The New Today

Commentary

When your neighbour’s house is on fire wet yours

During the early stages in September of the second surge of Covid-19 in the larger English-speaking Caribbean islands, government was warned to take effective action to prevent a major outbreak in Grenada.

Having already bet ‘the house on tourism’, government pursued a strategy that focused heavily on reopening the borders, supporting the restart of hotels, attracting visitors to the island and encouraging locals abroad to return to the island.

The planners and policy makers who proposed this strategy either overlooked or paid no heed to data from the Institute for Health Matrix Evaluation (IHME) that suggested a very intense exponential spread of the virus in North America and Europe during the fall and winter months.

Our Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) neighbour to the north, St. Lucia opened up earlier than others and pursued a similar strategy that focused on tourism. The country now has two hundred and twenty six confirmed cases, with one hundred and fifteen active cases and two deaths.

The island is definitely in the throes of an intense community spread which has the potential to cause great economic and social damage. There are calls from many quarters in St. Lucia for a national lockdown, cancellation of the remaining school term and strengthening of entry protocols at the island’s air and seaports.

The government is resisting these calls, however if community spread continues to intensify they will have no choice but to do so.

The government of Grenada must not believe what happen to St. Lucia can’t happen to us. Therefore, it must learn from St. Lucia’s mistakes and take precautions to protect its citizens from this killer virus.

Admittedly, St. Lucia opened up earlier, since July, and faster than Grenada. From July to October they received well over seven thousand visitors to the island. The tourism sector was just beginning to look up when the second wave of Covid-19 struck the island. At present the island is experiencing intense community spread.

What are the lessons to be learnt from the St. Lucia experience? All over the world it has been observed, when countries open up too soon and too fast the virus tend to resurge with an intensity greater than before. Evidence of this is scattered across Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

Secondly, when persons are able to breach the borders and come into the backdoor the virus will take the opportunity to move into the country as well. It has been said that St. Lucian fishermen have smuggled hundreds of persons from Martinique into the island through the backdoor.

Thirdly, the level of compliance to wearing mask and social distancing when in public was low in St. Lucia prior to community spread on the island.

Fourthly, many St. Lucians felt that their government is not being transparent in decision-making and with the population on matters relating to Covid-19 and the balance is tilted too much in favour of tourism.

Finally, another observation made is that decisions on matters relating to Covid-19 have been too politicised and designed to placate certain sections of the population in order to receive political support.

The Director General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Chebreyeus warned governments to stop politicisation of the virus and he said political divisions, blatant disrespect for science and health professionals, and spreading deliberate confusion have caused cases and deaths to mount.

The Director went on to state that wishful thinking or deliberate diversions will not prevent transmissions or save lives, what will save lives however is science-based solutions.

The government must learn from the St. Lucia experience and listen to the Director General and avoid politicing decision making as it relates to Covid-19. Decisions must be based on science and not aimed at appeasing certain sections or groups in society for votes.

When the decision was made to remove the three persons to a row on buses this was not based on science – it was aimed at quelling the calls by a few vocal busmen who were in opposition.

In fact, the science strongly supported the restriction since it allowed for more ventilation and free movement of air in buses that will reduce the risk of infection by airborne transmission.

The Director General made another powerful and relevant point when he said, we all have to play our part to keep our children in schools, businesses open, and lives and livelihoods preserved and stressed the need for tradeoffs, compromises and sacrifices to be made.

The restriction on passengers to a row could be also be seen as a tradeoff for reopening of school. With large numbers of school children traveling on buses the chances of children being infected, should there be intense, sporadic or community spread, will be reduced.

This would limit the risk to their parents and grandparents at home who may have comorbidities and heightened vulnerability to acute negative effects of the virus.

Another case in point was the rotation system agreed to by the bus associations.

This brilliant initiative was a compromise designed to enable all bus drivers to increase their daily earnings and be able to meet their commitments at the end of the month during this Covid crisis.

Feedback from most bus drivers suggest the rotation system was working, however a few drivers decided to break the agreement and come out on days when they were not supposed to, with no assistance on enforcement from the authority governing public transportation or government.

The system collapsed and now is back to the ‘dog eat dog’ situation where all busmen are making much less on a daily basis.

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When government fail to effectively enforce public health regulations resulting in widespread noncompliance, the virus will get an opportunity to spread and it will spread.

Although there have been an increase in wearing of masks on the island, a closer look at persons as they move about will see many not in compliance or wearing the mask improperly.

Sanitising of hands before entering business places and buses have fallen off significantly and ‘super spreader’ conditions continue unabated in bars and entertainment places in the south of the island.

The enforcement stamina of the police appear to have waned as well. The only bright spot in enforcement at this time is the newly installed health wardens – they have been quite visible going around business places to ensure compliance.

However, they need to be more wardens deployed and more support needs to be given to them by health authorities. If enforcement continue to lag the virus would jump from sporadic imported cases to community spread in the twinkling of an eye.

When borders are easily breached and entry protocols are not clearly communicated and in keeping with the science the system becomes ineffective and causes the virus to spread unnoticed to the general population.

Notwithstanding the efforts of our frontline health workers at the ports of entry, other health professionals appear to be ‘tripping over themselves’ when trying to explain changes to the protocols. This has caused a great deal of confusion among prospective travelers and citizens alike.

In an attempt to please the big wig hoteliers every time the entry protocols are modified there appears to be greater ambiguity causing confusion and misinterpretation. This situation can cause information asymmetry healthcare that can lead to adverse decision making and moral hazard that will give the virus an opportunity to spread.

Government must not make the mistakes St. Lucia made or else the island will suffer a similar fate. Our Government, having decided to pursue a strategy that focus on tourism, is now obligated to protect the population from the ravages of this virus.

With over two hundred and sixty thousand dead, twelve million and counting infected, and eighty eight thousand hospitalised in the United States, one of the island’s main source market for tourism, the risk to our population is great and government can’t afford to drop the ball, particularly during this time when the virus is raging like wild fire in that country.

Government must pay heed to the situation in St. Lucia and take the necessary actions to protect the population. The move to reduce the number of days, from five to three, required for a PCR test to be taken before travel, though long overdue, is a good one.

The Ministry of Health must be clear on its messaging on the period for quarantine which should be seven days, rather than the ambiguous language, four to five days for a test to be done and a further two to await results.

Government should end the home quarantine because the tracking devices doesn’t appear to be effective and limited capacity to monitor persons in their homes. Government should strive always to arrive at the right balance and identify the right tradeoffs when making decisions.

Once the decision was taken to accept tourists from high risk countries, efforts to limit super spreader situations on island must be increased in light of the twenty percent false negative results of the PCR test.

Bars and entertainment venues should not be allowed to go beyond twelve midnight much less operate in a manner that contravenes Covid protocols and regulations.

The police must support the work of health wardens and continue to enforce the mask mandate and social distancing. It must also not be an eight to four exercise, the police should step up enforcement of the regulations on buses plying their trade at nights and at entertainment venues as well.

Government must avoid politicising decision making on Covid and always be guided by the science. Government must not bend to pressure from interest groups and lose control of the process, as was the case at the beginning of the reopening. It must be astute in its decision making and always be influenced by the science if the island is to avoid community spread.

The time is now for government to announce it will not have staff parties for ministries and to ban all old year’s night, public and private, mass gathering events.

To date, government and health authorities have been relatively successful in keeping the virus at bay in Grenada. The island has only experienced sporadic spread of the virus mainly due to imported cases.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, however the Calvary, in the form of vaccinations, will take many months to reach the island. In the meantime government ought to ensure it doesn’t drop its guard and allow the virus to jump to community spread.

Government must not bend to political pressure because the same group or groups it is trying to mollify would turn around and cry shame should the island start to experience community spread.

It is therefore better to ‘hold the line’ and make sure the virus don’t spread. This effort will seal a good legacy for the leader and his team and save hundreds of lives.

Special Correspondent

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