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Steele: The judge and jury

The Grenada Health Minister, Nickolas Steele is playing a very dangerous game in a very dangerous time, one, if left unchecked by Prime Minister Dr. Keith Mitchell, can have dire consequences for the people of Grenada.

I have watched the unfolding saga between the Minister, his Chief Medical Officer and Sandals Grenada and if there ever was a case of how not to handle a crisis in these COVID times, then the Minister is the perfect example of it.

To add salt to the situation there is now a pending incident where the Ministry of Health issued a press release on January 3rd declaring Grenada suffered its first COVID death, a 72-year old male whom it claims entered the country on December 16th, only to be met with pushback from the gentleman’s family questioning the circumstances of his death.

It has resulted in Minister Steele and the CMO cancelling a scheduled press briefing stating that ‘the Ministry is still in the process of ascertaining all the facts surrounding the island’s first COVID-19 related death.’

The Ministry went on to add that the press conference was cancelled in the “absence of all the necessary information at this time.” It is curious that Sandals Grenada was not afforded the same courtesy.

One has to wonder then why Minister Steele and CMO, at the very onset, even before contact tracing had begun, went on record alleging that Sandals Grenada was the source of the outbreak, at a time when they would have also been ‘in the process of ascertaining all the facts.”

I think this whole episode carries an important lesson for all Ministers of Health and all CMOs throughout the Caribbean, of what not to do in such a situation.

But it gets even better. In an interview on MTV News on January 4th, Prime Minister Dr. Keith Mitchell stated, while discussing the Sandals situation that there were other quarantine places that had events and had not in fact lived up to the expected protocols.

To quote Prime Minister Dr. Mitchell directly, he said: ‘Sometimes I hear some people criticising the situation at Sandals but some of the places that were supposed to be quarantine places, and people you would expect to be responsible, in some of the places that we had, they were having activities which they know was not appropriate for a quarantine place, in fact they had to be spoken to….they themselves did not live up to their promises.”

That’s an astounding revelation by none other than the Prime Minister, at a time when Minister Steele stated, without a doubt, that Sandals Grenada was the source.

How could he and the CMO have arrived at that conclusion, if, according to his own Prime Minister, there were problems at other institutions?

It was an allegation Minister Steele again repeated during a media briefing on December 31st, and in a statement issued in response the resort demanded concrete evidence to show that this is so.

During the media briefing, the Minister said he had based his allegations on numbers of cases, but the fact is, and again as pointed out by the resort, numbers are one thing but to determine the origin of spread is much more difficult.

The Minister’s logic is based on the flawed but widely circulated premise, which the public had somehow come to believe, that there are islands in the Caribbean, including Grenada, that were somehow COVID-free.

In an article on identifying the source of an infection by Public Health England and published on the GOV.UK site on December 18th, it stated clearly that ‘Common exposures identify links between cases and possible outbreaks, but they do not provide definitive information about how transmission occurred.”

The article added further, “What might appear like a workplace outbreak from the common exposure data could, for example, turn out to be people who each got infected because they share a home or travel together to work.”

Now England has had more experience than most in dealing with COVID, particularly this new strain, and so they should have a good idea what they are talking about.

So at this stage the facts are that one, the investigation and contact tracing had not yet started when the Minister and CMO accused Sandals Grenada of being the source and two, the Prime Minister himself has revealed that there were issues with other quarantine facilities.

Furthermore, it was equally startling to read in the Sandals Grenada statement that they had not even been contacted as part of the investigation, yet to hear Minister Steele consistently refer to the resort as ‘the source’ makes it seem that he has elevated himself to judge, jury and executioner.

I can imagine nowhere else in the Caribbean where such a thing could occur.

So where does that leave things? Sandals Grenada and the Government of Grenada have always seemed to enjoy a healthy relationship, as the Prime Minister himself revealed in the interview mentioned above. Many times we have seen Sandals and the Grenada Tourism Authority holding hands and working together to promote Grenada, and there can be no doubt that Grenada has benefitted tremendously from that relationship.

It has been a successful relationship built up over nearly a decade by the hard work of many extraordinary persons, the late great Sir Royston Hopkin being one of them. It is therefore sad to see such a powerful legacy being jeopardised by what seems to have been a panicked response by the Health Minister and the CMO to this situation, especially since only the latest round of tests have thankfully returned nearly all negative cases.

In the meantime the hotel has closed, over 600 people are no longer at work, and Grenada is making international headlines for all the wrong reasons. And from the tone of the public conversation now, it seems the island may have soured its relationship with the largest private sector investor and employer on the island. They also have a call centre on the island employing over 300 more persons.

But all is not lost. This can still be fixed. At the moment all the wrong steps appear to have been made by one person, the Minister of Health, and that at least is a problem the Prime Minister can correct, and one which – for the sake of Grenada’s future – he corrects swiftly.

Angus Jones

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