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Commentary

The consequences of short-sighted decision making on coronavirus

After listening to a high government official said how happy he was when Sandals announced last September the hotel was reopening because of the opportunity to revive six hundred jobs and observed how the pandemic has worsened in the region and other parts of the world, the term psychological myopia came to mind.

Psychological myopia refers to the tendency for decision-makers to focus on one set of related information that supports their judgement while neglecting other relevant information.

The current situation in Grenada and other neigbouring islands highlight the prevalence of psychological myopia among decision-makers in the region. This has resulted in shortsighted actions, policies and strategies that are proving to be dangerous during this pandemic.

And the economic fallout from the health crisis will be more pervasive and long-lasting than previously thought.

Soon after the pandemic was announced last March decision-makers in the region, agreed on swift action to close borders and implement total lockdowns that were successful in preventing further spread of the virus.

Once the initial flare up of the virus was extinguished decision-makers set their sights on reopening of the economy. Not enough consideration and thinking were put into planning for reopening thus resulting in a singular focus on the tourist sector, particularly short-term tourism.

Scant attention was paid to the trajectory of previous pandemics such as the Spanish flu, data generated by influential models from highly respected institutions, including the Institute for Health Matrix Evaluation (IHME) of the University of Washington was ignored and cost benefit analysis that would have identified the best trade-offs when planning for reopening was not done.

Decisions were driven by immediate information on revenue and employment potential which was rather expedient and shortsighted. The outcome of all of this were policies and public health protocols complaisant to the tourism sectors.

Among the smaller members of the Organisation of Easter Caribbean States (OECS), Grenada’s economy is relatively more diversified than the other islands.

This presented more options to policy-makers when planning for reopening.

Unfortunately, decision-makers in Grenada joined the other islands and pursued a singular focus on tourism at the expense of other sectors.

The government fell for the well-choreographed presentations that focused on revenue and employment potential by the hotel lobby.

Sandals’ presentation to government was particularly noteworthy, and may have helped to cloud decision-makers judgement and sway them in the direction of tourism at the expense of other sectors.

The results of IHME modelling which projected, as early as last August, a ferocious virus spread in the winter months in the United States and Europe was definitely not considered as well as the risky nature of short-term tourism in a pandemic caused by a respiratory virus spread by humans.

Decision-makers did not realise that once the virus spread got out of control in the source countries for tourist’s, that the authorities there would implement restrictions on travel to help reduce spread of the virus that will also hinder tourism.

By considering data on revenue and employment only, and ignoring information on the broader consequences of pursuing a strategy singularly focused on tourism, local decision-makers were being psychologically myopic.

This shortsightedness in planning would result in more widespread, longer lasting damage to the economy and sustained economic hardship for ordinary folks.

The high official and his team of decision makers became giddy after listening to Sandals presentation last September and was not astute enough to see beyond the rather superficial information presented.

He and his team were too psychologically myopic to consider the data from the IHME that accurately projected a ferocious virus spread in North America and Europe during the winter months. Neither did he consider the risky nature of short term tourism in a pandemic caused by a respiratory virus spread by humans.

The high official did not realise that once the virus spread got out of control in source market countries, there would implement travel restrictions to reduce spread of the virus that would further hinder tourism.

By considering data on tourism revenue and employment, only, and ignoring information on other sectors of the economy, the high official and his team of decision makers did untold and lasting damage to the economy that would now cause sustained economic hardship to ordinary folks.

Government was warned, as early as July of last year, not to place too much emphasis on short-term tourism at the expense of agriculture, educational services and local construction. They did not listen and went ahead and ‘bet the house’ on tourism.

A multitude of stakeholders urged government to increase significantly investments in agriculture to boost local food production to feed the population in the event of an interruption in the international food supply chain because of the pandemic. Very little was done to step up local goods production as local farmers clamoured for government’s attention and support.

When the virus spread had stabilised and actually declined in most US States during the summer of last year, Government did very little to assist farmers and get SGU students back on island since the emphasis was on tourism and getting the large hotels reopen for the winter season.

Had government done so they would have revived twenty five percent of the economy?

The local construction industry is driven to a large extent by government investment through loans and grants.

With this in mind, government was called upon to increase capital spending and unlock projects that are stuck in the implementation process to increase employment and improve aggregate demand across the economy.

Very little was done by government on these fronts since the emphasis was on tourism and getting the large hotels reopen for the winter season.

Even when government invested in capital works it was insufficient, plagued with bureaucratic hurdles and implementation missteps.

The pandemic has worsened around the world as the virus continues its rampage in North and South America, Europe and Asia. Even Africa where the spread was relatively moderate are now experiencing dramatic increases in some countries.

Closer to home, Grenada appears to be encircled by neighbours that are experiencing either community or exponential spread. The island of Barbados has now declared community spread, and St. Lucia and St. Vincent are in the throes of an intense exponential spread.

Internationally, the United States, Canada and Europe have all introduced restrictions on all travellers, including nationals, entering their borders. These travel restrictions will further hinder tourism in the region.

A few hotels across the region have already announced temporary closures and many more including some local ones are expected to close as future bookings dry up. What is even more frightening is the presence of the UK strain in Barbados, St. Lucia and St. Vincent and announcement by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) of heightened Covid-19 travel alerts for these islands.

The worsening pandemic has laid bare the dangerously negative consequences of the myopic decision-making approach consistently used by the high official and his team of decision-makers when considering matters of national concern.

Rather than consider the country does not have a parallel health system to address either multiple cluster spread, exponential spread or ‘God forbid’ community spread, the pandemic will have multiple waves; the virus will mutate into more severe strains as the global spread progress; and restrictions will be placed on travel once the virus gets out of control in countries, he and his team of decision-makers repeated ‘a fools folly’ by focusing on tourism during a pandemic caused by a respiratory virus.

Stricken with psychological myopia, the decision-makers neglected the ‘bird in hand and went for one in the bush’, which appears to have flown away as the virus continues to worsen.

The island could have facilitated the safe return, using mass testing and strict quarantine measures, and ‘sheltered in place’ over four thousand SGU students in August when the numbers in the US was on the decline.

Keep the borders partially shut, focus on returning Grenadians and long-stay tourists under a well organised staycation program, introduce strict entry protocols requiring two PCR tests, one taken three days before travel to board the plane and between five to seven days after entry and mandatory quarantine thus being confined to either your hotel room, villa or private residence, when allowed, for fourteen days.

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Imagine what the spending power of four thousand students and one thousand staycation visitors would have done for the micro-economy: supermarkets, farmers who sell produce directly to students and supermarkets, restaurants, salons, barbershops, busmen and taxi services, rental cars, pharmacies, apartment rentals and other businesses in the south of the island?

Government would have collected a considerable amount of revenue as well from VAT and other taxes. Juxtapose the above situation on the paltry number of tourists that visited since the reopening. It was said that when the Sandals cluster spread occurred in December there was approximately thirty percent occupancy, other properties had much less than that at the time.

With the worsening pandemic and international travel restrictions now in place, the flow of tourists is expected to come to trickle in the coming weeks and months.

The government in order to stimulate aggregate demand in the economy could have invested more in local construction to maintain jobs and put money in workers’ hands so they can spend.

Some of the sixty million US dollars used to pay Grenlec could have been used to finance small to medium size capital works projects like building secondary roads, retaining walls, repairs to government building, schools, building toilets and bathrooms for vulnerable households among other small projects. This would have put more money in circulation and keep aggregate demand from declining.

All over the developed world countries are providing stimulus cheques to citizens and implementing infrastructure programs to put money in people’s hands and provide employment to millions of workers with the sole aim to keep aggregate demand from falling.

During a pandemic the international food supply chain could be disrupted and if this happens local food production must be able to step up and fill the shortfall. When the economy contracts and disposable incomes fall people normally buy more local foods to stay within their budget.

Government should help farmers to boost production to meet the increase demand and keep a lid on prices that tend to rise when there is scarcity. Government have not done enough to expand local food production since the start of the pandemic.

Had decision makers considered information on other sectors of the economy, projections from various models on virus spread, and mutations they would have made a more informed decision on which sector or sectors to focus on during reopening. Now that tourism is severely impacted by the worsening pandemic, the island is stuck with a lead sector that is in further decline.

With the pandemic the way it is, now getting SGU students back in August could be difficult if the problems with vaccinations are not urgently, addressed in the US. Vaccine nationalism is creating a widening divide between developed and developing countries as poorer countries are forced to wait while rich countries hoard vaccines for their citizens.

This presents a big risk going forward as tourists who are vaccinated and protected from getting gravely ill might be able to spread the virus to locals who can get sick and die.

Getting twenty percent of the island’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) that is SGU up and running may prove to be much more difficult now than if it was done last August. The myopic decision to focus the reopening on tourism will cause long-term damage to the economy.

The fallout from government’s myopic decision to focus on tourism at the expense of other sectors means that more small businesses will go under than was first envisaged, supermarkets will continue to lay-off workers, restaurants will experience declining revenues and many may close permanently, and workers will continue to lose jobs as the economy continues to contract.

Now that the prospects for a quick economic recovery have disappeared in thin air, the economic contraction will last longer and be deeper than earlier forecasted. Citizens of this land will face sustained economic hardship and financial difficulties for quite some time.

Government must not continue to gamble with people’s lives, particularly, as the pandemic worsens. The focus going forward should be improving the epidemiological situation and preventing another cluster spread or worst yet community spread from taking hold, stopping the UK and other new variants from reaching the population while increasing investments in the local economy to preserve and expand employment and put money in workers hands to spend, aimed at keeping aggregate demand from further declining.

Government must use some of the remaining money from the Citizens by Investment Program (CBI) that are in the National Transformational Fund (NTF) to ramp up the capital works program until the worsening situation of the pandemic is reversed.

Government should also step up assistance to farmers to dramatically boost local food production and keep prices from rising. They should approach SGU on getting their students vaccinated and engage them in early discussions on testing and quarantine arrangements that would facilitate a safe return of students in August.

For these initiatives to be successful government must take immediate action to further improve the epidemiological situation and keep it stable. The entry protocols should be strengthened to have all travellers including tourists at hotels and villas take a second PCR test within five to seven days of arrival on island and be confined to their hotel room, villa or private residence, should they meet the requirements for home quarantine, until a negative test result is obtained.

Government must step up surveillance of our northern border with St. Vincent to prevent breaches of the entry protocols and restrict travel by boat to that country until their epidemiological situation has improved.

Any citizen of the tri-island state who travel to St. Vincent for business or otherwise by boat must present a negative PCR result to re-enter the border, quarantined for fourteen days upon which there will be retested at their cost between the fifth and seventh day.

All yacthies who visited the Grenadines islands or mainland St. Vincent must show a negative PCR test on reentering our border, be quarantined on their boat for fourteen days during which time there will be retested between the fifth and seventh day of quarantine.

These regulations should also apply to the islands of St. Lucia, Barbados and Jamaica where the presence of the UK strain is confirmed. The curfew should be from twelve p.m. to five a.m. and be extended for another month.

All business operations must end at eleven p.m., however workers will be given the additional hour to clean and get home by twelve p.m. All amplified music in entertainment venues including rum shops should be banned.

The Royal Grenada Police Force (RGPF) must increase patrol of our borders, inlets and coves to prevent yachts and other crafts from slipping into our borders unnoticed. Health wardens must intensify spot checks on premises at nights as well during business operations in the day.

The relevant authorities should ramp up enforcement of wearing mask and social distancing regulations when in public. In light of the presence of the UK strain in neighbouring islands, government should revert to the three in a row regulation on public buses.

The ban on travelers from the UK should remain for another six weeks and travellers from South Africa and Brazil should be added to the list. Epidemiological surveillance of travellers from the US and Canada should be heightened as much as possible.

This is not the time for the line ministry decision-makers to be found wanting or, nocturnally, gallivanting. The fast changing situation of this pandemic requires diligence, astute planning and a high level of urgency to prevent the coronavirus from overrunning this beautiful island and annihilating its citizens.

Special Correspondent