Reopening the tourism gateway

Reopening the tourism gateway

Howard Gregory

Sunday, May 31, 2020

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The novel coronavirus pandemic has impacted the entire global community in terms of the illness and death it has brought to nations and its devastating impact on national and the global economies. To that extent, the engagement of strategies for controlling the spread of the virus, the treatment models and health care provisions, as well as the strategies for a possible post-COVID-19 recovery have taken on a global dimension.

At the same time, it is true to say that the world has seen some well-managed national responses by way of prevention and interventional strategies, as well as some poorly managed ones bordering on recklessness to sheer incompetence.

Given the level of scientific and technological development of our era it is still confounding to many how this virus could have spread so far afield, infected so many, and left in its wake such a trail of death still in the making.

We have come to realise, however, that the very progress which we relish and which has created a global marketplace — as well as the accompanying global travel — has been the vehicle for the virus's advance across national boundaries.

Curfews and lockdowns, as well as the closure of national borders, have been pretty widespread strategies used by many nations in combating the spread of the virus. While these strategies have been effective in stemming the spread of the virus, they have led to destructive consequences for the economic life of nations, with the closure of businesses, loss of jobs, and vast expenditures by governments on health care provisions and the approval of financial expenditures to alleviate the plight of citizens, all of which will have serious consequences for the ability of governments to deliver appropriate service to their citizens going forward.

The vulnerability of national economies also became apparent with the entry of the pandemic across national boundaries. One early economic victim to this pandemic was our tourist industry, which makes the most significant contribution to our gross domestic product (GDP), and which receives its patronage from countries which have alternatively served as epicentres for the pandemic. We have also seen the devastating chain effect which this collapse has had on agriculture and other related fields that depend on the hotels and the tourists as the market for their goods and services. We can therefore appreciate the need for urgency in getting the industry up and running again.

Yet, one of the most controversial and divisive issues facing nations today has to do with the timing and method of renewing their economies. Unfortunately, a divide has been created between the medical community and the business community concerning what considerations should be borne in mind in making a decision on these matters. This divide has been further complicated as it has been made into a partisan political issue as is evident in the United States of America and Brazil, among others.

At the most incipient level, the virus and the pandemic which it has created has been treated as a kind of hoax; nothing more than an ordinary seasonal flu, notwithstanding the mortality rates and the millions of people who have been infected across the world. While at another level, the authority of the medical community to speak to the issue of reopening the economy for business, vis--vis that of elected political officials and the leaders of the business community has been called into question and challenged. This is being played out in the United States of America between the president and governors, governors and mayors, and Republicans and Democrats. With it has been debates involving preventative measures, such as wearing of masks and social distancing, resulting in them being ignored or adhere to on the basis of political loyalty among significant sections of the population.

In recent days we have seen the conflict that has arisen where politically motivated elements have ignored the lockdown regulations in cities and communities driven by the politics generated by the White House and interests motivated by economic considerations. We have also seen how this has manifested itself in the total disregard for social distancing and the wearing of masks over the Memorial holiday weekend there.

Here in Jamaica the pressure is being heightened on Prime Minister Andrew Holness for the setting of a date for the reopening of the borders to the tourists, and which has now reached the level of demanding that this be done within a matter of days. This is a matter which concerns every Jamaican, and not just sectional interests or the voices that have access to public space and the ears of those in political leadership.

It is to the credit of the prime minister and his Government that our COVID-19 strategy has been guided by a collaborative relationship with the Ministry of Health and the data which the ministry generates, and which has not only led to the containment of the spread of the virus, but has also won commendation from international sources. It would be tragic if at this stage the nation decides to abandon this management strategy because of pressure from any sectional interest, however vital to the economy.

This also is in a context in which the World Health Organization (WHO) has called for caution in the relaxation of restrictions in order to promote economic interests, and the internationally recognised Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued protocols for the reopening of businesses and which are being ignored in large measure.

The country must address the welfare of its citizens before it begins to facilitate foreigners with the attendant risks which such a move involves. It cannot be that we are going to facilitate others coming into the country when our own citizens remain stranded at sea and some 8,000 linger overseas waiting to come home. We have seen the process involved in bringing home those who were on the cruise ships. There have been very emotional responses of those who demand the immediate return of these citizens without any appreciation of the need for a protocol that would lead to the necessary testing and provision of quarantine facilities for those who would test positive for the virus. Now, we have seen the evidence of several members of that group testing positive for the coronavirus, even though it was asserted that they were at sea for more than 14 days and, therefore, already quarantined.

The return of the thousands of Jamaicans who are awaiting their entry to the island must involve a similar protocol to that which the ship workers have been subjected, and which require the appropriate human and material resources in place to prevent the entry of new cases of infected individuals into the country by our own citizens.

I believe that we owe it to our citizens to allow them the opportunity to return home before we fly the gate for tourists, cognisant of the fact that, with a deadly virus that does not discriminate, they could be bringing the virus into the country through an industry that is people-based and involves close human relationships and interaction.

With the politicisation of the pandemic in the US we have seen the sheer disregard for social distancing and the wearing of masks that was evident on beaches, bars, and even pool parties by those who are dismissing the information coming from the scientific community, and some who believe that the return of economic activity must be a priority, even while creating the occasion for a spike in the level of infections. The nation would do well to maintain the more cautious path while supporting a gradual return of economic activity.

We can ask ourselves the question: Who of us is ready to fly to the different cities of the world at this time while there still remains serious questions regarding the health risks associated with air travel?

My perception is that those who are willing to undertake international travel at this time as tourists are not the cautious ones, but those who are demonstrating their resistance to regulations in their own country, and even less likely to adhere to regulations in our less developed world.

There has been talk about the development of a protocol for returning to the workplace, and of one for the tourist industry. We need to know, for example, if tourists will be required to be tested 24 hours before entering Jamaica, or should they be tested within a matter of hours before going to check-in. Who would be the certifying agent for us, and could we enforce such a thing over citizens of another country, such as the United States of America, the main source of our tourists?

We have heard talk about an international health certificate as part of travel requirements for the future, as is currently the case with yellow fever, but it is not yet a reality. The nation has not yet seen such a protocol and must wonder how people are to return to workplaces that could expose them to infection without a clear protocol in place. We have seen what has happened in the meat packing plants in the US in which plants are reopened, sometimes not closed, in spite of being hot centres of infection as a way to get the economy up and running once more.

There are cases in which workers have been threatened that if they fail to return to work they will lose their jobs and certain social benefits — with the most vulnerable being placed on the front line for possible infection. While we understand that 300,000 are employed in the tourist industry, are we to assume that all are ready to return in the present context to the workplace?

There is no gainsaying the fact that we need to get the economy on an accelerated path toward some state of normality, but we cannot allow ourselves to move along the direction we have seen in the US with political leadership, business interests, and the medical/scientific community being pitted against each other. There needs to be respectful dialogue, and the political leadership must be guided by what is in the interest of the entire population in the face of the current pandemic. Perhaps we may need to hear the balanced voice of Caricom chairman and Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley, who in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation ( BBC) concerning steps being taken to revitalise tourism in the short term said: “We are not going to be driven by a date. We are going to be driven by a satisfaction that we have safe protocols that keep our workers safe, keep our people safe, that keep our visitors safe.” I believe the utterances from Prime Minister Holness reflect similar sentiments, and hope that he will stay the course with a steady hand before flying the gate.

Howard Gregory is archbishop of the Province of the West Indies, primate and metropolitan, as well as bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.


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