Reopening the Country
Freedom Speaks Column. By Kent Vital
We remain thankful as a people that the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in Dominica did not spread beyond the 16 confirmed cases, most of whom have recovered. But controlling the spread of the disease has come at a huge cost, not only in terms of economic activity, but also in terms of our physical social connections. We do miss going to church and hugging our friends. Staying away from our elder relatives has been hard. We were not able to fraternize with our friends over a drink or a game of dominoes – we miss that. Our physical social connectedness is a big part of what makes life enjoyable. It is not quite the same to stay connected via social media – though we are thankful for that.
Now that it appears that the recent spread of the virus has been halted in Dominica, efforts to reopen the country has started. Ultimately, we need to restore our physical socializing and to get back to fully engaging in economic activity. But there are still risks to be managed and in that regard the Dominica Freedom Party suggest that the reopening process be cautious and gradual given what we already know about the nature of the new coronavirus, but also given that global knowledge of the virus is still evolving.
Experts indicate that the world could be battling this virus for two years and there could be subsequent rounds or flare-ups of infections over that period and some of the subsequent rounds could be worse than the first. But we can't keep our country in a perpetual lockdown, neither is it healthy to live in fear. But as we reopen the economy we have to operate under a "new normal" until this scourge has passed. We will have to balance the risk of re-emergence of the virus in our country against the benefit of the reopening of the country. Future flare-up of viral infections in Dominica would be closely related to the movement of people in and out of the country. Illegal entry into the country is an ever-present risk in that regard. It is reasonable to allow Dominicans to return home, and as soon as possible we need to resume activity in the tourism industry and facilitate travel in and out of the country for other reasons – which carry additional risks.
So how do we safely reopen the country? Can we expect to avoid all risk of the re-emergence of COVID-19? How do we manage those risks and what management tools should become routine over the next two years?
First, our efforts to identify infections must not depend solely on persons showing symptoms. Random testing throughout the population and among high risk subgroups, using statistically significant sample sizes (.i.e. testing sufficient people in order to be able to draw meaningful conclusions) is an important tool that can be deployed not only to inform the first-round decision to re-open schools and churches, but also to be used periodically given the risk of re-emergence of infections especially after the borders have been reopened.
Secondly, adequate capacity must be put in place for treating persons who may be infected with COVID-19 and experience severe symptoms - should future rounds ensue. In that regard, we note that the local staffing capacity that managed the initial outbreak of COVID-19 was supplemented by assistance from Cuban personnel. However, future assistance from abroad is neither certain nor should it be depended on. It must be realized that the vast majority of the world's population has not yet been infected by the virus due to the aggressive measures that countries took to prevent the rapid spread. Without a vaccine, this means that there is not yet herd immunity and this leaves the opportunity for the re-emergence of the infections. Should subsequent rounds of the disease be worst in other countries than their initial rounds, assistance from abroad may be even more difficult to access. It is perhaps best to assume that subsequent rounds of COVID-19 infections in Dominica would be worst and prepare for that, rather than take our current status for granted.
Thirdly, there needs to be a sustained focus on hygiene to include the washing of hands. This must be maintained and encouraged strongly over the next two years. The infrastructure to facilitate this must be put in place where required. This includes widespread availability of opportunities for hand washing with soap and the sanitizing of surfaces that are frequently touched. These realities must become the new norms at schools and businesses.
Fourthly, some physical distancing protocols must be maintained or appropriately adjusted, alongside appropriate recommendations for the wearing of masks. For, instance consideration may be given to require persons to wear masks when taking public transportation under regular sitting arrangements. However, there may still be need to restrict mass gathering events that are expected to attract significant overseas participation.
We will continue this discussion next week including a discussion on the importance of boosting the immune system.
Kent Vital Political Leader Dominica Freedom Party.