At the outset, let me say that I would not want to be in the shoes of our leaders having to wrestle with the impossibly difficult question of the best course of action to take during these difficult times. This letter is not written as a criticism of what has been done, but more of an attempt to make constructive suggestions as to what can still be done.
We will need to come to terms with the fact that Covid-19 is not going to go away any time soon. It could be here for another year or more. We have got to learn to live with it, because we simply cannot afford to have our economy put on hold much longer. The economic damage and consequential human misery and loss from the shutdown of our economy is now probably greater than the misery and loss in medical terms inflicted by the coronavirus itself. Many, many Virgin Islanders are watching the businesses which they have built up over years of blood, sweat and toil disintegrate before their eyes into nothingness. This is a human tragedy.
For the vast majority of the population coronavirus does not pose a catastrophic health hazard. It is not like Ebola. Most people recover after a fairly short illness. Unfortunately, people will die, and every death is a source of personal grief, but in most of these cases there are underlying causes which could have resulted in death from any number of trigger events. It is time to shift the focus from worrying about how many Covid-19 cases we have, to worrying about whether our young entrepreneurs and the workforce in general will ever recover from the economic damage which is being inflicted on them.
Protocols in place
We are quite correctly doing everything that can be done to prevent a runaway spread of the virus internally. We have all our protocols in place, so why is it necessary to restrict ourselves to allow only “essential businesses” to operate? What are the criteria for an essential business anyway? Does anyone know? Why cannot builders build, surveyors survey and restaurants provide meals?
There will be far more discipline and adherence to our protocols in a controlled environment such as a building site or a restaurant, than ever there will be in an uncontrolled environment like people walking around the street or milling around in a supermarket. We are all washing our hands regularly, wearing masks, social distancing, staying at home and avoiding crowds as much as possible. Of course, these measures are not a complete remedy: People will be lax here and there, and people will behave irresponsibly. But people are human, so you have to expect some backsliding. Other than continuing by stick and carrot to persuade people to act sensibly for their own good, there is not much more that can be done.
Covid-19 will spread inexorably, but our medical facilities should be sufficient to cope. We have to move on, letting businesses open so that people can work and government can receive the revenues it needs to help cope with the extra burdens that are being thrust upon it.
What about our borders? This is an obvious danger, and we should carefully control who can come in, but there is absolutely no reason to keep everyone out. The VI cannot survive in isolation. We import just about everything we use, so we desperately need income to flow in, much of which comes from tourists.
Tourism, however, is on its knees, and that industry, which has taken decades to build up, will wither and perish unless it can rescue something from the forthcoming season, which is only a couple of months away. The tourist industry plans months ahead and it wants to know if the VI is open for business or not. If not, the tourists will simply go elsewhere. Bookings are being made now, and if the VI has no published plan, no expectations and nothing to offer, then it can expect to be left behind.
The premier says he has developed a plan that must keep changing as circumstances evolve, but a plan which nobody sees is not much different from having no plan. He says that he expects “within a week or two” to be able to tell us “what we plan to do” but that will be too late. Our neighbours are opening up now. They recognise the potential hazards involved, but they are planning for these eventualities.
So, what we desperately need from government are some guidelines right now about re-opening our economy and how we intend to control the inherent risks so that business in general, and the tourist industry in particular, can plan ahead with reasonable confidence.
Huge progress has been made in the past few months as to what we know about the virus, which has helped firstly with the medical treatment of those infected and secondly with the development of a vaccine which regrettably is probably still many months into the future. The death rate world-wide from the virus is plunging dramatically.
More importantly, however, is the recent development of cheap, quick and effective methods of testing for the virus. Apparently, a new saliva test has recently been developed which needs no special lab equipment and is non-invasive, cheap and extremely accurate. This could well be a game changer and needs to be thoroughly investigated.
The VI offers many crowd-free destinations which would appeal to tourists: yacht charters, villa rentals, boutique hotels. All these should be encouraged as none of them are conducive to the spread of the virus. For other forms of tourism the VI could develop a policy of requiring tourists to be in possession of a certificate from their country of origin dated as at a date which is not less than the incubation period of the virus, that they are Covid free — or that they have been vaccinated when a vaccine is available. Such a certificate combined with a speedy test on arrival should be sufficient to protect us from any uncontrollable spike in infection rates.
It would not only be encouraging, but in this writer’s view it is absolutely essential, to hear that instead of just paying lip service to the catastrophic losses that are being suffered by VI business, the government has indeed developed a plan which will be shared with its citizens to open up the VI and get our economy back on its feet.
Obviously, like any plan, it would be subject to amendment from time to time as circumstances demand. We all recognise that. But without such a published plan, I regret to say that I foresee very dark and gloomy days ahead for these beautiful islands.