by Michael Julien
Community spread has arrived. The Ministry of Health (MoH) can’t stop virus entry. Enhanced protocols and restrictions won’t be enough. Closing our borders again is still the most effective defence against Covid-19.
The recent impending news on Covid-19 in Grenada is certainly not good: we are now facing the unthinkable – community spread, mainly because of the decision to reopen our borders at a time when the virus is raging internationally. And regionally, virus spread is going to get much worse after Christmas in the USA, one of our primary source markets for tourism and returning residents.
Here are 4 key reasons why we need to close our borders immediately:
First, adopting increasingly stringent Covid-19 protocols is not a fail-safe solution to virus contagion. In my recent article entitled “Two Priorities for 2021” I predicted that “at least some of our visitors are going to bring the virus with them and are going to slip through our virus screening net. Because they will stay at approved destinations and have the right not to be tested again if they opt not to leave that location, the virus is likely to be transmitted to workers who are employed in those establishments. Thereafter, it will be systematically spread within our society”…That is exactly what is happening in Grenada right now.
We have 37 new cases because of entry waivers granted to Sandals Grenada and other resorts. That number could spike to over 100 as cases continue to “pop up” in an increasing number of businesses and residential locations throughout the country.
To be clear, I have repeatedly said that MoH’s virus management, until the re-opening of our borders, has been commendable. Also, I have praised them on Facebook for adopting stronger control measures such as the 72-hour requirement for virus-free testing prior to arrival in Grenada. This will help to reduce the spread of the virus. But our policies are inconsistent: the granting of waivers is not aligned with strong overall vigilance and a shorter proof-of-testing time still means that the virus has 3 days – after testing – to infect you prior to your arrival. On average, it takes 5–10 minutes to catch the virus. Therefore, there are 288 to 576 5 to 10-minute opportunities to catch the virus in 3 active 16-hour days. More importantly, the MoH, despite all its positive efforts, cannot actually control the virus: only a few countries can claim such status. New Zealand and Vietnam have achieved this – both through extensive contact tracing and through strict adherence to safety and social distancing measures that, based on current social practices, Grenada would find extremely difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.
There are many examples of the Western world’s inability to contain the virus. It is raging and almost completely out of control in the USA; Canada has cancelled Christmas celebrations; the UK has gone back into lockdown and is now experiencing a new strain of the virus. Germany is bracing itself for a rise in virus levels; the Netherlands is in lockdown. Italy is now registering the highest levels of deaths since March; Spain is back into lockdown again; and both Trinidad and Tobago and St Lucia are struggling to arrest Community Spread.
The No.1 reason why we did so well during the first phase of virus contamination was that we closed our borders to inward traffic. It was not because our protection measures were especially strong internally: we had not done comprehensive testing or full contact tracing during that time. While I accept that MoH surveillance of Grenadians has improved, we are still not operating at a comprehensive level of vigilance today. The obvious example is the de facto “waiver” granted to hotels to not test visitors on arrival while Grenadians have to go into quarantine on arrival. We have strengthened our management systems but are still not doing 100% testing of our population yet.
Second, we shouldn’t expect vaccine availability to save us on its own: we will still need to continue to adhere to stringent and nation-wide protocols over the medium-term. One reason is that, at best, the vaccines being rolled out now are only 95% effective. Which means that if all Grenadians took the vaccine, at least 5,000 of us would still be unprotected and therefore exposed to catching and spreading the virus. Allegedly, a 70% vaccination level will achieve herd immunity – which means that 80,000 people would have to be vaccinated in Grenada to bring the reproduction rate down to containable levels. Admittedly, vaccines offer a positive side to our tourism industry. In the near future, they can be used to compartmentalise virus-free visitors by requiring them to have biological passports which confirm that they are virus-free. But we are not nearly there yet. Initially, only 20% of the region’s population will be inoculated in the first instance and the actual longer-term anti-body resistance (time) benefits of the vaccines are still uncertain. Moreover, recent research modelling by the incoming Head of the USA’s CDC has concluded that vaccines will not have instant “blanket” effects in the USA because of the virus’ current rate of contagion.
Third, our Covid-19 recovery policies are not absolute. Therefore, they are not nearly as effective in fighting the virus as they should be. First, our overarching policy and response strategy is about “saving lives and saving livelihoods”. But, given virus stealth, the two parts of this strategy are not compatible: either you save lives or you save livelihoods at the expense of losing lives. A second policy that “closing our borders is not an option” is no more logical than the first because the exact opposite is true: as we have seen, keeping our borders open invites the virus in. Collectively, both policies imply that we will do battle with the virus inside Grenada. Unfortunately, such strategies will have little or no effect against this invisible lethal Trojan Horse. Our defence is equivalent to standing in front of dyke and using our fingers to plug the leakage of water into our location. Of course, such an approach will eventually fail because you only have 8 fingers and 2 thumbs and therefore are limited to the actual number of holes you can plug. The holes in the dyke won’t stop surfacing because once we insist on keeping our borders open the virus will continue to get in: some PCR tests can be flawed; some will be fake; some visitors will be asymptomatic and show no symptoms at all; some people in quarantine will cheat and we won’t know etc. In such an arena, the MoH is perpetually compromised, confined to reactionary roles equivalent to chasing random forest fires as they occur. This can work selectively but it certainly won’t be effective over a long period of time.
Fourth, a bird in the hand is worth much more than those in the bush. Chasing tourism revenue and keeping our borders open today comes with the much greater risks of spiralling Covid-19 contagion. Let’s put this another way: Although sector contributions are inter-linked, the domestic economy is the main contributor to our taxes and financial well-being. Therefore, it is far more important to our fiscal survival than tourism-related taxes. Lose the domestic market, and the prospects of an even worse economic environment will surface: taxes will fall dramatically, many small businesses will go under – this time permanently, and unemployment will climb again. That is what will happen if Community Spread forces us into a national lockdown once more. Both individuals and smaller businesses will suffer extensively if we don’t stop contagion now. And our borders are the fonts of Covid-19 contamination. On reflection, it seems foolhardy to risk losing a smaller level of taxes for nothing at all – if we have to go into lockdown again. So, let’s agree that border closure will dampen national consumption. But it won’t reduce it as drastically under closed borders than it would if we had to lockdown again to contain Community Spread.
There are those who are adamant that our borders should remain open. So far, that position is proving to be more wrong than right. The reactions and outcries to waivers which include simulation exercises at the hospital, rapid contact tracing, and new rules about precautionary business and social activity are additional attempts to continue to plug new holes in the crumbling dyke. What we need to understand is that we have to stop juggling our economic interests with our health ones. Instead, we should shut down our borders again – right now. Our economy would be wounded but will stay alive and we will save lives as well. There is no other solution that will be as effective in containing our emerging Covid-19 wildfires.
Michael Julien is a financial economist. He has worked on development issues in Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Central America. Julien was trained in Grenada, London, Montreal, Boston, Rotterdam, Madrid and San Diego. He holds a Master’s Degree in Strategic Design of Spaces and a Master’s Degree in Economic Development.