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Marlene Attzs

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T&T has been ranked second in the world in terms of its readiness to end stay-at-home measures but the Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh is insisting our guards should not be let down.

The information was revealed in an April 23 University of Oxford study entitled “Lockdown rollback checklist: Do countries meet WHO recommendations for rolling back lockdown?”

According to the Lockdown Rollback Checklist portion of the report, T&T is currently sitting second only to Vietnam on readiness to readiness to reopen activity following shutdowns implemented to fight the virus’ spread.

The statistics in the study were based on six categories of measures governments need to have in place before rolling back ‘lockdown’ measures as outlined by the World Health Organisation (WHO). It used a colour code to measure the rating, with the brightest gold representing the least ready and the darkest blue indicating the readiest.

The categories were:

• COVID-19 transmission is controlled to a level of sporadic cases and clusters of cases, all from known contacts or importations; at a minimum, new cases would be reduced to a level that the health system can manage based on healthcare capacity.

• Sufficient public health workforce and health system capacities are in place to enable the major shift from detecting and treating mainly serious cases to detecting and isolating all cases, irrespective of severity and whether there is local transmission or an importation.

• Outbreak risks in high-vulnerability settings are minimised, which requires all major drivers or amplifiers of COVID-19 transmission to have been identified, with appropriate measures in place to maximise physical distancing and minimise the risk of new outbreaks.

• Preventive measures are established in workplaces.

• Manage the risk of exporting and importing cases from communities with high risks of transmission.

• Communities are fully engaged and understand that the transition away from large-scale movement restrictions and public health and social measures —from detecting and treating serious cases to detecting and isolating all cases—is a “new normal” in which prevention measures would be maintained and that all people have key roles in preventing a resurgence in case numbers.

The Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT) notes that it currently provides information relevant to recommendations 2, 4 and 6.

“We combine this with epidemiological data from the European Centre for Disease Control on cases and deaths, provided by Our World in Data, which address recommendation 1.”

In terms of T&T, for the cases controlled and managing imported cases categories, it received the darkest blue colour. For community understanding T&T was one tone short of the darkest blue coding and for testing, tracing and isolating it received a grey coding.

The OxCGRT said “because the data only measures four of six recommended actions, we should be cautious about inferring what countries are ready to rollback lockdown from this measure. Indeed, the data provides a better indication of what countries are not ready.”

It said, therefore, that the checklist should be seen as a starting point for assessing a country’s preparedness for leaving lockdown measures.

“In particular, we note that the OxCGRT data measure countries’ stated policies, not how well they implement them,” it noted.

Asked about the study yesterday, Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh said, “The Oxford University report is a very good report, it paints us in an excellent light.”

He said it was “testimony to what we have been saying all along, that our response to COVID led by the Prime Minister was a robust one and we would only get this type of recognition outside of Trinidad and Tobago.”

However, Deyalsingh noted that citizens should not let the Oxford report “lull us into a false sense of security.”

Also commenting on the report was political analyst Dr Winford James, who was cautiously optimistic about making decisions solely based on the Oxford University statistics and report.

“If you ask me for one reason as to why we should not reopen the country, I’d say that we don’t have the right level of comfort as to the situation because we have not done the kind of testing we should have done,” James said.

He said there is economic wreckage taking place on both islands due to COVID-19 and the Stay-at-Home Regulations and while the economy could be reopened, it should not be if the hurdle of inadequate testing is not crossed.

James said he was still not confident at the amount of testing done so far, adding the medical personnel may not have a true picture of what is taking place in the country.

Economics lecturer at the University of the West Indies, Dr Marlene Attzs, also warned against taking action too quickly and from an economic standpoint.

“I think the issue of reopening should be based on the Ministry of Health and if they’re comfortable with the epidemiological/clinical data they have and that should inform reopening of the economy,” Attzs said.

“While the Oxford report puts T&T in a good position, I’m sure other factors will drive the Government of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago’s decision on reopening. We also have to be mindful of the dynamics in other countries and factor whether persons from those countries might affect us when we reopen.”

But another economist, Dr Indera Sagewan, agreed it was time to reopen the economy but on a phased basis. She said outside of the report, given the length of time of the Stay-at-Home measures thus far, number of cases and deaths and government’s good handling of the situation, the time had come to start easing restrictions. She also said the health system seems ready to handle a second wave of the virus should it occur.

Sagewan, however, cautioned that there are other critical variables, in particular, the preparedness of sectors like restaurants, that have to be reopened and need to be given priority. She said measures at business-places, such as mandatory use of PPE (personal protective equipment), thermal scanners and the heavier integration of technology should be explored.

Sagewan said this should be the priority of the economic review team set up by Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley.

How countries plan to reopen on phased basis

• Austria will reopen some smaller shops, hardware and garden stores but people will have to wear masks to supermarkets and on public transport. From May 1, all stores, shopping centres and hairdressers will open; restaurants and hotels will open from mid-May at the earliest.

• The Czech Republic on April 6 allowed shops such as hardware and bicycle stores to re-open. Outdoor sports facilities have also reopened. Starting on April 20, students will begin a phased return to colleges and schools, but high schools are not expected to fully open until September 1. From June 8, all retail stores, including those in shopping centres, all restaurants, hotels and other accommodation will be allowed to reopen.

• Denmark will reopen daycares, kindergartens and schools (up to 5th grade) on April 22, while other bans, such as on gatherings of more than ten people, will remain in place until May 10. Churches, cinemas and shopping centres will remain closed. All festivals and large gatherings are banned until August.

• Germany will allow stores with a sales area of less than 800m to reopen on April 20 if they maintain hygiene and prevent lines from forming. Schools with hygiene plans in place will gradually reopen from May 4, with priority given to primary and secondary pupils in final years, while daycare centres will remain shut. Other social distancing measures, along with bans on large public events, will remain in place.

• Italy allowed bookstores, laundries, stationery stores and children’s clothing stores to reopen on April 14. “Phase 2” of the three-phase reopening plan will start sometime after May 3. Businesses that reopen will be required to make hand sanitizer available, enforce the use of masks in enclosed spaces, and use disposable gloves to handle food and drink.

• Norway is prioritising reopening schools and will begin to scale back its lockdown measures from April 20, when kindergartens will start to reopen. A week later, schools will reopen for pupils in grades one to four.

• Spain allowed many non-essential employees to return to work after the Easter weekend. Construction and other industries have been allowed to restart, but non-essential stores, bars, and restaurants remain closed. Spanish police are distributing more than ten million masks to commuters at metro, bus and train stations.

• Switzerland has extended social distancing restrictions to April 26, but might relax other measures later this month, including border controls, school closures and bans on gatherings, if the virus’ spread is kept in check.

Other countries that plan to reopen:

• China has largely removed restrictions on mobility while tightening policy to contain the virus transmission of asymptomatic cases.

• India has extended what is currently the world’s biggest lockdown through May 3.

• Japan has tightened its approach, declaring a state of emergency in Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka, the country’s three biggest cities.