The New Today

Commentary

The writing is on the wall-government must act now

The world is definitely in the throes of a second wave of coronavirus infections with Europe and America recording daily records for confirmed cases of the virus. Closer to home our larger Caricom neighbours, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Bahamas and Guyana are all struggling to contain the second outbreak as deaths and hospitalisations continue to rise.

The situation has placed these governments in a precarious situation as they are forced to institute various lockdown measures to stop further spread of the virus. This has resulted in dramatic decline in revenues weakening government’s ability to provide goods and services to its citizens. Many governments are being forced to take drastic actions to try and keep the economy afloat during these turbulent times.

To date, in spite of many administrative hiccups and delays in providing assistance to workers and vulnerable citizens affected by the economic downturn, government has done fairly well to keep the economy above water. Notwithstanding the efforts of government, I think an opportunity was lost to restart twenty five percent of the economy by not getting the owners of St. George’s University to commence some level of “in class teaching” in January 2021.

With commencement of work on the Six Senses hotel project, ongoing works at the Kimpton Kawana hotel project, Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) funded schools rehabilitation project and Agriculture Feeder Roads project, the economy would be in a better position if St. George’s University (SGU) restart ‘in person teaching’ even with a reduced number of students next term.

The positive impact of SGU is felt across a broad spectrum of economic activity including taxi and bus operators, car rentals, supermarkets, restaurants, entertainment centres, salons, spars, barber shops, insurance and banking among others.

Once SGU remains primarily online many of these businesses will struggle to survive and some may go under.

The economic impact from tourism during the pandemic will be on a narrow spectrum, much more limited to few spillovers in the wider economy. Although restarting ‘in person teaching’ at SGU and reopening of the tourism sector both have risk to the general population.

Once the SGU students are tested, quarantined and settled in the risk drops significantly. However the risk in tourism remains constant as tourists visit throughout the winter season.

Grenada’s main source markets for tourists are the United States and United Kingdom both of which are experiencing dramatic increases in infections. Although, SGU gets most of its students from the United States, the school has public health infrastructure in place to continually test and monitor students using the RT PCR test considered the gold standard, for Covid-19 testing.

The school can also institute strong public health measures on campus or even require to some extent off campus to reduce the risk to students, faculty and workers.

The larger hotels have also implemented international protocols for sanitising facilities, however they may shy away from testing guests, as being too intrusive, leaving government entry protocols as the main line of defence against the virus.

Even if government seek to work with SGU to get two or three thousand students back into ‘in person teaching’ the impact will be tremendous and give a lifeline to a plethora of small businesses that are now underwater because of coronavirus.

One may argue that SGU is a private institution not able to be influenced by government. But wasn’t the creation and survival of the School of Arts and Science the result of government’s lobbying? As host country, SGU success to date could not have been possible without the goodwill and generosity of the Grenadian people. Maybe if the original owners still had majority control the situation would have been different.

That being said, if government can get SGU to undertake some level of ‘in person teaching’ in January 2021, it will give a big boost to the economy and complement its ongoing efforts to get public and private sector capital projects going to grow the economy.

Without SGU not giving students clear directives on whether there will be ‘in person teaching’ along with current online sessions in January 2021, some students have either found their way back to the island or are planning to do so before the start of next term. However, that depends on the severity of coronavirus spread in their home country and if they can get out before the peak of the second wave.

Notwithstanding, for there to be significant numbers of students returning to Grenada on their own volition, the country must institute strong public health measures and step up enforcement of protocols to get more students to consider returning in January. Likewise for the capital projects to be implemented the virus must be suppressed.

Therefore, all the efforts of government to stabilise the economy can easily go to nothing if entry protocols at the air and seaports are not effective and residents are not wearing mask, sanitising hands and adhering to six feet social distancing in public places.

The recent two breaches in entry protocols, one of an individual that presented a negative PCR result on arrival at the main international airport and tested positive five days after in quarantine, however left the facility before the result was given, and another who entered a place of quarantine unlawfully should be a wakeup call for authorities here in Grenada.

Since October 4th in neighbouring Barbados, four persons who traveled to the island and presented a negative PCR test later tested positive, one of which caused a cluster spread of the virus to seven persons including a school child. These situations point to the fact that the PCR test is not one hundred percent accurate.

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According to virology departments in top US universities, public health departments in New Zealand and Australia, and the European Center for Disease Control and Prevention between two and thirty three percent of persons who test negative for the virus would actually be positive.

Moreover, thirteen percent of persons who tested negative will unknowing become infected before travel to the island. This is a significant amount of persons that could slip through the line of defence at the ports of entry and infect persons on the island.

Another cause for serious concern is the very lax arrangements at places of quarantine on the island. Long before the individual left his place of quarantine and went home before receiving the test result, it was common knowledge that persons were leaving quarantine to go drink at bars and taking back individuals to spend the night, persons who supposed to be in self-quarantine having intimate partners visit and sleep over while waiting on the test to be done after five days and persons in quarantine could be seen mingling within the general population.

The breakdown in quarantine protocols for repatriated nationals is as bad as it can get because of indiscipline and arrogant returning nationals, absence of proper security arrangements at the facilities and a few property managers/owners only focusing on revenue and not making sure that protocols agreed to with health authorities, are adhered to by persons in quarantine.

The Ministry of Health and police should not be let off the hook and they too should be hauled over the coals and held accountable since there appears to be no systematic monitoring of quarantine facilities and it is left up to whatever meager arrangements exist at the property.

The Minister of Health should recall that both Prime Ministers Keith Rowley of Trinidad and Tobago and Andrew Holness of Jamaica and his colleague Minister of Health of Jamaica, Christopher Tufton, said breaches of quarantine by repatriated nationals were one of the main reasons for the current intense outbreak in infections in the two countries. This must not be allowed to happen in Grenada.

History is not on our side, the second wave of the Spanish Flu one hundred years ago, hit the tri-island state in late November of 1918 almost two months after reaching the larger islands of Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Jamaica and the Bahamas. Are we going to see a repeat of history once more?

It appears from all indications the established hotels and villas on the island are taking health protocols very seriously and the guests are cooperating. This is encouraging for that aspect of the sector, it is repatriated locals that are threatening to erase the gains made over the last four months.

If government is to attempt to get SGU to consider some form of limited ‘in person teaching’ the virus must continue to be suppressed. If tourists’ arrivals in the coming winter months are to increase, infections must be kept at bay. Likewise, if the capital projects are to be implemented as scheduled the island cannot experience a sustained outbreak or worst yet community or epidemic spread.

For all the talk about ‘learning to live with the virus’ when our weak health system collapses under the weight of constant hospitalisations and deaths due to community and epidemic spread, our leaders would have no choice but to return to lockdown to save lives.

Epidemiological modeling suggests thousands will die if Grenada ever reach epidemic spread of the virus among its population.

In light of the above, government need to review the entry protocols to strengthen it and prevent infected persons from reaching the general population. The practice of allowing repatriated nationals going into self-quarantine at home or other private property should be immediately discontinued and all returning nationals must go to a government sanctioned quarantine facility for fourteen days however if after ten days the person records two negative PCR test they will be allowed to go home. The cost of the tests must be covered by the repatriated national.

A special police and Ministry of Health team should be established to systematically monitor government sanctioned quarantine facilities. All workers employed at the quarantine facilities must be rapid tested twice a week and given a PCR test once a fortnight paid for by the employer.

With regards to the larger hotels, all visitors should vacation in the said place at the moment, be tested after five days at the hotel and only allowed out of the hotel property on carefully organised excursions sanctioned and monitored by the joint Ministry of Health police team.

Government must continously assess the situation and make changes whenever situations arise. The two recent incidence and the four cases in Barbados should sound the alarm and government must now act.

Failure to do so will put in jeopardy the economic recovery, place the entire population at risk and cause the deaths of thousands of citizens should government’s intransigence result in epidemic spread of the virus.

Special Correspondent

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