By SIR RONALD SANDERS
IN Antigua and Barbuda and Barbados there is outrage in some quarters that the US Embassy, accredited to these countries, has listed them as “Level 4 – very high” for risk of infection with the coronavirus. Under this categorisation, the US Embassy cautions their citizens and residents not to travel to these countries.
Even though it may be based on misunderstandings of the criteria being applied by the US Embassy, the outrage is understandable for two reasons. First, Antigua and Barbuda and Barbados rank at 26 and 33 respectively of the countries that have inoculated a high percentage of their population with at least one dose of a vaccine. Antigua and Barbuda has vaccinated 29.4 percent of their inhabitants and Barbados 24.75 per cent as of April 22. Second, the numbers of infected persons are declining in both countries.
These factual situations suggest the two countries should not be on the highest level of caution to US residents who comprise a significant number of the tourists to the Caribbean. However, to be fair to the US Embassy, its travel advisories have been issued in accordance with new measurements issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US.
Under those new yardsticks, Antigua and Barbuda and Barbados join eight other Caribbean countries at “Level 4”. These eight countries are among the main Caribbean competitors for US tourism. They are: The Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, Guyana, Jamaica, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, US Virgin Islands and Saint Martin. Furthermore, much larger, and richer countries are also on the current “Level 4” list, including Canada, the UK, Germany, Switzerland and Sweden. Therefore, the “Level 4” categorisation should not be regarded as an attempt to disadvantage Antigua and Barbuda or Barbados.
Through no fault of the governments or the health authorities of the two countries and, despite the herculean efforts that both have made amid gravely declining revenues, the single event that ran afoul of the new CDC criteria is the spike in the number of infected persons over the 28-day cycle, preceding the travel advisory. These spikes took Antigua and Barbuda and Barbados over the threshold set for infected cases per 100 persons of the population.
Regrettably, what this boils down to is the refusal of some sections of the population to follow the rules set down for masking and physical distancing. Those who have ignored safety rules contributed to spikes in the number of infected cases. Those, who now refuse to be vaccinated, are ready hosts for the virus to infect. They, too, are contributing to the likelihood of increasing cases.
Governments understand both the frustration that people feel from living in the restrictions, caused by COVID-19, over the past year, as well as the fear that has been generated about being inoculated. Therefore, they have been systematically trying to ease restrictions, recognising that no country in the world can eliminate them while the pandemic prevails.
Indeed, until at least 70 to 80 percent of any country’s population is vaccinated, the removal of restrictions, that everyone craves, will not happen. This is why everyone should be willing to endure the restrictions until inoculation reaches herd immunity.
If the spikes in infection continue because of disregard for safety rules and refusal to be vaccinated, then the US and other countries will be constrained, in their own interest, to recommend that their people do not visit.
What all this says is that people in the Caribbean can influence the level of caution at which their countries are placed by the CDC in the US and by agencies in other countries. Those who choose to ignore the safety rules are endangering their own health and the persons with whom they are in most contact. They are also imperilling the livelihoods of everyone else in their countries by delaying the time when the economies can open, bringing back jobs; generating income and savings; and restoring freedom.
An observation of Dominican-born, Dr Carissa Etienne, the indefatigable Director of the Pan American Health Organisation, is worth recalling: “Every person that is hesitant to get the vaccine can become part of the sad statistics – one of the thousands of deaths that occur daily due to COVID-19.”
Given the current dire circumstances of most Caribbean economies, particularly the ones highly dependent on tourism, they need to open soon to have any chance of shortening a painful period to recovery.
Conversations will be held with the CDC in the coming days by diplomatic representatives like me and agents of health authorities – as has happened in the past – to review the level at which Caribbean countries are listed. The CDC has no interest in harming Caribbean countries. Once the rate of infection is reduced and testing and inoculations continue, the agency will adjust the level.
How soon Caribbean countries get to levels 2 and 1, removing travel cautions, is dependent on how committed Caribbean people are to making themselves as free as possible of the coronavirus.
This is not a time to be outraged at the efforts of others to protect their own; it is a time for Caribbean people do everything necessary to protect themselves.
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The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organization of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own.