Testing visitors before arrival easier said than done
PEOPLE, IN recent days, have questioned why the Government of Jamaica is not moving to ensure that all visitors to Jamaica, upon the reopening of the borders on June 15, have a COVID19-negative test result before even boarding their flight to Jamaica.
The concern is absolutely legitimate, and many stakeholders would have preferred this option as a means of reassuring themselves, their employees and all of Jamaica that everything is being done to mitigate as best as possible the spread of COVID19. In any event, the Ministry of Health could not have supported this and for sensible reasons, too.
COVID-19 is without a doubt the biggest crisis since World War II and threatens to collapse economies around the world, many recording the steepest economic declines and the highest unemployment rates in recent memory. Jamaica, like many other developing countries, will get the worst end of the stick as we simply do not have the wherewithal to sustain our economies and societies with significantly reduced business activity.
Let’s face it, our already-fragile public health system will be worse off with a completely collapsed economy buttressed by surging poverty, record-high unemployment rates and possible social unrest.
According to data from the World Travel and Tourism Council, at least 350,000 Jamaican employees, or a quarter of our labour force, are linked to the tourism sector, whether directly, indirectly or induced, with many of them now out of a job or working on massively reduced incomes. They span tourism establishments, agriculture, ground transportation, manufacturing, entertainment, and the list goes on. That’s near 350,000 families in limbo, several of whom are struggling to purchase food for their children and are already defaulting on their monthly bills. Meanwhile, the massive falloff in foreign exchange, tax receipts and revenues will be catastrophic for every Jamaican if allowed to persist for many more months on end. The Ministry of Tourism has calculated the economic fallout. The estimated loss of direct tourism revenue to the Government, due to COVID-19, for April 2020 to March 2021 is J$38.4 billion. The estimated overall loss to the economy from visitor expenditure from stopover arrivals is J$107.6 billion.
It is essential that we reopen tourism through a staggered and safe approach, with the critical need to balance the public’s health interest.
HEALTH AND SAFETY PROTOCOLS
Tourism’s reopening is being guided by a five-point recovery strategy:
Robust health and security protocols that will withstand local and international scrutiny.
Training all sectors to manage protocols and new behavioural patterns moving forward.
Strategies around COVID security infrastructure (PPEs, masks, infrared machines, etc).
Communication with the local and international markets about reopening.
A staggered approach to reopening/ managing risk in a structured way.
Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett directed the Ministry of Tourism and its agencies, including the Tourism Product Development Company (TPDCo), to join with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in formulating these tourism protocols in full consultation with numerous local and international stakeholders, including the Ministry of Health. The protocols, 120 pages long, have already been endorsed by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC).
THE TESTING PROBLEM
I recall, prior to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, days, weeks and months of 24/7 news coverage of the coronavirus pandemic on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, BBC, other major news networks. Journalists, contributors and politicians alike lamenting the chaos surrounding coronavirus testing and the constant complaints about the difficulties persons face in getting a test. Press conferences, led by US President Donald Trump, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other world leaders, featured questioning by journalists about testing and all the associated problems. Since the spread of COVID-19, governments have been hobbled by delays in the development of test kits, vital supply shortages, and ambiguous guidelines on who to test.
Over the last several weeks we have seen massive improvements in testing, with the United States, as at June 4, recording just under 20 million tests, representing six per cent of their population, while the UK recorded just about five million tests, representing around 7.5 per cent of their population. Note that some persons have been tested multiple times and there still exists quite a bit of debate about testing numbers and the methodologies used to arrive at them.
Nevertheless, getting a test remains a mystery for many. Two of my sisters work on the front line at major hospitals in the US and, to date, have not been tested for COVID-19! How, then, will the average visitor to Jamaica be able to get a test? Which test would be of a standard that our health ministry would approve? How can the Ministry of Health verify the validity of the tests? Which airline, all on financial life support, would want to be saddled with the responsibility of ensuring that every passenger has a COVID19-negative test certificate? Which visitor, already confused about where and how to get a test, will take up that headache? And, despite all the talk about rapid testing hitting the market, many public health officials are sceptical.
Let us assume, then, that we allow everyone to come to Jamaica but subject them to a test before leaving Sangster International Airport for their hotels. That, too, is riddled with even more complications, including the fact that it takes, in many cases, days to get the results. Will we house all our visitors (in the many thousands per week) at a special camp for a day or two, or three, until they get their results? It simply cannot be done. Further yet, no rational person will put themselves through that circus. The Government simply does not have the resources to administer such a Herculean effort which, in the best of times, would mean testing 4.3 million visitors over a year (without even counting Jamaicans who go back and forth) and costing billions of dollars. Already, the UK, one of the wealthiest countries in the world with a robust state healthcare infrastructure, through a myriad of twists and turns, back-and-forthing, has just completed five million tests.
In the end, many of us want COVID-19 testing for each and every soul; however, it is proving highly impractical, expensive and unreliable. We just have to be realistic, it’s either we shut Jamaica down for the next year or so (which would result is sheer chaos) or we rationally play the hand we get.
Nonetheless, we note the steady global improvements in testing and better balancing of the economic and public health interest. Further the Government is highly responsible and constantly reviews policy positions and protocols as the days and weeks go by, to ensure that best interests of the Jamaican people are served. There is no doubt in my mind that if an effective testing solution devoid of logistical nightmares and is in line with rigorous health standards is found, the Government will make every effort to have it implemented forthwith.