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Commentary

It is time to tighten up

The recent announcement by St. George’s University (SGU) that in-person learning will resume from the August term is a welcome one for Grenada. The economic impact for the island is going to be huge since SGU accounts for twenty five percent of the economy.

In order for the resumption of classes to be smooth and there be no disruptions government must work closely with the university to provide support and play a faciliatory role to ensure no outbreak of the virus during that time. This would require government to take some tough decisions and make prudent choices if the process is to be fully successful.

Looking at the situation with colleges and universities in the United States, resumption of in-person classes during the pandemic is a complex operation fraught with many risks. Many schools have had to cancel in-person classes and shut dormitories after virus outbreaks on campuses. Students, sororities and fraternities have had to either be sanctioned, reprimanded, or in some cases expelled for breaching public health protocols.

I am quite certain the Chancellor and his senior management team are aware of the experiences of schools in the US and have already started to plan how to mitigate against those risks.

However, since the university doesn’t exist in a vacuum the government of Grenada has to play a serious support and facilitatory role as well. Government would have to make some tough choices that would be necessary not only for a successful resumption of classes but the greater good of the country.

It was Pierre Mendes, former Premier of France, who said, ‘to govern is to choose,’ this saying is very relevant to Grenada at this stage of the pandemic.

Michelle Gelfand, Cultural Psychologists of the University of Maryland, an expert on tightness and looseness theory that explains the strength of social norms and punitive actions across human groups, categorised societies as either tight adhering to rules and norms; or loose defying and breaking rules.

Tight societies such as Singapore, Vietnam, South Korea and China have done well during the pandemic, however loose countries such as the US, Brazil, and Europe have not done so good with high rates of infections and deaths.

Going forward government will have to choose whether it wants to tighten up or remain a loose culture where defiance and rules breaking is common as evidenced in many instances of public health breaches in protocols and super spreader events over the Easter weekend that could cause the virus to resurge and spread once more.

Recently an official from a Foreign Service office suggested that Grenada should aim to get sixty percent of its citizens vaccinated before SGU students return.

This will be a tall order because of the high level of vaccine hesitancy on the island. The population has also become wary with protocols causing complacency to set in as well. Now that SGU has announced their intention to restart in-person learning, government will have to tighten up to prevent a virus outbreak that could jeopardise the efforts of SGU.

It is all well and good to welcome the announcement by SGU with optimism as was done by the Prime Minister, however if things don’t tighten up and remain loose the island will face a virus outbreak that could either reverse the opening of SGU or disrupt it to cause a scale down of in-person learning.

The Prime Minister must therefore make the right choice to tighten up and prevent that from happening. The Chief of Police has already announced if public defiance and disrespect towards his men, when carrying out their duties, continues they will have to respond accordingly.

The Police Chief has recognised increased levels of defiance and rules breaking within society and intends to do something about it – that is leadership. On the other hand, the Prime Minister appears slow to respond to the situation.

The recent comments by a local tourism official regarding mandatory vaccination for workers in the sector allegedly attributed to Cabinet does not reflect decisive leadership. Is cabinet trying to duck the issue for political expediency? This appears to be a common thread in policy decision making these days.

However, with the imminent return of five thousand SGU students, expected buoyant summer and winter tourist seasons, government will have to step up its game and tighten up if the island is to prevent a virus outbreak in light of strong vaccine hesitancy, high levels of complacency among the population, and a raging third wave of coronavirus in source market countries such as the US, Canada and Europe.

At the beginning of the pandemic, countries with strong leaders and governmental institutions including Singapore, Germany, China and South Korea did well to keep infections and deaths low, while countries with weak leadership and ineffective bureaucracy like the US, Brazil, Italy, performed poorly with higher levels of infections and deaths.

However, as the pandemic progresses many countries that did well in the initial stage have experienced increases in infections, hospitalisations and deaths while some of those countries that did poorly early in the pandemic are now performing better, particularly with vaccinations.

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It is apparent that strong governmental institutions can’t alone account for the performance of countries during the pandemic. The situation is much more complex than that and it might be useful to look at the society at large.

Michelle Gelfand, an expert on tightness and looseness theory, did just that and found countries with tight cultures tend to adhere to public health regulations; while citizens in those with loose cultures are more likely to defy and break protocols.

Gelfand’s research shows that loose countries had five times more infections and nine times more deaths than countries with tight cultures.

Looking at the situation in the English-speaking Caribbean, initially all countries got it right with national lockdowns enforced by state institutions. This action prevented the coronavirus from spreading beyond imported cases; resulting in low rates of infections and few if any deaths.

Countries gradually lifted strict restrictions and citizens were allowed to move about as businesses reopened.

Things begun to loosen up, in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago national election campaigns with huge gatherings in festive atmospheres were held, and St. Vincent observed its ‘Nine Mornings’ Christmas festival, citizens in Barbados went on ‘bus crawls’ bar hopping around the island as tourists were allowed to congregate on beaches maskless, and in Grenada, public health protocols were complaisant to the tourist sector, there were many breaches in quarantine and too many people failed to wear masks.

This general loosening up coincided with the winter tourist season. Soon many of these islands would be stricken by massive community spread of the virus, which they are still trying to bring under control.

It is clear that our loose cultural traits in the region have caused the virus to spread. However all is not lost as Gelfand rightfully consider the idea of looseness and tightness as two extremes on a spectrum, suggesting that countries can decide to move from one end to the other.

Countries that have loose cultures can tighten up as was the case with New Zealand and Greece when faced with serious coronavirus outbreaks. Barbados, St. Lucia, Jamaica and recently Trinidad and Tobago have all tightened up and imposed restrictions, albeit after community spread of the virus.

Grenada is fortunate not to have experienced community spread, however with the return of SGU students that will coincide with summer and winter tourist seasons, high levels of vaccine hesitancy and complacency, it will be prudent for the island to tighten up.

When people become wary of following social distancing rules the virus will jump up and spike. According to Michelle Gelfand, ‘whether you are a company, a country or a family sometimes you wanna be tight sometimes loose. The key is knowing how and when to move from one end of the spectrum to the other’.

With the resurgence of the virus and confirmation of the very deadly Brazilian strain in, our close neighbour, Trinidad and Tobago, presence of the UK strain in Jamaica, increase dominance of the UK and South African strains in the US and Europe the threat to Grenada is now heightened. These variants spread easily, faster, and are much more deadly than the original strain.

The time is right for Grenada to tighten up. Gelfand suggests, ‘the goal is to be ambidextrous, tight or loose depending on the problem we face’. If government does not choose to act now, the island will face a serious coronavirus problem soon notwithstanding our current low risk status.

The looseness that currently exist in our society with repeated defiance of police officers enforcing public health rules and regulations, constant flaunting of curfew regulations in hot spot areas across the country including gun salutes, public drinking, weed smoking and indecency, breakdown in protocols in entertainment centers in the south of the island, and widespread complacency among the population, when put together present a clear and present danger for a resurgence of the virus.

The situation is even more frightening with the high level of vaccine hesitancy on the island. The recent experiences of Jamaica, Barbados and now Trinidad and Tobago are there for all to see what can happen when citizens become loose and let their guards down, defying the rules.

The Prime Minister and his team must act now and make the choice to tighten up for as Nigel Lawson, conservative British politician said, ‘to appear to be unable to choose is to appear to be unable to govern’. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, visionary US president once said, ‘our responsibility is one of decision for to govern is to choose’.

The Prime Minister and his team must choose to tighten up to avoid a serious virus outbreak that would reverse the re-opening of SGU in-person teaching and put the economy in further jeopardy.

Special Correspondent