Two weeks without a novel coronavirus (COVID-19) positive result on the island is surely great news. It speaks to successes of our early and coordinated steps at the national level to develop protocols, expand medical infrastructure, and maintain a comprehensive communications strategy that mobilized people to take the required actions.
But let us not begin the victory laps and remove the face masks, throw out the hand sanitizers and resume the intimate and friendly contact for which we are known. COVID-19 has not gone anywhere. While it may be in abeyance in Barbados and some Caribbean countries, the illness is still taking lives and sickening hundreds of thousands of people around the world and the diaspora.
In the United States, for example, more than 110,000 people have died from the illness and the country is nearing two million infections. Even more worrisome for Barbados and the rest of the region is the fact that experts are predicting a re-emergence of new infections in the US following two weeks of mass demonstrations and a hasty re-opening of a number of states before that.
Britain’s flawed late response has been blamed for the abysmal infection rates still coming from our most important tourism source market. More than 40, 000 people have died from the disease and 287,000 infections have been reported there.
According to statistics from the Caribbean Tourism Organisation, more than 30 million visitors came to the Caribbean in 2019 and that was a record number, including air and sea travel. Were the region to reopen its doors to whosoever may come because we feel pleased with how we have handled COVID-19, it would be a gross error and a condemnable demonstration of hubris.
Given the absence of an effective, safe vaccine, we in this part of the world are still acutely vulnerable to a second wave of COVID-19 infections at a time when we can least handle it. Given the state of our economy and an overly active Atlantic Hurricane Season hovering over us, it would be catastrophic to then pile a wave of coronavirus infections on that dump heap.
The undeniable truth is that unless the world can find a systematic way of operating with this pandemic in our midst, or until an effective vaccine becomes available, life will not return to normal. The Caribbean cannot say it has brought infections under control when next-door fellow Caribbean Community member Haiti is reporting more than 1,000 new infections each day.
While China suggests that “life has returned to normal” – a statement about which we doubt – no country will be truly safe from COVID-19 until every country has eliminated the disease from its shores. Unless we are prepared to close our borders from international and regional trade and travel, an irrational response no less, we will remain at risk.
Government is under pressure from citizens and the business community to reopen the economy and reduce unemployment numbers estimated by some pundits to be at about 45 per cent. Critical decisions will have to be made post-haste.
Some of the questions our political leaders and policymakers will have to examine revolve around the level of risk we are prepared to take as a nation. Just how much exposure can we afford for the sake of economic survival? Essentially bills have to be paid and foreign currency has to be generated.
Clearly we cannot make a 180 degree turn to an alternative industry. The world does not work that way. The thousands of empty hotel, condominium and villa rooms have to be filled and we have to develop a viable plan to do so.
As the region tries to coordinate its protocols for the resumption of international travel, it is clear that much work will have to be done to convince sceptical travellers that it is safe to return. And equally important, Barbadians will have to be assured that their lives are not being put at risk by people who are allowed to enter our borders.