Our authorities clearly demonstrated Thursday that sensible action, vigilance and communication are among the best responses to the growing coronavirus epidemic.
And with today’s decision by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to upgrade the global risk of the viral outbreak to “very high”- its top level of assessment – this approach will be even more critical in the days ahead as infections continue to climb globally.
To date, the WHO reports that more than 80,000 people have been infected and 2,800 have died, the majority in China’s Hubei Province.
Over 50 countries have now reported cases.
Still, the biggest challenge according to the WHO is fear and misinformation
In his own words, Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “ We are not fighting an epidemic, we are fighting an infodemic.”
Barbados got a first-hand experience yesterday when some woke up to a WhatsApp message warning that scores of passengers infected with the virus were on board a cruise ship heading to our shores.
Rightfully, Prime Mia Mottley immediately sought to refute the lie, declaring: “There is a scurrilous rumour going around that would suggest that the Carnival Fascination cruise ship has over 170 passengers sick and I want to debunk that and let all Barbadians know up front and centre that that is untrue.”
She then went on to clearly outline that because St Lucia did not have the capacity to test for the virus, the cruise ship, which was carrying 37 Barbadians among more than 2,000 passengers, would be allowed to dock and health authorities would conduct necessary tests after a few developed flu-like symptoms.
That the facts were made public in a timely fashion is praiseworthy. It is the rapid dissemination of trustworthy information—which is needed most as we learn more about this virus.
Of course, the reaction from the public was mixed. Some immediately adopted Chicken Little’s “sky is falling” approach, suggesting that Government should keep the vessel far away to ensure the island remains virus-free, while others though anxious for results of the tests appeared more confident in Government’s ability to handle the situation.
Since the start of the epidemic, Barbados has taken a different approach from some of its Caribbean neighbours that have gone as far as to ban travel from China.
In the face of scepticism and criticism, Minister of Health and Wellness Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Bostic has maintained that Barbados was sticking to its prevention protocols, approved by the World Health Organisation.
These include additional medical personnel at the ports of entry, installation of temperature scanners and quarantine facilities.
And that is what leadership is about. Making decisions that are based on sound principals, evidence, science and experience and not whims, conspiracies or popular action.
Our professionals, as they did during the Ebola outbreak and other threats, have opted to focus on preparedness and strengthening the health care system to handle any eventuality.
They deserve our respect and trust.
Rash decision and inappropriate responses can do much harm.
But certainly what stands out especially for those anxious Barbadians on board the vessel and the other passengers is the late-night visit to the vessel by Prime Minister Mottley, members of her cabinet and other senior officials to deliver the good news that the tests were negative and all was well.
The personal touch echoed sensitivity, compassion and leadership.
All’s well that end well. We are aware there could have been a very different outcome. Our officials demonstrated yesterday that they are prepared to meet the challenges.
Thankfully, the risk of COVID-19 reaching our shores remains low but there are no guarantees. It’s critical that Barbadians take reasonable precautions but not let their fears take control. The priority should be good hygiene, continued vigilance and decisive action.