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COVID-19: “We have to have a way to bring money into our economy.” – Dr. Hesketh Vanterpool

Well-known doctor and businessman in the British Virgin Islands, Dr. Hesketh Vanterpool talked COVID-19 and the economy on the Honestly Speaking Talk show with host Claude Skelton-Cline last Thursday.

While many countries around the world are experiencing deadly surges of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), the British Virgin Islands, an overseas Territory of the United Kingdom, currently has zero active cases and is expected to reopen its borders to visitors on 1 December. The BVI has proven that its health response protocols do really work to stop the virus from spreading in communities but the economic fallout in the BVI like in many other nations has placed Governments under pressure to balance COVID-19 and their economies.

Speaking on what should leadership, both Governmental and otherwise, be bringing to bear that would help to facilitate and provide some kind of conditions so that life can carry on in some meaningful fashion in the islands, Dr. Vanterpool said that, “The whole world is in a pandemic..and at this time nobody has the real answer on how to move forward. We know that the coronavirus spreads pretty easily and that not only is it highly contagious but it is a fairly deadly virus.”

November, December, January and February are generally the winter tourist season where many tourists flock Caribbean destinations for their warm weather but the COVID-19 pandemic is spreading at a significant rate in several of these countries that would generally patronize the Caribbean shores at winter time. A trip to the BVI will not be possible without adhering to the protocols the BVI Government has put in place for arrivals from 1 December. However, the new protocols have come under fire from members of the business community due to its strict rules which include quarantining, testing at specified intervals and wearing a mobile device for tracking persons.

Undoubtedly, there are fewer persons working now than in the first quarter of the year and the virus has affected all aspects of life including closure of schools and ports at different intervals. The situation could have been far worst if there had been mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis in the small Territory of about 30,000 population. Were it not for the pandemic, the Andrew Fahie led Government administration could have been on a direct path of focusing on its mandate without interruption or alteration.

If control of the virus is lost, it’s quite possible that the economic fallout may become even far worst than what it is now. The BVI has recorded one death among the 72 cases recorded in the Territory since the virus entered its shores. The higher the number of cases that the BVI gets would put the Territory at a greater chance of recording more deaths. “A certain percentage of the people who get infected are going to get very sick, end up in the hospital. Many are going to end up on ventilators and a smaller percentage of those are going to die from this virus,” Dr. Vanterpool added to the conversation on the Honestly Speaking talk show.

Although only a small percentage of persons die from COVID-19, it has proven that the virus can take any life; young or old. Young people are dying in the Caribbean region from the virus. An 18 year old female is the latest young person to die from the virus in Trinidad and Tobago as reported by their health authorities last Wednesday. Persons with pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and other conditions are at greater risk of being severely affected by the virus and can even die.

When it comes to managing the virus, the BVI Government can credibly claim to have outdone many other countries in the Caribbean and the wider world in terms of the management of the disease to date. However, what is perhaps less appreciated is the degree to which the BVI has succeeded with COVID-19 amid the economic fallout impacting the entire world.

The World Health Organization encourages countries to starve the virus, but implementing health measures that do that could also mean hunger and poverty, job loss and increased business closures. The tourism industry has been hit the hardest in the Caribbean region. When asked what is the tolerance of the BVI health system and what the BVI can bear, Dr. Vanterpool stated that the ideal situation would be for no cases to show up at all in the BVI…but if that is the case our economy will totally disappear. It means no foreign exchange will come into the country [except through areas] like the financial services industry.”

Confidence to open the borders

He added that “we have to have a way to bring money into our economy. All tourism will die if we don’t allow tourists to come back. The tourism business will die if we don’t allow the tourists to come back to the community. The taxi men will continue to not make a living. Medical services even though I’m mostly dealing with the local people, eventually the local people will not have anymore money. Eventually, NHI [National Health Insurance] can’t continue to support itself. So we do have to alllow commerce. We have to allow people to come back into the Territory.”

Although the doctor expressed that the BVI must open up, he also said that “Resources run out fairly quick”, but I think initially we should be able to cope with some cases of COVID but if it becomes a huge number and it starts to get serious community spread we will have trouble.”

With zero active cases in the BVI, public confidence may be at its best somewhat to open up the economy. The Government has demonstrated good progress in suppressing the virus and building their health capacity. The necessary capabilites like testing, contact tracing, quarantining and implementing mandatory face mask laws to combat the disease have been established. The public especially the business community may feel that the BVI is at a level where the Government can take the chance to open up and keep the virus at a low level. However, the hard truth is that even after opening up borders not every business will be viable to survive COVID-19. A transitional strategy supported by Government is necessary for the most damaged sectors. Tourism for one has to be re-examined into a more conventional way.

In expressing his views on the marine sector, Dr. Vanterpool told the Honestly speaking host that “If you brought in a family or a group of tourists who were tested negative on the way coming in and then we did a test, an initial test, I’m of the feeling that we can put those persons straight on the boat instead of making them stay in a hotel and get all these test… Why can’t those people go straight to the boat?” “They don’t have to interact with the local people to a great degree because they can order their supplies online. They don’t have to go to the supermarket”.

Although the sentiment is to open up for commerce, the doctor said that COVID-19 is very dangerous. “It can be spread very easily. It can be spread even if people are asymptomatic. You can spread the virus before you know you have it,” he said.

Vaccine is the best hope

No one has the right answer or the perfect plan to handle COVID-19 but Governments are mandated to find a way to keep the cases to a minimum that can be handled. Dr. Vanterpool told host Skelton-Cline that COVID is not going to go away for a while yet and that the BVI’s “best hope is to get a vaccine, properly tested, that can be administered and hope that the majority of people are willing to accept the vaccine… “In the meanwhile, we have to keep the people alive to get the vaccine.”

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