Commentary

We should brace ourselves for dark winter of discontent

As we looked in horror over the last three months as coronavirus killed hundreds of thousands in China, Europe and America it appeared that the Caribbean, Africa and Latin America will be spared the ravages of the virus. This is not so as the rate of infections in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean has increased dramatically.

In the case of Africa it took ninety eight days for the number of infections to reach the hundred thousand milestone – that figure doubled in eighteen days to two hundred thousand. According to WHO Africa Chief, Matshidiso Moeti community transmission has begun in half of the fifty four African countries.

In South America, Brazil is now second to the United States in terms of number of persons infected globally. Peru has also seen a significant rise in the number of persons infected. Similarly in Central America, Mexico, Ecuador and Nicaragua have recorded significant spikes in infections. The situation in America seems to be getting worst as infections and hospitalisation rates increase in twenty one States.

Right on our doorsteps, there is a significant surge in infections in Haiti as Jamaica continues to see a steady increase in infections. Our neighbour to the south, Suriname, after it announced the virus was under control is now experiencing a significant spike as well.

As the public health situation in the hemisphere worsen, the virus appears to be encircling the English-speaking Caribbean for an onslaught in the coming winter months.

Burdened with high debt and economies in tailspin, regional leaders are being forced to place economic consideration over public health. Citizens have also become less concern about the virus as containment measures, social distancing and wearing of mask, break down. This is dangerous as Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove of the WHO said, “there is a certain predictability of this virus but anytime you become complacent and you think you know, it will surprise you. And when this virus has an opportunity it will take advantage, every advantage that it can to resurge to transmit”.

It is this confluence of mounting economic pressures and a breakdown in containment measures that will give the virus the opportunity it needs to take hold through community transmission in the region.

It is much easier to use emergency laws already enacted to shut down a country during a public health emergency than to reopen it up. The State can use its institutions such as the Police Force and army to enforce a lockdown by restricting citizens’ movements, closure of businesses and national borders to control or eliminate a public health outbreak.

However it is normally more difficult to reopen the country and economy while keeping the public health outbreak under control. Grenada has done a fairly good job in shutting down the country which prevented community transmission of the Covid-19 virus and exponential spread that could have resulted in collapse of the health system and large number of deaths.

Most Caribbean countries have to date been able to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The danger now lies in opening up the country and economy in a manner that would not lead to a resurgence of coronavirus.

Bowing to pressure from different economic sectors, local interest groups, international airlines, high debt burden and job losses, regional leaders are being pressed into allowing economic consideration to take precedence over public health concerns in reopening their country’s borders.

There is a race to open borders, allow international flights and hotel operations without seriously considering the virus spread in source countries such as the United States. The virus is raging in the Hemisphere from Brazil in the south, Mexico in central and America in the north. Infection rates and hospitilisations in over twenty-five states are trending upwards in the United States.

There is a severe risk of imported spread from reopening of borders that can lead to community transmission and exponential spread in the English-speaking Caribbean. Antigua just days after reopening its borders confirmed thirty-nine new cases of the virus and almost all are imported.

This situation highlights the need for caution, earnest preparation and implementation of strict protocols at our air and seaports, hotels, restaurants and attraction sites before we can accept tourists and other visitors to our shores.

The region should look at how our Caricom neighbour, Trinidad and Tobago is threading cautiously in reopening, driven by both the local and international situation of the virus.

Dr. Keith Rowley, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago recently stated that, “while some Caribbean countries have started to reopen their borders, his administration is determined to take a cautious approach. He further stated that we want to keep our borders where it is because the pandemic is raging. The closure of the borders is not meant to lock us in here and make us prisoners. It’s meant to keep the virus out, and the virus travels by way of people. It is normal common sense”.

One can argue that Trinidad and Tobago is not dependent on tourism as other Caricom countries and can choose to keep their border close. However, the twin island republic has had to bear the brunt of a dramatic decline in revenue due to a significant drop in global demand for oil because of Covid-19.

Grenada and other Caricom countries that are racing to open up borders should consider the situation in the United States where the virus rather than letting up appears to want to bring that country to its knees as over twenty five States are now reporting upward trends in infections and larger States including California, Texas and Florida setting single day records for new infections.

There are also exponential increases in infections in major cities across the country. The United States is a major source market for tourist to the islands.

With fifty percent of all leisure travelers to the Caribbean coming from the United States, the situation should be cause for serious concern to regional leaders who have to make decisions on reopening.

Equally important is the type of traveler we are racing to receive. According to data released during a Webinar tagged ‘Ready to Reopen’? How the Caribbean Tourism industry Should Prepare For The Tourism Restart hosted by New York based, the PM Group and its partner Sparkloft Median, it noted that Americans who lean republican are less concerned about resuming normal activities including leisure travel.

These travelers are more likely to undertake leisure travel outside the United States, go to restaurants, salons and sports activities. In order words we are racing to attract the Trumpian Crazies who have no regards to wearing mask, are not concern about the virus spread and are likely to harbour racist sentiments and do not care for the health and welfare of local workers in the tourism industry.

In addition to the nature of the traveler we can expect to see in Grenada and the region, and considering the dire situation with the virus in the United States, are regional governments going to pay American, Jet Blue and other US carriers for empty seats in order to fly during this period?

These carriers have either received or in the process of receiving bailout money from the US government and are also seeking to raise large sums of money on the international financial market at very low interest rates. Can we afford to sudsidise these airlines to fly to the region when our indigenous airline LIAT is strapped for cash and on the verge of death, and thousands of our citizens are out of jobs and would need income support to survive?

According to a Magma Global Travel Post Covid-19 survey, over forty five percent of respondents said they will either wait on a vaccine or postpone travel to the Caribbean to the New Year, versus twenty four percent that want to travel by October.

The situation with the cruise industry is even more dire, sixty percent said they will not take a cruise and twenty six percent indicated they will wait on a vaccine before doing so. The question is – what is the rush to open our borders to international flights from countries where the virus is raging out of control?

Why can’t the region take a page from New Zealand and create a travel bubble with countries that have similar virus epidemiological spread profile as us? Why sacrifice the lives of tourism industry workers and the entire population on a sector that is uncertain and fraught with danger at this time? Is it a case of he who pays the piper calls the tune?

The Minister of Health recently said that Grenadians will have to learn to live with the virus. We can only do so when his ministry listens to Mike Ryan from the WHO and put in place strong testing, disease surveillance and public health measures in place to fight the virus.

According to Mike Ryan, this disease can jump up anytime. We can’t make assumptions that just because the disease is on the way down, it is going to keep going down. Rather than take sound bites from others and posture as if the battle is won be reminded that we are in the very early stages of this pandemic.

Grenada’s first experience with Covid-19 can best be described as a skirmish.

The decisive battle with the virus is yet to be fought. Your ministry therefore should be focused on finding a facility to refurbish, to expand the number of hospital beds, stock up on PPE and other supplies, expand testing into the general population and not only test those who are returning to the island.

We need to build a more efficient testing, tracing and isolation infrastructure beyond that which exist now to be able to deal with an expected surge in infections once the border is open to international travel, and increase the number of trained contact tracers to prevent community spread should infection spikes occur.

To date it doesn’t appear your ministry has taken significant action in that direction. The many complaints made by health professionals on the readiness of our major health facilities to deal with a dramatic upsurge in Covid-19 infections are alarming to say the least.

Persons who have spoken to health officials recently, came away with the distinct impression that had it not been for CARPHA and PAHO we would have been lost in the wilderness and over run by Covid-19 due to lack of capacity in the ministry to plan and implement an effective Covid-19 response.

Mr. Minister, your ministry can’t sit on its laurels and take advice conveniently from regional agencies nor depend on the Cuban medical contingent to carry the treatment load. Your ministry must listen to the alarm bells sounded by top officials in those agencies as Dr. Carrisa Etienne who recently raised concerns with the escalating rate of Covid-19 infections in the Americas and cautioned Caribbean countries to pursue the phased reopening of their economies based on the science and have at the ready sufficient PPEs and supplies to deal with any outbreaks that may occur.

Referring to the region, Dr. Etienne said, “unfortunately there are many rises in cases and deaths and we are concerned by the data showing the virus is surging in new places, places that have seen a limited number of cases in the Caribbean, cases are on the rise in Haiti, and after more than a month without a new case Suriname reported a spike”.

Recent legislation drafted by US republican senators to prevent Cuba from providing heroic medical assistance to developing countries will have a devastating impact on our ability to treat Covid-19 patients.

The minister and his team should take immediate stock of the confluence of forces gathering around us, escalating infection rates to the south, central and north of us with dire signs coming from the United States, a breakdown in containment measures among the local population, resistance to technical cooperation with our bilateral and fraternal neighbour Cuba and a likely visitor pool comprising mostly of visitors who have little concern for the virus.

This confluence presents a clear and present danger if not adequately addressed and will bring a dark winter of death and emotional agony to our shores.

Special Correspondent

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