The New Today

Commentary

Danger lurking on the horizon

There exist a confluence of forces gathering on the horizon that will give the Covid-19 virus an opportunity to retransmit in Grenada once again.

The return of international flights from high risk countries such as United States of America and countries tightly gripped by a second wave of the virus like Britain and Germany, as well as the relaxation of public health protocols and regulations by local authorities and the reopening of schools across the country and nonchalant attitude by the population.

The evidence from countries like New Zealand to Italy is quite clear, when countries reopen their economies too quickly and relax public health regulations to facilitate economic activity without giving serious consideration to the science, the virus will begin to spread once more.

The return of the virus often times lead to community spread mainly by asymptomatic carriers and can be devastating in terms of hospitalisation, deaths and decline in economic activity, particularly if a lockdown is required to stop the spread of the virus.

Government need to resist pressure from interest groups, be more cautious and plan the reopening carefully to prevent further long-term damage to the economy.

Europe is in the midst of a second wave of coronavirus. The number of daily infections have either reached or surpassed levels seen in April and May. Many countries have resorted to various forms of lockdowns to try and reverse the upward trend in infections. A similar situation has emerged, in over twelve states, in the United States.

According to the highly respected and reliable Institute for Health Metric Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, the number of deaths in the United States from Covid-19 are expected to double to four hundred thousand by January 2021.

This figure could be on the conservative side since respiratory illnesses tend to peak in winter months. Covid-19 is a respiratory virus and the seasonal effect will result in an explosion in spread during the winter.

Unfortunately, the peak in infections in United States and Europe coincides with the tourist season in Grenada. With the return of international flights from these countries the risk of imported spread of the virus on the island increases significantly in the coming months.

Over the last week or so Government have been busy announcing further relaxation of protocols at the main international airport designed to facilitate international travel. Locally, mini buses are now allowed to travel with full capacity, the three persons to a row restriction has been relaxed.

Over the last week Government has announced its intention to adopt new protocols for hospitality and entertainment industries.

According to the Minister of Health, the time has come that livelihoods be protected as best as possible, the government has recognised like other governments around the world that a focus too much on lives can result in livelihoods being lost. If these comments are anything to go by we should expect significant changes to current public health protocols for the two sectors.

  • Mini buses providing public transportation are already back to operating at full capacity.
  • Public schools across the island have also been reopened albeit on a reduced schedule.

Large segments of the population are continuing to display a callous indifference to the virus by not, wearing mask when in public, sanitise hands regularly and, adhering to social distancing measures currently in place.

These conditions – return of international commercial flights, relaxation of protocols, reopening of schools and continued widespread public apathy – can create an easy opportunity for the virus to jump up and start to transmit again.

If public health protocols are not strong enough to prevent a breach at the main international airport or one of our seaports, the virus would be imported into Grenada, once again, either by a visitor or repatriated local.

That person most likely would be asymptomatic and because of weakened protocols, lack of adherence and public indifference, the virus would silently spread throughout the population propelled by movement of people including school children who would take it home to their parents, grandparents and siblings causing intense community spread.

The parallel health system set up to stop the virus is unable to handle that kind of community spread and would quickly be overwhelmed.

According to epidemiological modeling, hundreds could die and the economy will have to return to lockdown. This virus is unrelenting when given an opportunity.

Bearing that in mind, I am utterly appalled at the Minister’s irresponsible comment regarding the time has come to focus on livelihoods over lives. Doesn’t the Minister understand there can be no livelihoods without lives? Did the Minister took time to consider the present situation in New Zealand, Europe, and now Canada?

These countries were considered best practices in lowering the curve, now they are in varying stages of the second wave. All have either relaxed restrictions too quickly and or overlooked the science, in some cases, when reopening and are now paying for it.

The Minister in his comment referenced Jamaica as one of the Caricom countries being looked at when considering the new protocols. As of September 27, that country had 6,170 confirmed cases of which 4,250 are active, ninety three confirmed deaths with nine more under investigation. As the country approaches the 100 death milestone it is experiencing a daily infection rate of over 100 persons.

Jamaica had instituted relatively lax protocols to facilitate return of international flights, attract tourists to the island and repatriation of nationals from abroad.

Writing in the Jamaica Gleaner, Derrick Gillespie said, “Despite warning and strong advice not to open up the country to thousands of travelers from the United States – the country that other countries wisely banned travelers from – and risking a trade-off between tourist dollars and public safety, the gamble has not paid off.

He further stated that, “Jamaica is in a growing Covid-19 crisis that is set to escalate to even more frightening levels in the near future and it didn’t have to happen.”

The Minister would be foolhardy to follow the path of Jamaica when considering adoption of new protocols. He must not sacrifice the lives of Grenadians on the altar of the tourist dollar for there can be no livelihoods without lives. Rather, the St. Lucian and Barbados models should be emulated when giving consideration to protocols. In the case of St. Lucia, all travelers to the island must complete an online pre-arrival registration form, have a negative PCR test taken seven days before travel.

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In addition, Rapid tests will not be accepted, all nationals and residents must quarantine for fourteen days at a Government facility, all visitors must stay on property in Government certified accommodation, however they can participate in watersports and Covid certified tours to attraction sites.

Barbados requires online registration, negative PCR test taken seventy two hours before travel and all visitors on vacation must stay at a Government certified hotel. Visitors can stay and work on the island for up to a year under a staycation program.

Barbados have since updated their protocols, in the last three days, reducing from six to three days for the PCR test to be taken before travel. All visitors to the island will be tested again two to three days after arrival and be confined to the grounds of the hotel, resort or villa during the wait for test results. Once the visitor returns a negative PCR test he or she is free to move about.

These protocols are for all visitors from medium and high risk countries.

Visitors from low risk countries are encouraged to take a PCR test before travel but it is not required.

Both Barbados and St. Lucia have been able to suppress spread of the virus. Since St. Lucia reopened to visitors in June over eight thousand tourists have visited the island.

In adopting new protocols, the Minister must not overlook public health safety to facilitate the return of international flights and reopening of hotels. He must strive to strike a balance between public health and the economy. For in the end, there can be no functioning economy if persons are traumatised, ill or dead.

If the economy is to thrive the virus must be kept under control and this can only be done when strong public health measures are put in place at our air and seaports, and locals and visitors alike wear mask, sanitise hands regularly and, adhere to social distancing regulations when in public.

The minister must realise this is no time to loosen restrictions, not when Europe and United States, our main source markets for tourism, are in the throes of an intense second wave of coronavirus infections.

The parallel health system set up by his Government with only 15 hospital beds dedicated to Covid-19 patients, compared with over two hundred beds for Barbados, four hundred for Jamaica and over one thousand for Trinidad and Tobago, cannot handle a significant outbreak much less community spread.

Instead of reckless sound bites that tend to place him and his Government in the league of Presidents Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Donald Trump of the United States, the Minister and his team should follow the science when considering new protocols for adoption.

He must not be unduly influenced by hotelier’s attempts to circumvent the public health laws of a sovereign state and whose singular interest is the tourist dollar and profits. Nor can he succumb to peer pressure from friends, party supporters and others and water down social distancing regulations to facilitate their operations.

The Minister must not give in to pressure and adopt protocols that will give the virus an opportunity to spread again in Grenada. When protocols are weakened, relaxed too soon or the science is overlooked, the virus will move from host to host – it is opportunistic as it is unrelenting.

When it starts to spread in the community, adverse travel advisories, from capitals of source market countries will be issued and the same visitors the Minister and his Government are trying to attract will fly back home or not come at all.

When the parallel health system is overwhelmed in a situation of community spread and contact tracing collapse, the virus will spread unabated until authorities are forced to return to lockdown measures to stop infections and flatten the curve. This will result in further long-term damage to the economy and cause more persons to experience hardship.

The Minister must not forget both Prime Minister Keith Rowley of Trinidad and Tobago and Prime Minister Andrew Holness of Jamaica, attributed among others, return of international flights, breakdown in quarantine system for repatriated nationals, incessant unauthorised partying by locals and lack of adherence to mask and social distancing regulations in public places and entertainment venues as some of the reasons for the second wave of the virus in their respective countries.

Therefore, the minister must learn from the experiences of his neighbours and don’t drop the ball. Should the public health defenses at the main international airport or any of the seaports be breached and an ansymptomatic carrier enters the tri-island state, the virus would silently, spread like wild fire with the high level of public apathy, school students pressing shoulder to shoulder on public buses with adults who are not wearing mask in public and, the breakdown of protocols at entertainment venues.

School children would take the virus home to their parents and grandparents who most likely would have a comorbidity and be at high risk for hospitalisation and death from Covid-19.

The Minister stood in Parliament and said he will not play ‘Russian roulette’ with the population. As the people wait with bated breath for his announcement, we must all be reminded that the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

The minister and his Government will be held accountable if they fail to protect the nation from this clear and present danger lurking on the horizon and if people died on their watch after going so long without no infections.

Special Correspondent

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