If a handful of months ago someone told you that the entire world would shut down, you’d be pointing them toward the nearest mental facility. Planes and trains, groceries and pharmacies; how would we ever live without them?
Fast forward to June 2020 and the impossible became all too real; from Easter Island to Hawaii the globe ground to a halt, industry was mothballed, citizens shepherded away into their homes, society and all it entails put on hold.
And as the lockdown lingered, and as the world’s leaders tried to cope with this unprecedented development in human history, beneath it all the fires of economic hardship smouldered, and as the process of reopening becomes more and more convoluted the flames are now starting to burn freely.
Nowhere more literally than in the United States, where the death of George Floyd has led to nationwide protest, the threat of COVID swept away, forgotten and all but consumed by the cries for justice – but let us have no doubt that we are also witnessing much of the pent up frustration of the over 40 million people now unemployed in that country. The situation was a powder keg waiting to explode, and you have to wonder how much of the looting is connected with uncertainty over the future as much as it is an expression of outrage over what happened in Minneapolis.
The Caribbean meantime looks on with mouths agape, many stunned by how quickly COVID had become page two news in the US, even as it has continued its stranglehold on the economies of the Caribbean.
Suddenly all the trauma over shutting down the various islands has been replaced with crippling uncertainty about how to open them back up, particularly where many territories depend on travel and tourism as the main pillar of economic sustainability.
You would think this presents a glorious opportunity for CARICOM to step forward and lead the way. Instead, we have already seen various islands breaking ranks and implementing their own sets of protocols for reopening. Even within the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) where Saint Lucia’s Prime Minister Allen Chastanet was asked to lead efforts to reopen the tourism sector in June, we have seen Antigua take the bold step to allow international visitors to come in without requiring a COVID free test, and that country will welcome its first international flights in from June 4th.
Saint Lucia too boldly announced that its borders would open to international travel on June 4th, but this was accompanied by what some travellers have described as unrealistic requirements having to present a COVID free test obtained within 48 hours. While many persons had no problem with the request, even to pay for the test, there was no way to get it within that timeframe. The result was that all the airlines refused to fly to Saint Lucia in June, indicating that maybe they will fly there from July.
One person with the handle MJM had this to say while commenting on some of the protocols released by some of the islands so far, that were highlighted on the ‘One Mile at a Time’ website, “Why would anyone voluntary submit to that? This sounds like a half-prison, half-vacation. It’s as if these tourism dependent countries and states have decided to commit economic suicide.”
You might be inclined to say MJM was being sensational, but you do need to think about it for a moment. And so, Saint Lucia because of the testing, and other countries yet to open borders, may find themselves still waiting on guests when the tea party is well underway in other parts of the region. In fact, on May 28th the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) warned that rapid testing is not the best way to diagnose COVID-19 cases, so what’s the point? You either accept the proper test – which takes five days – or drop it altogether. That’s not rocket science!
The question is, will the cure be more painful than the sickness in this instance? Because while some people may get COVID, it’s pretty easy to foresee that everyone will suffer the effects of the economic hardship virus. The vaccine for that may lie on a road much longer, rougher and painful than the one now being paved by AstraZeneca and Moderna.
It’s also clear the airlines are not playing around and everyone in the hospitality business should know how fickle airlift is – if you miss the boat today (or plane in this case) it might not come around anytime soon, and what do you do then?
The end result will be hotels, tours, rentals and other businesses that depend on tourism will be left with growing bills, including staff salaries, and with zero business and a depleted if non-existent revenue stream… the longer that goes on, the harder it gets to reopen. Worst case scenario is if some hotels will either shut down altogether and many have already had to lay off staff. We must assess how deep the potential damage to the overall sector may be, and how badly the fallout will be.