Back in April the bottom fell out of Belize’s economy when tourism, our most important industry, became the first casualty of the pandemic. The tourists on cruise ships and the tourists on airplanes just stopped coming. There were massive layoffs in the industry. We were in a state of shock, and in that state our leaders expressed the ambition to reopen the airport (PGIA) to tourists on July 1.
The July 1 projection was way too ambitious, because Belize was under a state of emergency up to June 30, and the coronavirus was rampaging through the US, the country from which the most visitors to Belize come.
On June 25 there was cautious optimism when the Prime Minister announced that he and the Oversight Committee had agreed that we could pull off the airport reopening on August 15. Special guidelines were put in place for the tourists when they landed at the PGIA, only hotels that could provide full service to guests were allowed to open their doors, and cooks, waiters and guides were given specialized training to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the event any of the visitors had the disease.
On June 25 the only reported COVID-19 cases in Belize were either repatriates or border jumpers, and they were all under quarantine. At the time, the Director of Health Services, Dr. Marvin Manzanero, expressed more fear about an outbreak being sparked by Belizeans coming home under eased restrictions that would take effect on August 15, rather than by incoming tourists.
We were in a good place, in respect to the disease, and our capacity to stay in that good place was bolstered by friends from abroad. To help us in the fight against the disease the friendly government and people of Taiwan gave us 5,000 antibody rapid test kits and 640,000 surgical masks, and the friendly governments of the UK and Canada, and WHO/PAHO donated US$271,135 worth of protective gear. We had the physical equipment to contain COVID-19; the rest was up to the people and government of the country. The story did not have a happy ending.
All our hopes for the August 15 date were dashed when there was an explosion of cases on the number one tourist destination, San Pedro, and clusters were found in a few villages on the mainland. With San Pedro and the affected villages under a State of Emergency, and the number of new cases rising steadily, the August 15 plan to reopen the PGIA to tourists failed.
In mid-July we had single digit active cases, all under quarantine. Today is a far cry from where we were then. The latest report, on Sunday, August 30, is that there are 863 active cases in the country, most of them in the north and on San Pedro. It is a difficult time for Belize; we know we could slide further, and that would certainly compound the present disaster. We could slide further, but our hope, our expectation is, that we will turn things around.
Too many Belizeans are out of jobs, and we have an economy that is tanking. Some measures have been taken to help the jobless, and various packages to stimulate the productive sector have been provided to keep our businesses afloat, but these efforts are not enough. There’s no way of getting around it in the short term: prior to April, tourism accounted for fifty percent of our economy, and we can’t get that engine going soon enough.
We are still in the teeth of the storm, so to speak, but the Prime Minister announced last Friday a new date, October 1, for the reopening of the PGIA to tourists. We are banking on the protocols already developed for the planned reopening on August 15 to contain the disease, but the great hope is a new rapid test developed by Abbott Laboratories in the USA, which got the green light from that country’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA). If this rapid test is as good as it is promoted to be, we won’t have to worry too much about tourists spreading COVID-19 in Belize.
Before this rapid test can help save our tourism industry, we must save ourselves. Nobody wants to visit a country with a high COVID-19 rate, and at this time we are the owners of a tarnished jewel. Last week the Japanese government warned its people that Belize is on their list of countries to avoid because of our high incidence of the disease. We don’t get many tourists from Japan, but the Americans and the Canadians will not prefer our destination if we don’t have this virus under control.
We have a month to right our ship. The last time, when our target was August 15, our job was to stay on course, but we veered off and landed in the frightful second wave. Now our job is to get control of this COVID-19, so that October 1 can be the charm.
Spare no expense; give our health workers the best masks
At the virtual press conference held by the Prime Minister on Friday, the CEO in the Ministry of Health, Dr. George Gough, expressed concern about the number of frontline healthcare workers who have been infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and said that they are looking at the protocols as it relates to the face masks that they were issued. Dr. Gough said the healthcare workers might need to be issued an N-95 mask, which is more expensive than the ordinary surgical masks that they were using.
At the beginning of the pandemic, back in February/March, the US’s CDC and the WHO did not recommend that the general public wear face masks to prevent catching COVID-19, but shortly after we learned that this statement was made primarily with the objective to protect the limited world supply of N-95 masks for those who needed them most, the frontline health personnel. The cost of N-95 masks went up twentyfold and higher when the pandemic hit.
We saw what happened to frontline healthcare workers in countries that were hit by the virus before we were, because of poor quality protective gear. The Health CEO intimated that cost was the limiting factor, but that shouldn’t have stopped our people from having the best. Dr. Gough said that our present stock of N-95s is 11,000, and we have 100,000 coming in from donors. We also have 144,000 K-95s, a very good mask, in our warehouses, and another 100,000 of those coming in. Please, spare no expense; give our frontline healthcare workers the best protective gear.