The New Today

Commentary

We are flirting with danger

The series of videos circulating of large crowds of people, mostly not wearing mask, partying and drinking on several beaches and other areas of entertainment on the island is very disturbing since the coronavirus pandemic is still raging around the world and a large number of nationals are hesitant to take the vaccine.

Grenada is not out of the woods as far as the virus is concern and the level one risk classification given by the Centre of Disease Control (CDC) must not be taken for granted. This virus when given an opportunity will jump up and spread again in the twinkle of an eye.

The activities in the videos over the Easter weekend can be considered super-spreader events. Not because there is only one confirmed, imported active case on the island, we must let down our guard and become complacent.

The people must be warned that the virus has mutated into many variants, some of which are fifty to a hundred times more infectious than the original one. These strains directly attack the lungs causing pneumonia that leads to acute respiratory distress. Because the variants are highly infectious, they spread much faster and cause more acute symptoms that require hospitalisation.

The variants are able to resist therapeutics such as monoclonal antibodies used to treat Covid-19 patients and killing younger persons.

A few of the new variants have shown signs of avoiding the vaccines. Results of a recent study from Israel suggest the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is less effective against the South African strain B.1.351. The South African variants is eight times more likely to infect persons who have been vaccinated.

In order to mitigate against a possible spread of coronavirus on the island, more persons must be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity in the shortest possible time.

With the high level of vaccine hesitancy, complacency, and low uptake of vaccines, in spite of its current low risk for Covid-19, the island is ‘staring down the barrel’, of an exponential spread by the new variants.

Although the island is considered ‘low risk’ in a pandemic, the situation is very fluid and conditions can change very quickly. We must not forget that St. Lucia was touted for its success in reopening of the tourism sector yet by the end of December ‘all hell broke loose’ as the virus jumped from imported cases to the local population.

Government appear to be oblivious to St. Lucia’s experience as it continues to placate sections of the population for political expediency. The events over the Easter weekend are clear examples of this appeasement.

There is an absence of decisive leadership on the island which has further compounded the problem. Distracted by a tense industrial climate, and apparent hemorrhaging of political support, the leadership has sought to be complaisant to segments of the electorate.

Under the situation, the police have been placed in a difficult situation as they attempt to enforce public health regulations under the emergency act. The upsurge in defiance of police officers, across the island, attempting to enforce the law is evidenced that ‘ the chickens have come home to roost’ and the leadership is slowly reaping what they sow.

The unsatisfactory vaccine roll out has been precipitated by weak institutional capacity in the Ministry of Health and ineffective messaging to support the vaccination effort.

It is quite evident there was not adequate planning for the vaccine roll out. In order to receive vaccines under the Covax arrangement each country had to prepare a National Deployment and Vaccination Plan (NDVP), however it is unclear how well prepared was Grenada’s plan.

The Ministry of Health should have led preparation of the plan using a consultative process, however judging from the vaccine roll out key areas of the plan including targeting population and vaccination strategies; and vaccine acceptance and demand was either not given thorough consideration or overlooked during preparation.

One of the critical areas that is lacking in the vaccination effort is a comprehensive public education campaign with effective messaging that promotes vaccination and to manage misinformation in a timely manner. Had these two areas been properly thought out and implemented the level of vaccine hesitancy on the island would not have been so high.

The reopening of major hotels in the south of the island and now the unfortunate situation of having to lend a hand to our brothers and sisters from St. Vincent are taking place within the context of increased levels of complacency, widespread vaccine hesitancy, and another wave of infections in source market countries – United States, Canada and Europe.

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This is a pivotal moment in the fight against Covid-19 and how it is managed will determine if we attract the coronavirus into the general population. This period with its many dangers require decisive and courageous leadership. However, what we have now is opportunistic leadership concerned mostly with political preservation and not the long term interest of the country.

That’s why the young people are continuing to show defiance in particular areas across the country making the job of the police more difficult. That’s why the police are forced to operate with extra restraint so as not to cause certain sections of the electorate to become estrange to certain politicians.

What is required in this moment are decisive and courageous leadership that is forthright with the people, being able to ‘level’ with them and make tough decisions based on science. A leader that can be turned to for direction, who projects a sense of self control in face of uncertainty and calmness in face of anger.

A leader that is altruistic willing to put the country’s interest ahead of his own political preservation, in order to win the battle against coronavirus. A leader who is able to galvanise the people and get them to take action because it is the right thing to do.

A leader that can get people to understand why they should take the vaccine, wear a mask and social distance when in public rather than try to coerce them into doing so. A leader that is transparent and consistent in messaging not ‘flip flopping’ to pander to various interest or political base.

Although, we have had relatively low infections, hospitalisation and deaths up to now, this is no time for thumping chest or taking credit, the battle is not yet won.

Since the lockdown last March the island has not been truly tested because of relatively low arrivals of tourists and expatriates to the island. When ‘the rubber met the road’ that is level of arrivals increased in December, the island suffered a serious breach of public health defences and virus spread.

The current situation not only mirrors that of December but is magnified with emergence of more contagious variants that are spreading in source market countries such as the United States and Canada, a population wary of public health protocols and taking the vaccine; and increase number of visitor arrivals on the island.

The situation can result in a similar breach as was the case in December in the absence of decisive leadership that is willing to make tough decisions for the greater good rather than in the interest of political expediency.

What is required at this time is decisive leadership that would get the Ministry of Health to listen to the concerns of persons who are hesitant to take the vaccine and work with stakeholders to develop an integrated approach focusing on creating effective messaging and using strategic communication activities to promote vaccinations and counter misinformation to increase vaccine uptake.

What is required now is transparent leadership that would ‘level with the people’ on the dangers that lay ahead if the virus breach protocols and spread. A leader that can get people to take action to protect themselves, families, neighbours and their communities.

A leader who commands genuine respect and can inspire his people to wear a mask, social distance when in public, wash hands regularly and avoid large gatherings.

For if persons do not take the vaccine, wear a mask, social distance when in public, wash hands regularly and avoid large crowds, the virus would be given an opportunity to resurge again, only this time it would be one of the more dangerous variants.

If leadership fails and groups of persons continue to flaunt public health regulations across the island, defy the police and let their guards down the virus would be invited back to the island, only this time it will spread faster, be more deadly, cause more infected persons to be hospitalised, and younger persons to die, particularly if herd immunity is not achieved.

The only way to prevent this from happening is to get vaccinated, wear a mask, social distance when in public and avoid large crowds.

Special Correspondent