By Demion McTair Updated 10:40 a.m., Saturday, 11 April 2020, Atlantic Standard Time (GMT-4)
EDITORIAL: Managing crises is not easy, especially public health crises.
All eyes are on you and every thing you say or do can and will be held against you.
People are also looking for someone to blame and you will definitely be a target.
You cannot act too little, you cannot act too late. You cannot engage in obfuscation or cover up, or evasion, else you will lose the trust of the public.
You have to play the right cards at the right time. Here are five of those cards played right by the Ministry of Health, Wellness and the Environment in their Covid-19 national response so far:
1. Pushed for Legislation: Perhaps the biggest achievement thus far, the update to the Public Health Act of 1977, which received bi-partisan support in Parliament was indeed a laudable move.
The move gives proper legal backing to authorities to adequately quarantine people and deal with people who break quarantines. It also recognizes the rights of such persons by giving them the legal right to seek out an attorney if they feel their rights have been infringed upon.
Another great thing about the updated legislation is that it gives the Minister of Health the power to declare a public health emergency.
2. Aggressively Pursued Local Testing Capacity: Currently, St. Vincent and the Grenadines relies on the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) lab to conduct Covid-19 testing. It also has available, courtesy of the Government of Barbados, the Best-Dos Santos Laboratory.
It has not, however, felt satisfied with that status quo. The Ministry, through the Central Government has been working towards local testing and that goal came closer to reality yesterday when Venezuela donated some 3,000 rapid-testing kits and other supplies.
Gene testing equipment – another way to test for Covid-19 has also been received. Hopefully, shipping arrangements are in their favour to get the other equipment needed to make this type of testing a reality soon.
3. Sought the assistance of Cuba and Taiwan: Without a shadow of a doubt, Cuba and Taiwan are public health giants. Having them in your corner is always going to be a plus. Taiwan, in particular, has had very low number of Covid-19 cases and experts say that this is due to their strong public health and history of dealing with infectious disease outbreaks such as SARS.
Both countries have brought assistance in terms of medical equipment and personnel to help SVG manage Covid-19.
4. Robust Contact Tracing: After it emerged that patient two broke a mandatory quarantine and made contact with other people, Health officials moved very swiftly with their contact tracing efforts.
This led to scores of people being put under quarantine.
5. Testing before release from quarantine: Perhaps one of the most underrated move the ministry has made thus far is that it has tested asymptomatic people whose quarantine period had been fulfilled, before releasing them into the public domain.
This, however, is a very commendable move, especially since people can show no symptoms but still carry the disease.
This move, will in no doubt serve to protect the public from import-related or even community spread of the virus.
6. Ensured protection of health care workers: So far, no front line worker has been tested positive for Covid-19. With 12 cases so far, this is a good sign. Dr. Simone Keizer-Beache announced measures to protect health care workers, including the procurement of more N95 masks.
As public transportation becomes less available, the ministry stepped in to provide transportation to ensure essential workers can get to and from work. This is commendable.
Though the ministry has played some of its cards correctly, there are others that need to be examined quickly.
Here are some recommendations:
Boost confidentiality: If patient zero’s account of her ordeal is correct, then the ministry has some tightening up to do where holding and securing confidential information are concerned.
Improve flow of information: This may seem like a strange point since the Health Minister himself updates the nation daily, mainly through his facebook page.
Mixed or confusing information released otherwise by other people, however, can frustrate his efforts as they can be misconstrued for cover-up.
Information released on infographics must be consistent with information released otherwise. For instance, if one senior government official announces that 32 people will finish quarantine and their samples taken and sent for testing, it will be bad to communicate thereafter that 30 samples were sent for testing and leave the public hanging about the other two.
Similarly, putting out a graphic which says number of swabs done = 86 (90*), with no explanation as to what that means also leaves the public hanging and opens doors to speculation.
Communicate more meticulously: Some level of social distancing must be practiced at press conferences and other public forums to show the public that what is being preached is also being practiced by those who preach it.