A senior civil servant says she does not want to see COVID-19 protocols relaxed for visitors to this country no matter who they are because the country has too much at stake.
Annette Weekes a former acting Comptroller of Customs and acting permanent secretary made the point as she contributed to an online discussion entitled Re-opening Borders, hosted by the Holy Trinity Anglican Church in St Philip on Tuesday night.
Offering her personal opinion and not in her official capacity, Weekes told the discussion she understood the struggle to maintain the balance between protecting the health of citizens and maintaining the economy which is under severe pressure due to weeks of forced shutdowns to stop the spread of the disease.
“A tradeoff exists between our economic and our public health concerns. On the one side you have the business community who keep stressing the huge economic costs of maintaining a shutdown and on the other side you have the medical and public health experts cautioning us about the continuous need for physical distancing, masking and hand-washing to prevent the potential re-emergence of COVID-19.
“There is no question that the shutdown has caused great economic suffering. Some businesses did not survive and others had to change their business model after such a lengthy shutdown thereby creating permanent job losses for many workers. . . .You only have to look at Cave Shepherd,” Weekes told the online audience.
According to the senior government official, she felt a level of comfort after the island’s success at containing the spread of the novel coronavirus. However, with the return of international commercial flights, she now has some reservations.
“I was feeling reasonably comfortable but I am back to being a little bit concerned because the protocols appeared to have been relaxed. I don’t want protocols to be relaxed because you are a tourist, because you are a nurse, or because you are someone by the name of Drake.
“So how do we treat the challenge of finding a balance between protecting our citizens against the virus and re-opening our borders thereby resuming commerce and business?” she asked rhetorically.
At the discussion, Weekes noted: “The cost of our Government-mandated economic shutdown was significant. Now we understand that people have legitimate concerns about the damage done to the economy. But are we in any way jeopardizing the lives of our citizens?
“The economy is more about numbers and it is also about people . . . too many of these people who simply don’t have financial capability to withstand a long period of time without any income. Their savings have already been depleted. So when the borders closed the tourism sector went south.
“No tourists, therefore the hotels closed. The restaurants and bars were told to close . . . . If you look out you will see a lot of the rental cars parked out on Union Road or sitting in a lot by Courtesy just below the airport saying rental cars for sale.
“The retail locations that catered strictly to tourists are closed and all this equates to unemployment. You now have a ripple effect that is going in the wrong direction because none of these closed businesses or these out-of-work persons can contribute to the economy.”
Meanwhile, Hadley Bourne, the recently appointed chief executive officer of the Grantley Adams International Airport Inc., (GAIA), who was also a participant in the discussion said there was no lapse in the COVID-19 protocols at the airport.
However, he conceded that the situation with the disease was so fluid that sometimes changes had to be made to protocols because situations demanded it.
“The situation was rapidly changing and from my point of view as the airport operator where I sit with representatives from the head offices around the world….we’ve had instances where an aircraft would depart and within four or five hours of the aircraft leaving to arrive in Barbados, the protocol would have changed inflight and the expectations of passengers on the ground would have changed,” he explained.