Test­ing vis­i­tors be­fore ar­rival eas­ier said than done

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION & COMMENTARY - De­lano Seivewrigh­t GUEST COLUM­NIST De­lano Seiveright is se­nior ad­viser and strate­gist to Tourism Min­is­ter Ed­mund Bartlett. Send feed­back to de­lano­seiv@ gmail.com.

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.

IM­PRAC­TI­CAL

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.

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