Premier Alden McLaughlin has given a strident pushback against critics who question his government handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
In his strongest defence to date of his administration’s approach to the dual challenge of managing locally the most devastating global public health emergency in recent history while keeping the economy afloat, the doubled down on the steps put in place.
Priority number one, as he explained it, is suppressing the spread of the virus which has already claimed one life in here and has spread to 54 people to date.
“Some people say they want to know what the Government’s plan is. I say again the Government does have a plan. The plan is aimed at the suppression and the ultimate elimination of the virus within the confines of the Cayman Islands. All of the measures that we have taken so far and the ones that we are still taking are aimed at that ultimate goal.”
The second aspect of the government’s two-pronged approach is the economy, he reiterated.
“We are deeply conscious that our actions have grave financial impacts and indeed is causing and will continue to cause major hardship to many, many people, in fact almost everyone that is here. But it is necessary if we are to be able to effectively employ the only known means of containing and attempting to eliminate the virus.”
BIG GLOBAL ISSUE, BIGGER LOCAL CHALLENGES
Looking at the dual global public health and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Premier McLaughlin said:
“No country in the world has yet succeeded in eliminating it – not even China with all of its great efforts, I’ve just read some stats that cases are still popping up.
“Essentially the most important thing we can do, is to adhere to physical or social distancing - keeping people apart from each other. So everything we are doing is aimed at that,” he added.
In the absence of a vaccine, social distancing and reducing the extent of public gatherings has been the most effective strategy to date.
However, compliance by some members of the public has been a challenge resulting in many governments instituting complete lockdowns for limited periods.
The other proven method, while a vaccine is in development, is testing.
“Testing, testing, testing” has been the mantra of the World Health Organisation since it declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic on March 12th.
“TESTING, TESTING, TESTING”
Premier McLaughlin reports that the government is on the verge of considerably ramping up its testing capability.
“Until very recently we haven’t had the ability to test widely and we’re still not quite there because although we’ve got more test kits than we need, there are still other aspects of the process that are still being worked through,” he stated.
However, this is now expected to change in the next few days.
“Hopefully by next week we will be able to go very aggressively into testing of frontline personnel and just about anybody who we think, or they think, need or warrant being tested. That is the Government’s approach to this, suppression and ultimate elimination of the virus within the broad community, the Premier informed.”
He said that once that is in place, the expectation is that the current restrictions on public gatherings including the curfews will be gradually relaxed.
“Once we are able to do that we would be able to slowly release most of these restrictions that are currently in place and to allow the local economy to restart in a limited way.”
LIVES OR LIVELIHOODS
The burning question of restarting the economy is a huge challenge for governments around the world.
Some have resisted putting tough measures in place with a consequential risk to their citizens' lives.
On the other side of the coin is the threat to the economy and wrecked livelihoods.
It’s a matter which has also been occupying the Cayman government as Mr McLaughlin disclosed.
In his assessment of the global situation, he said: “We’ve seen what is being attempted in many other countries. Spain is now trying slowly to restart its economy. Looking at it with my inexpert eyes, I still think it’s very early for them to do that. We’ve seen though that they are successfully doing it in China.”
Locally, the challenge is even more acute and the risks greater as seen by the Premier from his unique vantage point.
“Cayman, of course, is a much smaller place and it is almost impossible for us to not have interaction with many, many people regardless of where they come from. This is a very small place and we all tend to congregate in many of the same areas.”
And he cautioned: “Trying to reopen Cayman district by district would be an absolute impossibility, we have to eliminate the disease as far as possible, within each of the islands, and even then unless we absolutely restrict travel between Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman we’re still potentially spreading the virus if it still remains within the local community.”
According to Premier McLaughlin, “the only way that we can effectively restart this economy is if we are able to effectively stamp out the virus here. Otherwise, nobody is going to want to move about these islands doing business, at least no sensible person, with the real risk that the virus is still there and that they might contract it.”
COMMENTS THAT CAUSE CONCERN
On that critical note, Mr McLaughlin directly questioned comments which in his view seem to suggest natural selection, which he considers abhorrent.
“It is deeply concerning to me and to us all, when we see and hear some of the very narcissistic comments that are made which contend that essentially we should just let the elderly and the vulnerable people die. Just accept they are causalities in this particular war and we just let them die off and the strong will survive and we can just get on with business,” he lamented.
“That is absolutely not the approach of the Government, and it’s absolutely not my approach,” he declared.
“Whatever measures that we have to employ, that gives every person that lives and breathes here an opportunity to survive this very difficult, very challenging, very dangerous time - we are going to employ.”
He further illustrated his point by referring to the decision to close the public beaches.
“Though it is with the deepest of regret that we have had to take the decision to close the beaches and access to the water. It is because there continue to be significant numbers of people who are absolutely reckless or completely blind to what is appearing on their television screens every single day about the ravages of this virus right across the world.
“Believe you me, I’ve seen some stuff written by ostensibly sensible people that left me absolutely shaking my head. I don’t know how anyone can believe that they are somehow immune to this virus because they are 35 or 40 years old.
“No-one knows how your body is going to respond to the virus, but it’s not just about you, you may survive it but you may be the instrument of another’s demise because you passed it to someone who passed it on to them. That’s the bit that some people just don’t seem to get.”
DEATH BY A THOUSAND CUTS
Invoking a particularly gruesome ancient Chinese method of execution as a metaphor, the Premier reinforced his appeal for people to adhere to social distancing and other measures put in place to halt the spread of COVID-19 in Cayman.
“If we can adhere to these protocols that have been put in place, we have a chance of being able to eliminate this in relatively short order. Otherwise it’s going to be one of two things: Death by a thousand cuts because the virus just slowly creeps through the community and it takes months and we’re under this set of restrictions or even more stringent ones for a much longer period of time.
Or we move to a full 21 day lockdown like they’ve had to do in some other places where only one member of the household is allowed out once a week to get necessary supplies.”
“It’s going to have to be one or the other,” he said, “because we can’t get into July and August under these restrictive provisions that are currently in place which are constantly being breached by a minority.”
Premier McLaughlin noted that most people are complying with the measures, but pointed out that “it doesn’t take more than a few to cause this virus to spread.”
PLEA AGAINST COMPLACENCY
He cautioned against complacency considering the large number of negative cases compared to those declared positive.
(Chief Medical Officer Dr John Lee’s latest report positive showed that overall to date there have been 526 negative results and 54 confirmed positive).
“Those stats might give people a sense of complacency,” Premier McLaughlin said, “but believe you me the situation that we have with the apartment complex in George Town that has just been reported should make everybody extremely concerned, it certainly makes us very concerned. And until we can go through the process of tracing and testing we all need to be absolutely on our guard.”
He again pleaded with residents of Cayman: “Do not leave your home unless you absolutely have to, it is the safest place you can be. That is the simplest message I can deliver, the most straight forward I can deliver. Stay home Cayman, we keep saying it over and over again. If we can suppress this virus effectively, we will be able to start doing all the things that we want to do again.”
In the same breath however, he again warned:
“If we continue the way we are with increasing positive cases, this is going to stretch out interminably and if you think you’re frustrated now, if you feel your liberties are being impinged upon, it is only going to get worse because the Government is resolute and determined that we are not going to allow this virus to spread right through this community.”
Mr McLaughlin gave a commitment that his administration is “going to give it every single effort we possibly can, employ every possible measure that we can, to keep that from happening.”
He ended his prepared statement with this emotive plea:
“Please my people work with us, I beg you, work with us. Let’s collectively be the only country in the world that effectively eliminates this virus and to get on with our domestic activities while the virus burns itself out around the rest of the world.”