Opening borders: The real test begins

Opening borders: The real test begins

Henley W

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

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Three cheers for our prime minister, Andrew Holness; our minister of finance, Nigel Clarke; our minister of health and wellness, Christopher Tufton; our chief medical officer, Jacquiline Bisasor-McKenzie; and those on the front line of the fight against the novel coronavirus pandemic. Thanks to exemplary leadership, dedicated followership, and joined-up government action, Jamaica ranks high among the countries of the world in the success of its mitigation strategies.

The ratio of deaths to confirmed cases of the virus sets Jamaica apart from much larger and better-resourced countries. For Jamaica, the figure is around 0.9 per cent, compared to the United States at six per cent. New York, the epicentre of the disease spread in the US, has been as high as 12 per cent. Coupled with this is a recovery rate in the 50 per cent range and improving daily with more recovered patients being released from hospital.

Jamaica has also been blessed, and even lucky. The universal mantra for fighting the invisible enemy is test, test, and test. Jamaica is not doing nearly enough testing. There could be an underlying reality worst than what the present level of testing is revealing, waiting to spring to life if fed by human indiscretion, impatience, and expedience.

Continued testing, contact tracing, social and physical distancing, sanitising, and control of our borders are a real inconvenience and an economic killer. But these are necessary if one is not to risk a spike that overwhelms our under-resourced health system. The real test is at hand: How to time and manage the removal of the various public health protocols and strategies to allow the full and normal resumption of economic activity without the attendant health risks?

The writers of a page 1 editorial in the May 18, 2020 edition of this newspaper, headlined 'Indecision! Gov't fiddles while economy burns,' were bruising in their accusation of the Government for “underestimating the magnitude of the economic losses and the danger that poses” and for not being able to “ride and whistle at the same time”. In a follow-up editorial in the May 19, 2020 edition, the reason for the angst became clear with this assertion: “If we move quickly in Jamaica we could open [the borders] on June 1.” The Jamaica Hotel and Tourism Association (JHTA) and other tourism interest groups joined the chorus.

In its May 22 'Caribbean Travel News Roundup', newsamericas reported that St Lucia has become the first to state a specific date, June 4, for reopening to receive tourists. The Bahamas and Antigua and Barbuda have set a July 1, 2020 date to reopen their borders. Interestingly, that same newsamericas release opened with a statement alluding to the fact that even as some Caribbean countries announce dates to reopen their borders, strong do not travel advisories remain in effect from the US State Department and the Canadian and UK governments. Chasing a date for reopening borders ahead of the realities in major source countries may not in and of itself be a panacea.

The three biggest government decisions surrounding return to normality relate to returning to workplace norms, restarting schools, and reopening borders. The latter, reopening the borders, may be the most troubling; in that it involves foreign jurisdictions, thus raising the risk of imported cases of the infection.

We should guard against the difference in perspectives surrounding opening of the country's borders or other aspects relating to opening of the economy descending into blame-finding and finger-pointing as the pressure of the economic meltdown intensifies. Political and special interest groups' bickering have had disastrous results in the United States and, more recently, in Brazil with the contending parties failing to advance their own or the national good.

With regard to tourism, the time would be better spent developing a comprehensive pandemic recovery plan for the sector so that when the conditions in source countries improve and the planes are back in the air we will be ready for business. The COVID-19 Economic Task Force, with support from all stakeholder groups, must make producing and operationalising such a plan its top priority. Based on thoughtful interviews by our prime minister with CNN's Richard Quest, and our Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett with's Debbie Kickham, Jamaica may be already well down that road.

Jamaica is blessed to be home to Sandals Resorts International (SRI), which successfully used the all-inclusive concept to protect the local industry from the crime epidemic that threatened to destroy it. Judging from the return of those appealing and inviting advertisements to the screen of cable television, it appears the award-winning tourism entity is betting on an early resumption of business. I doubt SRI would risk its top-rated global brand by supporting a capricious decision to open borders without consideration of the public health risks.

Because of its demonstrated competence in dealing with the health pandemic to this stage, its brilliant handling of the Alorica hot spot that could have destroyed the emergent business process outsourcing sector, and its astute balancing of health and economic concerns, our Government deserves to be given leeway, without coercion, to make those decisions that are its alone to make in the interest of the health, social, and economic well-being of Jamaican citizens to whom it is finally accountable. It's a test it dare not fail.

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