Health and Social Development Minister Carvin Malone announced a ninth confirmed case of coronavirus in the territory since the start of the pandemic. (Photo: GIS)

After a ninth Covid-19 case was announced in the territory on Aug. 1, residents angrily debated government’s subsequent announcement that it would continue blocking expatriates stranded abroad from returning to the Virgin Islands.

After borders closed in late March, Virgin Islanders, belongers and permanent residents were allowed to return to the territory beginning June 2, but leaders never said when the borders would open to others.

After at least 255 nationals entered in recent weeks, many non-nationals abroad hoped that they would be allowed to follow.

But a short statement released on Aug. 2 by the Ministry of Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration stated, “Persons on work permit and work exemption holders will not be permitted to enter the British Virgin Islands at this time.”

The statement, which didn’t elaborate further, was published on the government’s website, but no public address was made.

On Sunday evening, after five days of promising a statement about “an economic boost for the Virgin Islands on the horizon,” Premier Andrew Fahie gave an explanation for the decision.

“We are faced with the reality that the majority of people do not want to bear the cost of quarantine,” he said. “Does the employer have any work for those who they have on work permit and are desirous of them returning at this time?

Are the employers willing to pay the cost of quarantining their employees who want to return to the BVI? Or are the employees prepared to bear these costs?”

Mr. Fahie didn’t say when the borders would be opened further, but he explained that the government is “working towards having the dates and the protocols to be announced shortly.”

The premier also said that there is debate over who should bear the costs of testing, adding that “no one” is willing to pay such fees.

“In fact, they are saying that the BVI taxpayers must bear these costs. Do you think BVIslanders should bear all of these costs?” he asked.

In recent weeks, however, the government has footed the bill for the testing and quarantining of returning Virgin Islanders, belongers and permanent residents.

On June 26, Health and Social Development Minister Carvin Malone said that 255 nationals had arrived so far, with 500 of 621 registrants verified by the Immigration Department. No update has been provided since then and efforts to reach the premier, Mr. Malone and immigration officials were not immediately successful.

Controversy

The decision to continue banning permit holders from entering the territory sparked debate, especially across social media platforms. Some, like Virgin Islander Kellon Rhymer, found the measure unfair, while others supported the decision.

Mr. Rhymer took to The Real BVI Community Board to suggest that expatriates consider suing the government, but Virgin Islander Kareem-Nelson Hull countered that many nations are taking similar measures, and that the ban is only a temporary measure.

Opposition Leader Marlon Penn called the ban a “knee-jerk decision” that “speaks to the absence of a coherent plan.”

“This decision lacks clarity, and therefore, it creates an uneasiness and uncertainty for families and the business community concerning its labour force,” Mr. Penn said in a statement released last Thursday. “A decision with such far-reaching implications should never be a blanket decision. Such a decision requires consultation and probably should allow for discretion on a case-by-case basis, and in conjunction with local businesses.”

Mr. Penn listed some examples of work-permit holders who have obligations in the territory, like those who support businesses and families here.

“These persons should be allowed to return,” he said.

He added that the continuation of the ban would have serious implications for businesses in the territory, as well as the “loss of work-permit fees, rent to landlords, and spending on the local economy.”

Ice cream shop

Deborah Maddox, co-owner of local business Manjack Creamery, agreed with this sentiment, urging lawmakers to review each application and the entry of work-permit holders on a case-by-case basis.

Manjack Creamery closed its doors in protest after the Labour Department denied a work permit that was requested in March prior to the confirmation of Covid-19 cases in the territory.

The business posted on Facebook about the closure, which sparked accusations that the owners didn’t want to hire belongers.

Ms. Maddox refuted this claim, adding that in his 16 years of business, her husband Hezikiah Maddox has only sought to hire three expatriates.

Additionally, the expatriate employee they chose for the creamery position came from a pool of more than a dozen applicants — many of whom were recommended by the government — and was “the right fit” for the position, Ms. Maddox told the Beacon.

She also said that the company followed the Labour Code, which states that first preference must be given to qualified Virgin Islanders and belongers.

When the business reopened in May after shutting down due to the lockdown, the work permit application was turned down because Labour officials “thought we didn’t do enough to attract and hire a local person for the position,” she explained.

“We’re not averse to hiring any local. Our contention is that this work permit was put in before all of this transpired. I don’t feel that the government had a right to tell us, as a very small business just starting up, what to do and who we should hire,” Ms. Maddox said. “That is basically our stance.”

Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley replied to the creamery’s post on social media, saying that the owner’s “attitude was that he would rather close than hire a local.”

“I will not be threatened, blackmailed or held hostage for trying to help my people in this most difficult of times,” Mr. Wheatley wrote on Monday.

Labour force

Some 75 percent of expatriates in the VI are on work permits, and work-permit holders represent about half of the total labour force, according to a Covid-19 Human and Economic Assessment of Impact study published recently by the United Nations Development Programme.

The report suggested that the territory allow work-permit holders to search for new jobs until the reopening of the tourism industry, while also allowing rapid work-permit transfers as part of efforts to limit poverty in the “short run.”

‘Home return’

In part to assist such vulnerable groups, the report also suggested extending the period for work-permit holders to find new jobs and implementing a voluntary “home-return programme” which would incentivise them to return to their countries of origin with an option to come back to the territory in a specific timeframe.

Mr. Fahie’s Sunday evening address about “an economic boost” focused on the construction industry.

He announced a new “emergency procurement policy” designed to allow “the subdivision of larger projects into smaller packages” in a manner that he said would help smaller VI contractors get work.

The Ministry of Finance and partner agencies designed the policy for emergencies such as natural disasters, catastrophic events and pandemics, according to the premier. The premier also said that the government has been discussing the policy with funding partners such as international lending agencies.

“The feedback has been positive and your government is feverishly working with the Attorney General’s Office to get the legislative changes that may be necessary submitted,” he added. “After which, approval by both the Cabinet and the House of Assembly will be sought.”

The premier stated that the policy would help smaller contractors share in opportunities, and that a “booster shot” into the construction industry would help money spread throughout other areas of the economy.

“When they earn their salaries, their entire families will benefit,” the premier said. “The family is now able to spend the money in the supermarkets, the salons, the barbershops, and the other stores and businesses, and be able to pay their rent and even build homes for themselves.”

The procurement policy was not provided to the public, and this reporter’s efforts to access it through the Premier’s Office and the premier were not immediately successful.

Ninth case

Out of 1,514 people that officials said have been tested in the VI since the start of the pandemic, only nine have tested positive so far.

In his Aug. 1 announcement, Mr. Malone said the ninth case recently returned to the territory from abroad, was put into quarantine, and only displayed mild symptoms of the virus.

“While the patient remains in isolation, testing will be repeated seven days from the first positive result, and again repeated until two negative laboratory tests have been recorded,” the minister explained on Aug. 1.

No updates have been provided since the announcement, and efforts to reach Mr. Malone for an update were not immediately successful.

With the opening of borders to belongers, nationals, permanent residents, and those displaced while seeking medical attention overseas, Mr. Malone said it “comes as no surprise” that an influx of people into the territory would “lead to the importation of new cases.”

He added that the government put measures in place to “deal with such an eventuality.”

These include re-entry registration, health screenings at the airport, mandatory quarantine, monitoring and PCR testing.

“As we prepare to transition to the second phase of border reopening and expand the steady progress achieved in rebooting the territory’s economic and social activity, we must continue to band together against the threat of Covid-19,” Mr. Malone added.

Mask requirement

The same day, he signed the Public Health (Covid-19 Control and Suppression Measure) Order (No. 4), 2020, which requires “that every person shall wear a face mask at all times when in a public place.”

The order, however, exempts open-air settings and enclosed office spaces, as well as instances where people are driving alone or with family members or are consuming food or drinks.

Police officers are empowered to issue a verbal warning to individuals for their “first breach,” a fine of a $100 for their second breach, and a fine of $200 for each subsequent breach, according to the order.

For businesses and establishments, a first violation would result in a verbal warning; a second violation would result in a $1,000 fine in addition to temporary closure and mandatory training to implement correct measures; and a third violation would result in a $2,000 fine as well as immediate closure and revocation of the Environmental Health Certificate.

“Serious times call for serious measures,” Mr. Malone said. “The environmental health officers and police officers are now better equipped to enforce these sensible public health measures wherever and whenever required, without fear or favour.”

Cuban Doctors Begin Orientation

After 22 medical professionals from Cuba were quarantined for 14 days and tested negative for Covid-19, Premier Andrew Fahie announced that the team would join health care professionals at the BVI Health Services Authority on Tuesday.

The team, which arrived last month, includes internist doctors, emergency response doctors, an intensive care specialist, nurses, and people trained in infectious diseases, according to Government Information Services.

Mr. Fahie added that as the territory moves forward with a phased and restricted border re-opening, the addition of the Cuban doctors will instill “a greater sense of confidence in the fact that adequate specialised treatment capacity will now be available in the territory.”


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