As the COVID-19 coronavirus spreads around the world, the Virgin Islands is already feeling the effects in a big way even though no cases have been confirmed here.
Cruise ships are being turned away, some ports are closed to international travel, the United States government warned travellers from taking cruises and long flights, multiple residents are quarantined at home, the opposition is calling for school closures, and VI residents are growing increasingly anxious.
We fear the worst is yet to come. Given the territory’s international population and the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit each year from around the world, the virus could be confirmed here any day.
In that event, the VI will have to act quickly, and major changes could come almost immediately.
To continue the preparations, leaders and other community members should look abroad, learning lessons from the issues now facing their counterparts in infected countries.
These issues are many. Even New York, which has some of the most modern medical facilities in the world, has struggled to mount a coherent response since the virus arrived in recent days.
A patient there was hospitalised for four days with what doctors believed to be routine pneumonia before his condition was correctly identified as coronavirus — which by then had already spread to his family members and caregivers.
New York’s quarantined residents, meanwhile, reported receiving conflicting information from the authorities, and complained that they could find no answers to common-sense questions, such as how to protect their loved ones and how to limit their movements or get to a doctor if needed.
In Italy — which is the hardest hit country outside of China — the government has heavily restricted travel across the country, but many residents have pushed back against what they say is an overly draconian measure.
The VI could soon be facing very similar issues. If the virus is confirmed here, tourism is likely to slow to a trickle; schools, businesses and churches could close; and government agencies including the health system could face unprecedented strains.
The government — which has rightly enacted the National Emergency Operations Centre at Level One — has been keeping the public updated about its wide-ranging preparations, which include training workers and laying the groundwork for a comprehensive quarantine system and screenings at ports of entry.
But the VI still doesn’t have the ability to fully test for the virus here, and samples must be sent to Trinidad in a process that apparently takes several days. We hope that changes soon.
The government also must continue preparing diligently in other areas, including ensuring the availability of the right equipment and training for all public officers who will be on the front lines. A sustained public education programme is crucial as well, especially considering all the fake news about the virus that is circulating via social media.
Meanwhile, the territory’s businesses, schools, churches and other organisations should establish plans of their own if they have not already done so. As much as possible, these plans should include systems to allow employees to operate from home, where they could be quarantined for several days even if they aren’t exhibiting symptoms. Here again, looking abroad could provide answers for the way forward.
Additionally, much can be learned from the business continuity plans that kept the financial services industry afloat after Hurricane Irma, in large part by allowing employees to work remotely.
Even if the VI manages to avoid the virus on these shores, the territory is almost certain to continue feeling the effects of the economic turmoil and expanding travel restrictions now associated with COVID-19.
In recent days, the US and United Kingdom stock markets have tanked, and the global economy seems likely to remain on shaky ground for a long time even in the best-case scenario.
Here, the VI government should start formulating some level of economic relief for residents and businesses in case the fallout is sustained. With the cost of money at its lowest in decades, the long-term prudent management of such a package is worthy of careful consideration.
As the epidemic plays out, the VI shouldn’t panic, but it should respond calmly as a community while keeping in mind the possibility that coronavirus could bring widespread illness and quarantining, along with deep economic damage.
Leaders and all other residents, then, should stay abreast of daily developments abroad, learn as much as they can, and prepare accordingly.