Border policy needs a rethink

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TT, like most other nations, instituted a raft of precautionary measures in the early days of the pandemic to stop the spread of covid19. As scientific knowledge was gained, worldwide policies were refined or removed as need be.

Our government has held on to closed borders as a central policy for over a year now. Using a mostly paternalistic approach to engage our population, we have never been privy to any data or statistics that show the effectiveness of our border closure on covid19 management.

The World Health Organization’s guidance on border policy suggests a risk-based assessment so as to not unnecessarily interfere with international travel. It proposes that policies reflect the additional burden presented by possible importation of covid19 cases, and the system’s capacity to cope.

Overall health and well-being of communities should be at the forefront of considerations. Our islands are perhaps best placed in the Caribbean to manage the covid19 pandemic, with an entire state-of-the-art hospital dedicated to sick patients, and a well functioning tracing and isolation system.

One has to wonder if our policymakers are taking heed of this guidance. Epidemiologist Dr Avery Hinds, not long ago, stated that the goal of our covid19 policies was zero transmission. This is a wholly unrealistic goal which will result in similarly unrealistic policies.

Our islands are very interconnected with the wider world, with a large diaspora, particularly in North America and the Caribbean. There are many negative socioeconomic effects of continuing to be one of a very small handful of countries with closed borders.

These include: stranded citizens being pauperised overseas, strained and broken family relations, inability to seek foreign medical attention resulting in additional suffering and deaths, hundreds of workers in our aviation sector facing financial ruin due to layoffs, increased costs and complexities of doing business for our major industries, the death of the suitcase trade which provided a living for many of our entrepreneurs, the halt of the yachting industry in Chaguaramas, reduced inflows of scarce foreign currencies. The list goes on and on.

There are many examples of countries with common-sense border restrictions that take a holistic view to managing covid19. Most of our Caribbean neighbours mandate a negative PCR test followed by three days isolation until a second test is performed. Or the UK, with its traffic light system for risky countries, requiring ten days home isolation with the potential of a test to release on the fifth day. Canada requires three days hotel quarantine with a negative test then allowing the person to complete the next week at home.

The data shows these systems work well to prevent importation of cases, but allow travel and trade to continue. Targeted restrictions on countries with large outbreaks of variants of concern also assist. The vast majority of covid19 infections result from a combination of behaviours, living conditions, and climate; not travel.

Unlike Australia and New Zealand (whose borders are not even as firmly shut as ours), we cannot finance our way out of economic peril by printing money and issuing debt. We are a small dependent economy, without an internationally traded currency.

The Government must engage the population with straight facts and start the process of a phased, managed reopening of our borders. Particularly with the confidence of our main travel destinations being ahead of the curve on their vaccination drives. Add more hotels to the quarantine pool. Ease up restrictions for vaccinated travellers. Streamline our isolation requirements to free up precious hotel space. Let the private sector and market forces assist in this drive.

A covid19 death is no more tragic than a death by traffic accident. Yet, risk assessment and law enforcement see us all using our roads regardless. Continued closed borders will send us even deeper into the economic abyss. Our leaders must act soon. I leave the issue of school closures for another time.

CHRISTOPHER SMITH