The results of two recently released models project a frightening situation with Covid-19 infections and deaths in the coming months. The Institute for Health Metric Evaluation (IHME), at the University of Washington Model suggests one million, nine hundred thousand deaths from Covid-19 in the Northern Hemisphere by January 2021.
The same model predicts four hundred and ten thousand deaths in the United States from Covid at the same time. The University of the West Indies Covid Task Force model predicts one million five hundred thousand Jamaicans will become infected.
Both models are well respected and there are no reasons to believe their predictions would not hold if Governments don’t act now to change the behaviour of citizens. Disease models are based on assumptions about human behaviour.
With the winter season approaching, a time when respiratory illnesses such as the common flu tend to peak and more people are indoors the results of these models could be, conservative, lower than what can be expected.
The IHME model suggests a worsening situation in the coming months with a peak of 30,000 deaths per day by mid-December in the northern hemisphere, while the United States could see 3,000 deaths per day by early December.
Given these projections and exponential spread of the virus in three of the larger English-speaking Caribbean islands, the Government of Grenada must undertake an urgent reset of its approach to fighting the virus and opening up the economy to prevent exponential spread and a return to lockdown.
Following the relatively successful lockdown in March that resulted in suppression of the virus in the tri-island state. Government, fatigued by the economic downturn caused by Covid-19, buckled under pressure from several quarters and lost control of the reopening of the economy. This has resulted in lax public health protocols and regulations, low levels of compliance and, lack of strong enforcement by the police and health authorities.
In an attempt to strike a balance between the economy and public health, Government went ahead and opened the borders to regional and international air travel. However, the protocols governing air travel are ambiguous and there have been a plethora of concerns with process at the airport. What has saved the day for Grenada is the many external constraints placed on flights from Europe and North America.
Similarly, the borders were opened to regional and international travel however the protocols at our air and seaports are somewhat ambiguous and concerns have been raised with the screening of travelers at the main international airport. What has saved the day for us is the low volume of flights and small passenger load.
In addition to the dire projections by these models, there is presently low levels of compliance and enforcement of public health regulations, and a crumbling health system.
Government should also consider the upcoming winter tourist season, schools reopening, which brings in focus a new angle to the situation, and the infection trajectory of the Spanish flu in the English-speaking Caribbean and undertake an urgent rethink of its approach to Covid -19 to date.
These headwinds present a clear and present danger to every citizen of the tri-island state, therefore Government must act now or else thousands will die.
This is the landscape our leader and his team must navigate to avoid collision with the virus. To do so the leader must be astute and decisive, he must realise the country can’t go back to the ‘old pre-Covid normal,’ neither must he continue to pursue the current approach.
The leader must recognise, he must show restraint when attempting to strike a balance between the economy and public health. One sector must not be given precedence over the other. There needs to be an urgent reset to avoid Grenada following the path of Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and the Bahamas towards community spread
Fundamental to the reset has to be a change in the mindset of Government – Grenada can’t return to the ‘old pre-Covid normal’. It can’t be business as usual in the coming winter tourist season since reopening the borders to international travel was identified as one of the main reasons for the second wave of infections in the larger islands of Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and the Bahamas.
In addition, fifty percent of our stayover visitors are from the United States, the leading Covid-19 hotspot on the planet. With an intense second wave expected to peak in the United States to four hundred thousand infections by January and three thousand deaths per day by mid-December plus those that would travel, during this time, are most likely not concerned about the virus.
No leader in his right mind will accept visitors from that market.
Much less, a country like ours with an already fragile health system and limited resources.
In addition, Grenada attracts an older segment of the British tourist market that would likely be averse to flying for nine hours on a plane to the tri-island state during an intense surge in infections. From all indications Europe may already be in the very early stages of a second wave. Therefore, if the projections by these models are even close to being accurate, we should not expect to see much of a winter season this year into next year. Should the lives of Grenadians be risked for fifteen to twenty percent hotel occupancy?
If our leader and his team of advisors are astute in their planning and policy making they would be extremely prudent when considering the winter tourist season. Much more stringent measures than what currently exist must be put in place, and expediency or friendship with hotel owners must not take precedence over the lives of Grenadians.
Instead, Government should look to work closely with St. George’s University to restart ‘in person teaching’ on the island in January. This means that SGU should already be approached to find out how Government can help to facilitate the restart.
The leader and his team may have to give the bosses at SGU firm guarantees that should the school bring back students, Government would adopt much more stringent measures, than what currently exist, at our air and seaports to prevent an outbreak due to imported spread.
Moreover, in the unfortunate case of an outbreak, Government will allow the airport to remain open to enable students and expatriate workers to return home.
Also Government, working jointly with the university will take firm action to restrict bars and entertainment venues in a certain radius around the school from operating to prevent partying by students, the cause of so many outbreaks on campuses in the United States.
For ‘in person teaching’ to restart Government must work closely with SGU to get the students into Grenada early before the second wave peak in December and to allow sufficient time for them to be tested and quarantined on arrival. If the Government is successful in getting SGU to ‘restart in person teaching’ it would jump start twenty five percent of the economy and the spillover effects would be tremendous.
The Prime Minister mentioned over $200 million worth of projects are available to be implemented during his recent national address.
However, multiple sources with knowledge of these projects have indicated that most of them have been left dormant for long periods, the result of very limited and inexperience implementation capacity, and they would not be able to start anytime soon.
Government needs to take immediate and decisive steps to improve implementation capacity to get these projects started to complement the already functioning local economy.
Additionally, if projects like the Six Senses hotel get started along with those that have already commenced such as Kawana Bay, this will give a further boost to the local economy.
I am not advocating at this time for the two recently announced Hong Kong based Chinese projects to join this list – there should be greater scrutiny on the financing and long-term environmental impact of these projects before going forward.
If Government is able to boost the local economy by getting the donor funded projects started along with investment projects like Six Senses, there will be less reliance on the hotels, with all the associated risks, to keep the economy afloat until the threat from Covid-19 subside.
It is only then we can talk about learning to live with the virus, as the Minister of Health like to say. The island can’t afford to make the same mistake as Jamaica and the Bahamas and open up to tourists from global Covid hotspots in the peak of a second wave of infections. Neither must the lives of workers in the tourism industry be sacrificed for twenty percent hotel occupancy.
The weak health sector on the island with only 14 beds dedicated to Covid-19 patients and limited healthcare personnel and equipment can’t deal with a significant coronavirus outbreak, much less community spread as thousands will die.
If Government can only energise the local economy and restart the twenty five percent that comprise SGU, and carefully identify a niche in the tourism sector such as the ultra-luxury cruise between the islands of Barbados, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Bequia, Mayreau, Tobago Cays, Union Island, and Grenada proposed by mega yacht operator Sea Dream.
The Grenada Tourism Authority can also work closely with the established hotels such as Calabash and Coyaba that have high levels of loyal return guests to get started a staycation arrangement that will have return visitors stay for six weeks or longer on the island. This is the kind of creative, ‘out of the box’ thinking that is required for this sector at this time. We can’t be ‘open for business’ as normal as said by the minister in Parliament.
Most importantly however, for the above ideas and considerations to be successful, Government must strengthen public health defenses at the borders by reducing from seven to three days, the time for a PCR test to be taken before travel to the island, make mandatory, irrespective of low or high risk country, all travelers to the island by air or sea must present a valid negative PCR test taken three days before travel and agree to be swab on arrival, be placed in quarantine, either in a Government facility, on a yacht or boat if travel is by boat or at a sanctioned hotel until the result is available.
Public health authorities and the police must enforce strict quarantine rules and regularly visit these facilities. The fine for breach of quarantine either in a Government approved facility, ‘vacation in place’ at a hotel or self-quarantine must be increased. The protocols at our ports of entry is our first line of defence and it must not be breached.
Likewise, Government must move to strengthen the disease surveillance system by employing well trained and relevant staff to perform critical functions in epidemiology such as disease mapping, management information system specialists and other resources to ensure a properly functioning epidemiological function.
The capacity to test, trace, isolate and treat patients have to be continually improved. After repeated calls it is high time for Government to repair an existing building to provide additional hospital beds to treat patients in the event of a serious outbreak.
Government should also take action to significantly step up local enforcement of public health regulations. The return of the coercive legislation that was rejected by the people should not be considered.
However, Government should enact targeted legislation to address, wearing of mask in public and vehicles, persons entering business places and public buildings and the three persons to a row in buses.
Now that schools are open it is even more urgent to improve compliance with regulations because more people are moving about and young persons though not impacted at the same levels as adults are known to carry heavier viral loads in their nose and throats being able to spread the virus to their parents and grandparents.
We must not forget the virus spreads as more and more people move about.
If Grenada is to avoid the situation of its larger Caricom neighbours it can’t make the mistake they have made to relax restrictions and regulation for political expediency, allow party supporters and relatives of decision makers latitude to hold parties and entertainment events where public health protocols can’t be fully implemented.
The virus knows no colour and is apolitical – it is only interested in entering humans as host.
The warning signs are as clear as day come November and December, the people of Grenada must now wait with bated breath to see if the Government will sacrifice the population on the altar of the tourist dollar or be astute, responsible and compassionate, and think outside the box to avoid a significant outbreak or worst community spread that would result in thousands of lives lost according to reliable modeling.