British High Commissioner Harriet Cross

It is safe to call British High Commissioner to T&T Harriet Cross, a COVID-19 diplomat.

The High Commissioner is no stranger to handling crises during diplomacy. In 2015 as Deputy High Commissioner, she oversaw the evacuation of the Yemen British Embassy during the conflict there no doubt smoothed by her experience as International Policy Adviser for the UK’s National Crime Agency.

Having arrived in Trinidad last September Ms Cross would not have flinched either at the lockdown or at being in a country with high rates of drug and gang homicides even as her country was being battered by COVID-19,

Eight months on, she can safely agree that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is willing to learn from his mistakes as he recently announced an investigation into his own government’s initial handling of the COVID-19 pandemic that led to the deaths of more than 127,000 British people.

If Mr Johnson is unafraid of looking at his governance during a pandemic in the face, it’s because he successfully pulled the UK from the brink with his mass vaccination programme. Some 35.6 million people in the United Kingdom–more than two-thirds of the adult population, have had their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and the UK is set to ease a four-month lockdown with indoor socialising, overnight stays, restaurant dining and foreign holidays.

Can T&T expect a similar outcome as we face the spectre of rising infections and deaths?

UNICEF has said that the UK and other G7 countries have purchased over a third of the world’s vaccine supply, despite making up only 13 per cent of the global population–risking leaving low-income countries behind.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that this second year of the pandemic is set to be deadlier than the first and urged rich countries to reconsider plans to vaccinate children and instead donate COVID-19 shots to the COVAX scheme for poorer countries.

‘Nobody is safe until everybody is safe’.

This week’s Economist estimates that ten million people are dead from the pandemic and the majority (6.7 million) are from low-and middle-income countries like us in T&T.

In this interview with journalist and columnist IRA MATHUR last week, the British High Commissioner to T&T shares the lessons learned by her country which currently appears to be winning the war against COVID-19.

The UK’s official death toll is 127,629–from the highest deaths in Europe, you are now the most vaccinated, with low infections and deaths, opening up. What accounts for that?

Five main things. The first, lockdown. We locked down late but when we did, the death and infection rates dropped.

Second. Being transparent. That helps compliance. The T&T Government is doing well in terms of a regular press conference. As a diplomat, I believe I hear accurate figures.

Third. Testing and tracing. Initially challenging, testing large swathes of the population was vital to recovery.

Fourth. Vaccines. Ultimately it is vaccines that are going to get us all out of this pandemic. So far, 35.6 million people in the United Kingdom, more than two-thirds of the adult population, have had the first dose of a COVID-19 Oxford/AstraZeneca, which gives a high level of protection, determines whether you will be hospitalised and pass it to other people. That’s when UK numbers dropped.

Fifth. Every government wants to equally protect both health and economy of its population. It was a delicate balancing act with the UK coming to terms with shutting down the economy. The UK has a successful furlough scheme, the Government will pay a portion of wagers which was good in keeping small and medium-sized afloat. When you start opening again, you must survive. That balancing act can’t survive a long-term lockdown.

Bloomberg has ranked T&T as fifth among nine developing nations hardest hit by COVID-19 due to our rapidly rising infections (40 out of every 100 tests are COVID-19 positive) and mortality rate (at least two people die for every 100 infections.) Hope has arrived in the form of vaccine donations, the latest being from China. The US Government has donated two field hospitals to help our health system. Can we expect immediate assistance in our efforts to combat COVID-19 from the UK?

The UK has provided sanitation and PPE materials in the past, specifically in prisons. We are not aware of the shortage of PPE in the country and have not had any requests for aid but continue our project of digitising the Ministry of Health.

The worry has been that our porous borders have allowed in illegal immigrants who have brought in variants. Any plans to work with the Government on this?

We haven’t had a discussion on border security with the Ministry of National Security, but we’ve got a brilliant relationship with the police and prisons commissioner. We’ve assisted the TTPS with technology to investigate gun crime. T&T doesn’t qualify for aid given its relatively high income for a developing country, we are doing good projects on security.

By next week T&T would have received a further 100,000 WHO-approved vaccines from China to continue our vaccination population. Yet many people across T&T remain suspicious of it, perhaps those who need it the most. Reports out of the UK show that the deaths have been disproportionately high in the Afro/South Asian community–a demographic like ours that did not want to take the vaccine. How do we combat this?

In the UK, the Black and Asian population had higher vaccine hesitancy due to the socio-economic and health inequities. It’s a vicious cycle. Poorer people have less access to health care or healthy lifestyles, less likely to take a vaccine and more likely to die if infected with COVID-19. Certain sections of the population are more vulnerable to chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, comorbidities that put people at risk of dying from COVID-19.

The further you feel the centre of power, the less inclined you will take the vaccine. People are suspicious and understandably so, especially if they are asked to take it by a politician they didn’t vote for.

We developed an excellent vaccine outreach programme to combat this.

Firstly, we found it was best to be transparent and open rather than just saying ‘It’s good for you’. We told people exactly what was in the vaccines and said, ‘These are the risks but the risks of dying if you don’t take the vaccine are much higher.’

Secondly, we let communities take ownership in convincing their communities. For instance, we would ask imams to convince Muslims that the vaccines were halal, safe and would save their lives.

We did this for every community, in the languages of the community where people they trusted came out and said, ‘I had my vaccine, and this is how it will save my life and yours.’

If you get locals who are admired and trusted in their community to say ‘it’s not just about your life but protecting the vulnerable in the society–the grandmother you play cards with, the uncle who teaches you maths’–you are likely to believe them as that connection is more robust and more authentic than a politician telling them what to do.

Finally, we removed barriers to get vaccinated. People in lower socio-economic groups who are taking public transport harder than someone just going to jump into the car.

UNICEF has called on the UK to make donations of vaccines a priority immediately. Would it make a difference if Caricom negotiated directly with you as a block for vaccines given the commonwealth link, rather than through COVAX?

We don’t want to negotiate based on what will bring us the most popularity but the most equitable. We will give to COVAX. The UK has had the highest number of deaths in Europe. It’s been traumatic, and before we give more to COVAX, we need to make sure our people are safe from the variants. We need to be credited for giving 548 million pounds to COVAX and a further billion pounds due to our COVAX advocacy with other countries. The old lady in Couva who received her AstraZeneca vaccine did so partially because of the efforts of a UK firm who delivers vaccines at cost.

Diplomacy in the time of COVID. What’s it like?

Much of diplomacy happens in the margins, during a coffee break at a seminar, the two minutes you chat with a government minister or college at official events or when you walk through the door. Now you have formal online webinars. I have visited many places from Tobago to Mayaro meeting senior decision-makers, and fantastic Trinis in small groups. That said, Trinidadians are great communicators online, and trade and investment is thriving. There is a huge market in the UK for food, drink, ammonia, and we are strengthening that.

With the dip in the oil and gas industry, we are working with local firms to develop clean energy and transferring technology.

Our social projects continue unabated, and we are funding rehabilitation and safety projects for survivors of domestic violence with the Lily Foundation, as well as LGBTQ groups towards human rights and equality and have provided laptop to patients in COVID wards so they can communicate with families. The High Commission is very busy despite COVID-19 and that’s the silver lining.