Leader of the Opposition Godwin Friday says the Government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) needs to do a better job of informing the public about the coronavirus and preparing for it. The coronavirus (now known as Covid-19) has claimed over 2,000 lives internationally.
He made the observation at a press conference, on Tuesday, after a weekend in which social media content falsely claiming that the deadly virus had been confirmed in SVG, generated some panic.
The Ministry of Health had given, Friday night, an update mentioning the one person who it had said, a week earlier, had been placed in quarantine but it failed to mention that 16 other persons had been isolated in the same context.
In fact, iWitness News broke the news Sunday night that the Serious Offences Court had ordered that 15 persons be quarantined for at least 14 days.
Friday said that while the matter of the coronavirus is in the public domain, “we all have to be aware of and careful in the way in which we speak as well and also have to be constantly on the alert for new developments”.
He said there is great concern about the virus, the potential risks it poses and SVG’s level of preparedness to deal with them.
“The alarm was initially raised when a cruise ship was allowed to dock at Kingstown but was not permitted to dock in other Caribbean ports as a precautionary measure,” the opposition leader said.
He was referring to the Aida Perla, which was allowed to dock in Kingstown although among its 3,000 passengers were, according to Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, “23 persons, who had some kind of a virus”.
The “virus” was later said to be an upper respiratory tract infection and the ship was turned away from St. Lucia the following day and denied entry to Dominica two days later.
Speaking about measures to prevent the coronavirus from arriving or spreading within SVG, Friday said:
“We have also heard that at least 17 persons have been placed under quarantine as a measure to guard against potential spread of the virus.”
At least 2,126 persons have died of the coronavirus, CNN reported on Thursday.
Friday said that the “international alarm” caused by the crisis and the mounting death toll in China are good reasons for SVG “to be extremely cautious in relation to this matter and to take every reasonable precaution to protect the public.
“The health officials must keep the public constantly informed about any new developments and about the measures that are implemented to prevent the virus from becoming a health problem in SVG. Information is key to prevent speculation and panic among our people,” he said.
Responding to a question, the opposition said it is important that no unnecessary public alarm is created in relation to the coronavirus.
“… but what has happened is that there has been a vacuum with respect to public information in this matter,” he said.
He noted that the Chief Medical Officer had issued a statement covering a number of the issues that had been raised publicly.
“That was helpful, but it wasn’t timely. These things had to be done very much earlier so that the speculation and the concerns that people raise are addressed by the responsible individual…”
Friday said that in the age of social media, inaccurate information creates a problem.
“So it’s incumbent upon the people in the Ministry of Health to be there out front and to let the people know what exactly is happening to anticipate some of the concerns.
“You hear things that are happening elsewhere in the Caribbean, don’t wait until somebody raises it here in a way that is detrimental to the public interest before you address it. In other words, stay out front; don’t react, that is my main thing.”
He said that some countries have identified quarantine locations as well as announced travel restrictions.
“These are things we will have to consider in our response mechanism.
“And when it happens elsewhere, and doesn’t happen here, then we should come to the public and say, ‘Well, listen, this is why we are choosing this course’ and to see if its reasonable so that you don’t have the people taking the route of essentially spreading unfounded rumours or filling the vacuum that is created by lack of information from responsible individuals.
“That is essentially what I think we need. Information now is key in this matter,” Friday said.