Letters & Opinion

Sandals, Grenada & COVID-19: What NOT to do in a crisis!

By Angus Jones

Grenada’s Health Minister Nickolas Steele is playing a very dangerous game at a very dangerous time, which, if left unchecked by Prime Minister Dr. Keith Mitchell, can have very dire consequences for Grenadians.

I have watched the unfolding saga between the Minister, his Chief Medical Officer and Sandals Grenada — and if there ever was a case of How NOT To Handle A Crisis in these COVID times, the Minister is the perfect example.

To add salt to injury, there is now an incident where the Ministry of Health issued a press release on January 3rd declaring Grenada suffered its first COVID death, a 72-year-old male it claims entered the country on December 16th. But the disclosure was met with pushback from the gentleman’s family, questioning the circumstances of his death, resulting in Minister Steele and the CMO cancelling a scheduled press briefing stating that ‘the Ministry is still in the process of ascertaining all the facts surrounding the island’s first COVID-19 related death’ due to the ‘absence of all the necessary information at this time.”

Curiously, I have learned that Sandals Grenada was not afforded the same courtesy, so one can therefore wonder why Minister Steele and the CMO, at the very onset, even before contact-tracing had begun, went on official public record alleging that ‘Sandals Grenada’ was the source of the outbreak — at a time when they would have also been ‘in the process of ascertaining all the facts.’

This whole episode carries an important lesson for all Ministers of Health and all CMOs throughout the Caribbean, of what NOT to do in such situations.
But it gets even better – or worse…

In an interview on MTV News on January 4th Prime Minister Dr. Keith Mitchell, while discussing ‘the Sandals situation’, said there were other quarantine facilities on the island that hosted holiday events, in violation of protocols.

Prime Minister Dr. Mitchell said: ‘Sometimes I hear some people criticizing the situation at Sandals, but some of the places that were supposed to be quarantine places and people you would expect to be responsible, in some of the places that we had, they were having activities which they know was not appropriate for a quarantine place — in fact, they had to be spoken to… they themselves did not live up to their promises.”
That’s an astounding revelation by none other than the Prime Minister, at a time when Minister Steele had stated, leaving no doubt, that Sandals WAS the source.
So, how could the minister and the CMO have arrived at that conclusion, if, according to his own Prime Minister, breaches were taking place at other institutions?
Minister Steele had also repeated the allegation during a media briefing on December 31st and in another statement after the resort demanded concrete evidence to support his claim.

During the media briefing, the Minister said he had based his allegations on numbers of cases, but again, as pointed out by the resort, numbers are one thing but to determine the origin of spread is much more difficult.

The Minister’s logic is based on the flawed but widely circulated premise, which the public had somehow come to believe, that there are islands in the Caribbean, including Grenada, that were somehow COVID-free.

In an article on identifying the source of an infection by Public Health England and published on the GOV.UK site on December 18th, it stated clearly: ‘Common exposures identify links between cases and possible outbreaks, but they do not provide definitive information about how transmission occurred.” The article added further: “What might appear like a workplace outbreak from the common exposure data could, for example, turn out to be people who each got infected because they share a home or travel together to work.”

Now, England has had more experience than most in dealing with COVID, particularly this new strain, so they should have a good idea what they are talking about.
So, at this stage the facts are that: One, the investigation and contact tracing had not yet started when the Minister and CMO accused Sandals of being the source; and Two, the Prime Minister himself has revealed that there were issues with other quarantine facilities.

Imagine that Sandals says it was not even contacted as part of any investigation. I can imagine nowhere else in the Caribbean where such a thing could occur.
So where does that leave things?

Sandals Grenada and the Government of Grenada have always enjoyed a healthy relationship, as the Prime Minister himself revealed. Many times, we have seen Sandals and the Grenada Tourism Authority holding hands and working together to promote Grenada and there can be no doubt that Grenada has benefitted tremendously from that successful relationship, built up over nearly a decade by the hard work of many extraordinary persons, the late great Sir Royston Hopkin being one of them.
It is therefore sad to see such a powerful legacy being jeopardized by what seems to have been a panic response by the Health Minister and the CMO.

In the meantime, the hotel has closed, over 600 people are no longer at work, and Grenada is making international headlines for all the wrong reasons. And from the tone of the public conversation now, it seems the island may have soured its relationship with the largest private sector investor and employer on the island. They also have a Sandals-related call center on the island employing over 300 more persons.
But all is not lost and the situation can still be hopefully fixed.
At the moment, all the wrong steps appear to have been made by one person — the Minister of Health. That, at least, is a problem Prime Minister Mitchell can himself correct — and one which, for the sake of Grenada’s future, he will hopefully correct swiftly.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This letter was submitted before the death of Sandals Resorts International Founder and Chairman Hon. Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart.)

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