A delicate balancing act

A delicate balancing act


Sunday, July 19, 2020

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The Government of Jamaica has to-date done a commendable job in containing the spread of the novel coronavirus as evidenced by our relatively low infection, hospitalisation, and mortality rates. I also want to acknowledge the country's heavy dependence on tourism and recognise the delicate balance that they must strike in reopening up this sector of the economy whilst relaxing the provisions of the Disaster Risk Management Act.

Whereas I am generally pleased with their reopening plans I, however, have some concerns with regards to its implementation.

Based on information on the Jamcovid19 website, the only individuals currently being tested are non-residents visiting Jamaica for either business purposes or tourists staying at hotels, villas, and guest houses within the resilient corridor who are deemed to be high risk. Non-residents staying with friends and/or families assessed as high risk are, however, required to schedule an appointment to be tested at a nearby testing facility. Non-residents assessed as low risk are therefore allowed to enter the island without being tested subject to either a 'stay-in-zone order' (read hotel, etc) or a stay-at-home order for up to 14 days.

Among the constraints is a worldwide shortage of reagents to analyse the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, and the obvious challenges to scale up the process. The subsequent bottleneck has led to the delivery time of test results being greater than the average five to seven days' stay of our tourists.

Whereas the use of the global positioning system (GPS) tracking app to monitor our visitors' movement is a good idea, it has however not prevented tourists straying outside the resilient corridor or returning Jamaicans attending super-spreading events during their quarantine period.

The above situation is further compounded by the fact that, of the approximately 1,400 individuals recently arriving at our airports each day, roughly 85 per cent are from the United States. It is also safe to assume that anyone undertaking non-essential travel at this time are risk-takers who either believe they are immune to the virus or downplay its impact. These are some of the same people being asked to make a full and honest declaration on a health questionnaire regarding their exposure to the novel coronavirus, albeit that 50 per cent of people with the virus do not even know they have it.

With the number of COVID-19 cases spiking in the very states which account for most of the two million holders of Jamaican passports who each have a right of passage to the island, we can expect an increase in our case load. My fear is that, if the Government does not strike that happy balance, they may be exposing our front line hotel workers to an unacceptable risk of infection, especially those where home isolation is not a viable option. Not to mention the likely community spread overwhelming our limited intensive care and isolated bed facilities.

Rest assured, if the mitigating measures being taken are not safe and sustainable, the damage to our tourism product caused by a resultant US travel advisory will be devastating. It is for the abovementioned reasons I must ask what steps have been taken to scale up the number of PCR tests available? What is our capacity to ramp up contact tracing and provide quarantine facilities? What is being done to clear up the recently reported two-week to three-week backlog of PCR tests and significantly reduce the turnaround time for test results? What measures are in place to screen asymptomatic carriers, and what added protective measures do the resilient corridor enjoy?

There are no easy choices, but the Government needs to maintain a delicate balance between protecting the health and well-being of its citizens and promoting economic recovery. It therefore behoves them to build up our containment capacity to meet the anticipated demand with the managed opening of our borders and to ideally target tourists from countries/states that have clearly “flattened the curve”. My main concern is that the apparent gaps in the Government's effort to reopen the tourism market and failure to carefully navigate this dilemma is likely to have the opposite effect and undo much of their otherwise good work.

Captain (Ret'd) Basil A Bewry, CPP, PCI, PSP is security consultant and immediate past chairman ASIS International – Jamaica Chapter. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or bewryba@gmail.com.

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