By Orville Williams
As Antigua and Barbuda and many other countries across the region prepare for a marked increase in tourist arrivals, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) says it will be monitoring the situation, due to the sustained risk of Covid-19 spread in these territories.
According to the Cabinet, approximately 200,000 cruise passengers are expected to visit the island between June and December this year, from a single cruise operator. This is in addition to the thousands of air passengers expected over the same period, with British Airways alone planning to increase its operations in the country to approximately nine weekly flights.
The government has outlined several new protocols for this expected rebound, including an agreement with the majority of the tourism sector for all employers and employees to get vaccinated, as they will be expected to physically engage with the visitors.
Similarly, some of the major cruise operators have already indicated that they will only be accommodating vaccinated travellers, to reduce the risk of infection spread both while at sea and on the ground in their destinations.
Despite these measures though, Antigua is still only about halfway to herd immunity, with around 33,500 people having received a first dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.
That’s where the concern from PAHO comes in. While the tourists and the employees within the tourism sector will be mostly vaccinated, the majority of the population remains unvaccinated and is therefore, still very susceptible to getting infected.
The ‘bubble’ concept is being utilised in several contexts around the world and has worked to protect individuals from infection in many cases. However, there are also several examples of minor breaches becoming major issues and causing the collapse of the well-organised bubbles.
Dr Ciro Ugarte, Director of Health Emergencies at PAHO, told Observer in a media conference yesterday, that countries like Antigua and Barbuda should be guided by both current and past events when deciding on the reopening of the tourism sector.
“Considering the Covid-19 transmission events that occurred during last summer when several countries attempted to reopen [for] tourism, particularly cruise ships, we have advised the countries to take this decision with utmost caution.
“Similarly, the present evolution of the spread of the virus across the Americas and other regions, [along with] the unknowns regarding the impact of Covid-19 vaccines – reduction of transmission of the virus – that is another area the countries should consider.”
Dr Ugarte noted that PAHO is cognisant of the economic struggles facing countries heavily dependent on tourism, assuring that they would be keeping up to date with pronouncements from agencies like the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in monitoring and supporting countries in the reopening of the tourism sector.
He added that national authorities in these countries that are reopening, should be prepared for the worst-case scenario of increased Covid-19 infections, even while executing the measures meant to protect both the tourists and the local population.
There is much to consider on the part of both the health authorities and the government toward the reopening, as the line between risk and reward remains very thin.
Get the decision wrong and the increased infections, coupled with the further impact on the already-struggling economy, would be devastating.
If the established protocols were to work effectively though – meaning tourists returning in droves and the infection rate remaining low – the boost to the economy would prove the decision to reopen as possibly the best since the start of the pandemic.