While writing the Dec. 19 commentary “VI libraries gone ‘back to the future,’” I rediscovered an article I had written on “Information Technology in the Caribbean” in April 1987. It was based on a paper I had delivered at a conference on St. Croix on “Information Technology and Lifelong Education” in 1986, shortly after my appointment as this territory’s chief librarian. I predicted that one day office workers would be permitted to work at home.
I referred to a fictional scenario in which a civil servant based in Boston sued his government department for recovery of pay deducted for taking unauthorised leave in the United States Virgin Islands. He argued that his contract permitted him to work at home on his terminal nine days out of ten, he paid for his commute himself, and he worked better at home in the USVI in December than he would in Boston.
At an international conference in 1983, a Canadian librarian had expressed his frustration at our modern German hotel having no provision for electronic mail. I commented that the time was coming when Caribbean librarians would take their laptops and modems with them to keep in touch with their professional and social life. The need for social distancing has now made it obligatory for us to work from home.
Present circumstances have popularised apps like Zoom for video conferencing and have fed soaring use in the US of medical technologies produced by companies like Teladoc, which enables virtual consultations, and Masimo, which developed non-invasive patient monitors that are viewed remotely.
My audiologist on St. Thomas has invited me to participate in a similar virtual appointment, which just weeks ago would have required me to take the ferry. Unfortunately, they have not yet found a way of teleporting my hearing aid supplies, which might take up to a month in the post.
A government press release describes the status of the Post Office during lockdown as non-functional. Even afterwards, trying to operate social distancing in the Road Town office (the only one open since Irma) would place an impossible strain on its staff, users, local environment and already failing services. I suggest that district community centres be designated as temporary branch post offices before they may be needed as hurricane shelters.
It would be necessary to provide the usual security safeguards for Royal Mail and apply the current emergency measures, like sanitisation and restriction on the numbers inside the buildings at any one time.
However, if the pilot project were successful, consideration might be given to extending the services provided by including library and information points.
Past deadly disease
A professor of tropical medicine vividly recalled to me his first encounter with Africa. He had hesitated before leaving the safe, air-conditioned interior of a plane and then paused at the top of the steps, mentally visualising all the diseases that awaited him. I met him in summer 1977, during my week-long residential briefing to prepare me for life in Malawi (as recounted in my April 5, 2018 commentary, “Malawi chronicles continue”).
More than four years later, having experienced nothing worse than two brief bouts of malaria, I was flying into an airport near the Ruins of Great Zimbabwe (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) when a stranger asked me if I would let a BBC television crew film me hesitating as I left the plane before descending the steps outside.
Eleven months later still, I watched myself portraying a doctor visiting Lagos, Nigeria in 1969, after the first appearance of Lassa fever, a new disease with symptoms resembling malaria, but far more deadly. Since then, Lagos airport had grown unrecognisably to meet the needs of what had become one of Africa’s largest cities. Worryingly, it now appears to be on the cusp of a serious outbreak of COVID-19.
Cholera in the VI
On Tortola, you may have passed unseen a plaque near the foot of Joes Hill, commemorating a deadly outbreak of cholera in the mid 1800s. In the VI, the disease killed nearly 15 percent of the population in 1853. The popular view of the disease was that it was spread by “bad air.” That did not change until the Houses of Parliament were invaded in the summer of 1858 by the “Great Stink” rising from untreated sewage being allowed to pour into the River Thames, leading to the scientific discovery that cholera was spread through drinking polluted water.
After Irmaria, then-Premier Dr. Orlando Smith reassured an enquirer that he was not overly concerned about any danger from cholera at the time, but he admitted that certain issues needed to be resolved to ensure that there is no sewage in the street.