How A Little Island In The Caribbean Sea Is Standing Up To The Goliath Of Coronavirus
Originally posted on Forbes.com
It is 9 am on a Saturday morning at Hurley’s supermarket in Grand Cayman and there is no hint of “business as usual”. Members of the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service are manning the supermarket entrance, while security guards spray shoppers’ hands with antibacterial fluid. Winding dividers direct hundreds of compliant shoppers who file through electric doors, every several minutes and at least six feet apart.
Caymanians are restocking on supplies after having just emerged from a “hard curfew”. No one other than “essential workers” have been allowed outside of the boundaries of their homes— not even to take a run or walk a dog— and supermarkets, pharmacies and a handful of essential businesses are the only signs of commercial activity.
But Cayman’s Premier, the Honourable Alden McLaughlin, has a reason to be proud. With just 8 cases of COVID-19 and one death, there have been no confirmed instances of community transmission in the Cayman Islands— all positive cases have been connected to travellers.
On a number of fronts, one can say that 2020 has not been smooth sailing for the 3-island archipelago. On January 28th, an earthquake of 7.7 Mw shook the 102 square mile island as well as its neighbours, Jamaica and Cuba. Almost one month later, the British territory struggled with what many have considered to be a Brexit-driven blacklisting on EU’s list of non-cooperative tax jurisdictions, and in early March, local schools and residents were forced to evacuate when the island’s landfill burst into a historic blaze that would take days to bring under control.
To add insult to injury, the government and members of civil society have not been seeing eye to eye on a number of proposed government initiatives, including a $200 million government proposal to develop its cruise berthing facility.
But as coronavirus trickled its way into the Americas, Cayman began what has come to be recognised as one of the most proactive and decisive disease containment strategies in the hemisphere— a policy regime that has put its people first—at the expense of everything else, including the highly influential cruise industry.
These decisions have not been without backlash. In February, the Executive Chairman of MSC Meraviglia, criticised Cayman for denying entry to the ship, after one of its crew appeared to have symptoms of the virus, stating that local authorities acted out of “fear”, and Carnival cruises opted to change routes, bypassing Cayman because of its stringent anti-COVID-19 measures.
On March 11, when the World Health Organisation announced that the COVID-19 outbreak had reached the level of a global pandemic and public health experts urged governments to take immediate aggressive action, Cayman had no need to be reactive.
The government had already implemented COVID-19 regulations about a week and a half prior to the announcement— despite not having yet identified a single case of the virus within its borders.
But just one day later, a 68-year old cruise ship passenger who was being treated for a cardiac condition at a local health facility tested positive for COVID-19, to which he would succumb within 48-hours.
Within days, schools were closed and public gathering bans of 50 or more persons (later whittled down to 10 or more persons) were implemented. All patients and staff of the local health facility as well as the people with whom they had come into contact were quarantined.
By March 16th, amid stories of the rampant spread of the virus at sea, and three days after President Trump declared a national emergency in the United States, cruise ships were banned from docking in Grand Cayman and by March 22nd, Cayman bade farewell to its final visitors for at least an initial 21-days, as borders came to a close.
For a country that relies on tourism for about 70% of its GDP and 75% of foreign currency earnings, this decision was difficult— but necessary.
“The lives of our people in the Cayman Islands are our first and foremost concern,” said Tourism Minister, Moses Kirkconnell.
Public orders fluctuated between a ‘soft curfew’ or shelter in place orders, requiring residents to stay at home except for essential activities, to a ‘hard curfew’ or 24-hour lockdown which prohibited all movement within the community, except for that of essential workers.
“We do not know the extent of community transmission,” said the Premier in defence of these decisions. “We have to act like it is everywhere. We need people to stay home.”
Communication was and has been expedient and transparent. Every day and sometimes twice a day, the Premier, the Chief Medical Officer, the Minister of Health, the Governor and an invited official face the community live, via YouTube and Facebook Live to update the country on the latest developments— which have been known to change drastically from one day to the next.
Each of the characters at the table has a unique role. Premier, Alden McLaughlin refers to himself as “the grim reaper” and has been the carrier of news from around the world and the voice of new regulations. Minister of Health, Dwayne Seymour, has served as the “Christian” voice on the panel, offering prayers to the country. Chief Medical Officer, Dr. John Lee, delivers medical news and advice and Governor, Martyn Roper, has been the voice of the mother country.
Residents are provided with access to free SMS government notices, a dedicated coronavirus government information website and a list of hotlines for questions and reports.
Social support has also been strong and stipends have been provided to those who are struggling the most. Cayman’s fiscal strength has provided it with the unique flexibility to support the economy for several months, according to the Premier, but as with the rest of the world, no one knows how much support will ultimately be required and it is certain that it will take a while to recover.
Also impressive is the strong spirit of collaboration between the public and private sectors. When Caymanian students began to fly in from UK boarding schools and universities, three local hotels volunteered their properties to serve as quarantine facilities as per the government order that all travellers self-isolate for two weeks.
The highly competitive financial sector unanimously offered three-month mortgage moratoriums, utility companies put a hold on disconnections and gas stations lowered the price of fuel.
Cayman is lucky. Given its status as a British territory, the United Kingdom has provided support by way of public health consultations and has contributed supplies. Cayman’s sophisticated healthcare sector has made it the only British overseas territory that has been able to provide reliable onshore COVID-19 testing.
Early action, transparent communication and strict quarantine rules have been game changers for Cayman, but what has really made a difference has been the clear choice of life over money or politics.
“I don’t want a single one of my people, and that includes everyone who resides here, to die of this disease. That’s what we are aiming for,” said the Premier. “It could be you, it could be your mother, your grandmother, your sister, your auntie, your uncle, your father or it could be you… No one is trying to make your life more difficult. We are trying to save it. Please help us.”