbreak of the virus on board one of it ships highlight the difficult challenges cruise tourism face in a world plagued by Covid-19. The short to medium term prospects for a successful reopening of the tourism sector, the island’s main revenue earner, looks bleak at this time.

The Minister of Health said recently, they didn’t anticipate the virus would spread so quickly. Did the minister not look at the numbers from the IHME models which as early as April warned of an intense second wave in the last quarter of 2020?

Since July the models were turning out frightening figures for virus spread in North America and Europe. I guess the policy makers and planners failed to pay heed and “bet the house” on tourism.

By its very nature tourism during a global pandemic caused by a respiratory virus would be fraught with great danger to both the traveller and host country. Therefore to premise a successful reopening of the economy on tourism was foolhardy.

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It is said that, “a bird in hand is worth two in the bush”. Local planners and policy makers should know that tourism was always going to be precarious during a pandemic and as such other sectors in the economy should have been given more serious consideration.

For instance, government should have worked more closely with SGU, which accounts for twenty five percent of the island’s economy with over five thousand foreign students, to get at least half of those students back in classes in exchange for tighter entry protocols at ports of entry.

Consideration should have been given to getting students back based on terms.

The school has five terms and a combination of any of the terms that best suits the school’s operations during this period could have been decided upon and the students return in batches in accordance with existing entry protocols.

Government and local landlords could have agreed to wave rent for the months of November and December to allow the students to quarantine in private apartment buildings.

Government and SGU could have agreed on a certain radius around the school in which social and entertainment activities would be limited to reduce possible spread of the virus. Once the returning students are quarantined and tested negative the risk of imported infections from students would be negligible.

This is a much safer alternative to the risk faced every time a flight with tourists from the United States and Europe arrive on the island. Not to mentioned the huge positive trickle down effects caused by SGU students purchasing goods and services in the general economy.

The ten and twenty percent occupancy rates currently being experienced by hotels cannot generate sufficient economic opportunity to sustain the economic recovery.

The effort to get capital projects started was a commendable one however it was handicapped from the beginning because of the exodus of institutional memory and lack of project cycle management capabilities in critical government agencies.

Inspite of the two or three capital projects that have, recently, started there are millions of dollars’ worth of projects being held up for years due to capacity and other issues.

The St. John’s River Disaster Flood Mitigation and Rehabilitation project, at a cost of over forty million dollars, is one of the projects being held up for many years. Could you imagine if all of the projects, where loans or grants have been approved and are currently stuck were to start now?

How big an injection of economic activity would that be to the economy? However because of its own doing, government is unable to take advantage of the situation and the population would suffer as a result.

From all indications with the British and European markets effectively shut down for the time being and low demand for travel from North America, the anticipated bumper winter tourist season is all but a fallacy and the risk of a significant outbreak of the virus on the island is very real.

It is just a matter time before we follow the path of St. Lucia to community spread, increased hospitalisations and death.

The Grenadian economy can’t withstand another lockdown as the impact will be too painful for most of its citizens and government do not have available resources to pay income support this time around.

The lack of astute and pragmatic planning prior to reopening of the economy has placed government in a straitjacket and put the country at greater risk for community and epidemic spread because of the heavy reliance on tourists from high risk countries where the virus is on fire.

The minister stood in Parliament and said he will not play ‘Russian roulette’ with citizens’ lives but this is exactly what is happening, with every flight from America, with the twenty to thirty percent of visitors who arrive with a false negative PCR test, every breach of quarantine protocol because of failure in monitoring, every imported case identified and the continued weakness in enforcement of public health regulations.

The recent announcements on two potential vaccines are encouraging news, however the Calvary may not reach in time to save us because vaccines don’t save people, vaccinations do and the logistics to vaccinate six billion persons on the planet would take many, many months and am sure we will be lower down the pecking order.

In the meantime policy makers and planners must make the right decisions and each citizen take personal responsibility to protect themselves.

Special Correspondent

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