Commentary

Squandering a golden opportunity and playing Russian roulette with lives

The Honourable Prime Minister was correct to announce during his last national address that the country’s airports will remain closed to commercial flights for the time being.

In light of a raging exponential spread of the Covid-19 virus in the Americas from Brazil in the south to United States of America in the north, our weak public health infrastructure, and a population with high prevalence of comorbidity, it was a prudent decision and the Prime Minister must be commended for his courage.

I am sure that the Prime Minister must have been pressed by various interest groups and business concerns to reopen the main international airport to commercial air traffic. However when one look at the confluence of forces, raging virus spread in one of our major source market for stayover visitors, a relatively smaller visitor pool primarily comprising Republican Trump crazies and those not concern about the virus, and a breakdown locally in containment measures including wearing a mask and physical distancing it would have been dangerous to open the airport at this time.

In fact the way how the virus is behaving in the United States which accounts for fifty percent of stayover visitors to the island, Grenada should shy away from receiving tourists from that country for some time until the situation is brought under control.

The European Union has banned visitors from the United States because of the escalating situation with the virus. The Prime Minister must not be foolhardy as some of his Caricom colleagues and sacrifice the lives of his countrymen on the altar of profits for international airlines and millionaire hotel owners and companies.

The Grenadian public, civil society, Trade unions, Chamber of Commerce and other interest groups should support the government’s position on re-opening of our main airport in light of the situation with the pandemic in the Americas.

Going forward Grenadians in general, civil society in particular must be able to influence important decisions that can affect not only their bread and butter but livelihood as well.

It was the citizens who accepted the lockdown and sacrificed their freedoms to ensure the virus didn’t jump from imported cases to community and exponential spread. Some of these same citizens who work in the hospitality industry would have to put their lives at risk when the airport and hotels are reopen.

This is why the government must not continue to squander the sacrifices made by the citizenry to get the tri-island state to the point of being free of Covid-19.

After a successful lockdown that prevented community spread of the virus the government failed to come up with a coherent and well thought out plan that prioritised the lead sectors than can keep the economy running in the ‘new normal’ until the global pandemic is either well under control or a vaccine is produced.

From what has been observed it appears that government adopted the generic document prepared by PAHO and CARPHA to guide the opening up of regional economies, cap blank, without any serious attempt to amend the document to reflect the local situation of our economy.

If this was done the plan would have given consideration to St. George’s University and the fact that the school accounts for twenty percent of our economy, the need to prioritise sectors and economic activities that could keep the economy afloat in the ‘new normal’, and a more rigorous analysis of past pandemics.

Evidently the work was not done and today what is guiding the re-opening is a generic document not reflective of our local situation, pressure from international airlines, foreign investors including hotels and local business interest – all driven by the desire for profit with little concern for the health and safety of local workers and the population in general.

As early as middle May government should have considered the situation and identify the sectors and economic activities that it will focus on for the next six to eight months considering the nature of pandemics with multiple waves of infections and significant spikes within a wave.

The government could not expect to reopen the economy to the normal that existed prior to Covid-19 considering the infectious nature of the virus and its uneven spread around the world. Grenada is a highly open economy dependent on trade and services. Tourism which depends on the movement of people is one of our largest sectors and it is through people as host the virus is spread.

Therefore it doesn’t make sense to pin re-opening on tourism at this time. This is too risky and dangerous.

Moreover this is the slow summer months when overnight visitor arrivals are at its lowest except for two weeks in August during our annual carnival celebrations. Therefore, the cost in terms of risk of infection, additional measures due to Covid health protocols and general operating expenses clearly outweigh the benefits that could be derived from the small number of summer arrivals.

Why is there a rush to open up to the twenty percent republican leaning Trump crazies not concern with the virus?

Even opening up to countries from the European Union run some risk because although the rate of infection has declined significantly in the Union, the virus is still very active and there is the prospect of a second wave in the winter months which could be more severe than the first.

We must not forget that Grenada’s first confirm cases came from the United Kingdom. The virus has also mutated becoming more infectious and now scientists are saying it is aerosol, which make the wearing of mask in public more important.

The government’s Covid 19 response team and team of advisors failed to act early and develop a re-opening plan that would have prioritised getting that twenty percent of our economy with SGU restarted, reopen the local economy and create a travel bubble with Caribbean countries that have a similar epidemiological profile as Grenada.

During this time government would work closely with hotels and airlines to develop effective protocols to be agreed on and implemented before consideration be given to fully opening to commercial air traffic in October.

All this must be contingent on the virus spread in countries where these airlines want to fly from, strengthening and expansion of the national testing, tracing and treatment infrastructure, and having adequate stockpile of PPEs, medicines and supplies to deal with a worst case scenario.

In light of the failure to come up with a well thought out re-opening plan that accurately reflects the local economic situation, government is now being forced to bow to pressure and bend backwards to accommodate various business interest and lobby groups as decisions are made on opening the economy.

This is clearly evident in the ambiguous statement on re-opening of Grenada’s borders released by the Government Information Service.

After showing courage by deciding to keep the borders shut two weeks ago, it now appears that government has capitulated and has taken decisions that may put the health of citizens at greater risk. The national leadership may not be as brave as earlier thought.

The GIS release on the re-opening of borders has many ambiguities and is confusing to say the least. The release said the July first reopening was postponed because of heightened risk seen in some source markets. The document went on to categorise countries according to level of risk, low, medium and high.

Flights from low risk countries can enter our borders on July fifteenth and medium risk on August first. The document further stated that only charter flights will be accommodated from all other countries not mentioned until further notice.

Is that not a loophole to allow persons from countries deemed high risk to enter through charter flights? Is that requirement intended for certain hotels and high priced Villas? Does charter flight include private jets? What are the public health requirements set out for these charter flights from high-risk countries? What does secure domestic capacity to mitigate against increase spread means?

The Ministry of Health has not given publicly any indication that it has heeded the call by Dr. Carrissa Etiene of PAHO and Mike Ryan of the WHO to strengthen its disease surveillance infrastructure, expand testing, train increase numbers of contact tracers, and have at the ready a sufficient quantity of PPEs and other supplies to address a worst case increase infections among the local population.

Similarly, to date no attempt has been made by the Ministry to increase the number of hospital and ICU beds to adequately deal with an outbreak caused by community transmission of the virus. While the government continue to encourage locals to exercise extreme vigilance it is busy creating loopholes for visitors from high risk countries to enter our borders by charter flights.

From July first to now the virus spread in the United States has worsened to daily confirmed cases over fifty five thousand persons. That is over half of the population of Grenada being infected daily.

Rather than this chaotic approach to planning had the government planners and advisors done their work early in the crisis, SGU could be functioning at close to a full complement of students for ‘in class teaching’ come August, the local economy restarted and running, a travel bubble with Caribbean countries and a few carefully selected countries outside of the region that have a similar disease epidemiological profile as Grenada while the borders remain closed to those countries where the virus is not under control.

The government would also seek to strengthen disease surveillance, expand testing, train additional numbers of contact tracers, stockpile adequate amount of PPEs, and increase hospital beds to be able to deal with spike in infections and prevent community spread. This would have given the government time to monitor the global spread of the virus, protect its citizens and prepare for the second wave.

Pandemics usually comes in waves and have spikes within waves, and if history is to be our teacher in the Caribbean the Spanish Flu hit the region hardest in the second wave after being relative unscathed in the first wave.

It must also be remembered that the second wave of the Spanish Flu was precipitated by a relaxation of restrictions in preparation for the war. Is Grenada making a similar mistake by bowing to pressure from certain business interest to weaken public health measures meant to contain the virus and provide loopholes in regulations that would put our nation at risk for community spread?

In light of our weak health infrastructure, limited resources, increasingly infectious aerosol virus, and the high prevalence of comorbidity among the population our political leaders must not play ‘Russian Roulette’ with the lives of Grenadians.

Special Correspondent

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