Economist Dr Vanus James has given the Prime Minister a passing grade to the Government's response to the threat posed by covid19 but thinks a more aggressive approach to testing should be implemented.
In a press conference on Monday, Dr Rowley announced drastic measures to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. Rowley said all borders will be closed to non-nationals – with the exception of health workers – for the next 14 days, all schools will be closed until April 20, all bars will be closed for the next 14 days, there will be no dine-in at restaurants and gatherings of 25 people and more will be discouraged.
James said, “I think, in general, they deserve good marks for what they’re doing on the health side.
“They are onto some things but there are a couple of critical things that they have not really addressed, maybe they haven’t addressed them as yet, but they have a start.”
James said he has observed "a significant difference between what WHO (World Health Organization) is saying about testing and what the press conference said today."
He added, "The WHO (Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday) says test, test, test. Test persons who have clinical symptoms, persons who were exposed to anyone diagnosed with covid19, and persons who recently visited countries where there is an outbreak.
"The Minister of Health and Dr (Michelle) Trotman said today that test should be reserved for persons showing clinical symptoms because of the risk of false negative and the risk of wasting swabs. This risk is explained by an insufficient build-up of the virus in the body."
James mulled, "It seems as if the testing strategy is based on the availability of testing materials rather than on the WHO standards. That is somewhat worrying."
Health Minister Terrance Deyalsingh said on Monday, "There are 3,000 covid19 test kits in Trinidad and Tobago and 1,000 more kits are on the way."
The economist said he agreed with the other measures announced which though drastic are “well-informed steps" to tackle the novel coronavirus.
“It’s particularly wise because you do need to prevent the intake of people who are, at least, not citizens and who are likely to bring the virus in when they come. Pretty much all countries are doing that now, so they’re following in that sense. It’s good short-term policy to restrict the spread of the virus,” he said.
“I guess that they’re monitoring the information through PAHO (Pan American Health Organization) and so on, what the rest of the world knows and they’re putting in place measures to treat with the basic, given that we don’t know much about the virus.
"The basic way to prevent the spread of the infection is social distancing, that’s in the mathematics of the infectious disease spread and so they’re doing pretty well at that."
James was critical of the attention, or lack thereof, Tobago seems to be getting.
“I think they are talking fundamentally about provisions for mitigation in Trinidad and I am not hearing much about possible provisions that could be made in Tobago.”
During the press conference, Deyalsingh said 300 beds will be made available in the shortest period of time to house persons who contract the virus. All 300 are available in Trinidad and James is of the view that a few should have been made available in Tobago. He said the Tobago House of Assembly-owned Manta Lodge and Sanctuary Villas, which were acquired in 2015, could be used as “they’re not doing anything with” it.
“Maybe they can retrofit one or both of them to provide some capacity here in Tobago. But that in the end is a call for the THA and I suppose to the extent that they do not push for that, they would get that kind of outcome. They’ve made their provisions in Caura and in Couva and in Arima and they’re going with that for now,” he said. Deyalsingh also said provisions are being made for beds at Napa in Port of Spain to be available.
On the economic impact, James said Rowley and the Minister of Finance clearly recognise covid19 as a “major threat."
“Oil prices would have crashed; gas prices have crashed and that’s done some damage to our revenue expectations relative to the budget.
“What struck me, based on the way the government conducted itself over the last five years is that they are practising do as I say not as I do, because now they find themselves in a position where the revenues have crashed, as happens frequently in all Caribbean countries. They are saying that we are going to keep expenditure where it is and borrow…That’s the same thing they criticised Kamla’s government for, so I thought that was a considerable amount of irony evident in the way they have been responding on the budget front.”
James said the measures taken against covid19 would have immense economic consequences.
“Taxis would take a hit in terms of transport; retail stores would take a hit in terms of the buying of their stocks and there is a rising rate of business failure.
“What you have to do when you face that is make provisions for it just as you’re making provisions on the health side. They’re making provisions for the workers but they’re not making provisions for the businesses. The most important thing you have to do, is keep your businesses afloat while the disease is running its course, so that when its done, the businesses are still there rather than bankrupt, they’re still there and available to restart the economy.”
He said it is “not enough to say close the bars and the businesses would figure it out, you have to figure it out and put forward a comprehensive plan that includes this aspect of the issue as well.”
James said Tobago will feel the brunt as its economy is highly dependent on visitors.
"You have to provide liquidity for the businesses.”