Critical point! Govt’s new directives on masks, working hours, pharmaceutical price hikes … and KFC

Trinidad and Tobago has already waved goodbye to overseas travel, doubles, river and beach limes, cinemas, night clubs, bars, betting shops and church. Next on the chopping block is chicken and chips, pizza and any other type of restaurant fare.

It is, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley stressed today, the most critical moment of our collective lives in this millennium so far. And the country will have to battle on, for the next month at least, without the crutch of fast food.

Photo: A meme links the closure of all fast food outlets to protests by Sauce Doubles.

Rowley’s announcement that all food and beverage services—outside of supermarkets and retail shops—will stay closed until 30 April, was met with gallows humour on social media, centred, primarily, around the popular KFC franchise. But the prime minister made it clear that the twin-island republic is in very sobering times.

“This is the point at which we could lose control,” said Rowley, who explained that the country does not know how many Covid-19 carriers are amongst us right now, with the capacity to unwittingly further spread the potentially deadly disease.

When Trinidad and Tobago went into partial ‘lockdown’ on 30 March, the Ministry of Health reported 550 tested samples with 85 positive cases and three deaths. One week later, the twin-island republic now has tested 833 samples with 105 confirmed cases and eight deaths.

“When I spoke to you last, I said stay at home, except for the essential workers,” said Rowley. “Clearly we are not going to be able to tell the population by the 15th of April they can come out and go back to some levels of normalcy. It is the other way around.

“We expect that by the 15th of April, it is quite likely that we will be in a worse position than we were on the first of the 15 days that we started off with the ‘stay home’ [order].

Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley (left) and his wife, Sharon, take part in a national day for prayer on 29 March 2020.

“So today, the government takes the position that the ‘stay at home’ will go until April 30. And we will take additional action to intensify the compliance of that action, not relax it.”

Rowley did not explain, nor was he asked, how he planned to ‘intensify’ compliance of the order to stay indoors.

The prime minister further asked members of the public to wear masks outdoors, which is a new directive from the CDC (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention).

Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh said the government intends to distribute masks to citizens via—not the post office, which he felt was too slow—but local corporations and members of parliament as well as at areas of high commuter traffic like City Gate.

“We hope that this distribution can start by the end of this week,” said Deyalsingh.

The request for Trinbagonians to wear masks in public reverses previous guidelines from the health ministry, which were that they should only be worn by positive cases and their caregivers. But then, as Rowley already stressed, the time has come to treat everyone around you as though they might be infected.

Photo: A Thai monk displays a Covid-19 mask made from recycled plastic.

“Fourteen days have passed since we closed our borders [and] it is a critical point,” said chief medical officer Dr Roshan Parasram. “Basically we don’t expect to see people directly linked to travel becoming positive. What we are seeing now is people who would have been in contact with people who would have travelled, as well as primary contacts of positive cases.

“[…] I believe there may be the hint of local transmission and that is where my concern lies… We are creating rings of protection around [infected persons] to avoid us going wider into community spread.

“The tightening of restrictions will aid us greatly, once people abide by the stay at home orders, to keep those rings as tight as possible. Even if we get small clusters, we can prevent the spread from the rest of the population.”

Towards that end, Rowley revealed the imposition of shortened business hours for certain essential services, which are as follows:

  • Hardware stores, including electrical and plumbing establishments—8am to noon;
  • Wholesale stores for the provision of food, medicine, etc—closed by 4pm daily;
  • Retail stores, such as discount marts, markets, supermarkets, fruit stalls or shops, vegetable stalls or shops, bakeries and parlours—closed by 6pm daily;
  • All pharmacies—closed by 8pm daily.

Deyalsingh also pointed to the dangerous surge in purchases of the hydroxychloroquine drug, which some people suggested could be used as a cure for Covid-19. He said there is no scientific proof that hydroxychloroquine is an antidote for the novel coronavirus; and, on the contrary, there are now recorded deaths of persons who used the drug incorrectly.

Photo: Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh.

Worse, the ‘panic buying’ has now created a shortage of the drug for malaria, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus patients for whom the drug is essential for their quality of life. And some pharmacists responded to the soaring demand by raising the price of the life-saving tablet from TT$3.20 to TT$10 each.

“I want to [tell] pharmacy owners and pharmacy operators that price gouging at a time like this is not how we behave,” said Deyalsingh. “The patients who have been sustaining you and patronising your retail outlet for over the years and decades are coming to you as faithful customers and are faced with two things.

“One, price gouging and now no stock. We have now placed those three categories of patients at risk.”

The health minister pleaded with persons who have hydroxychloroquine at their homes, which they cannot safely use, to return them to pharmacies or hand them over to lupus organisations. Deyalsingh said too that he reached out to the president of the pharmacy association to address soaring prices.

Rowley also appealed to the compassion of citizens, in response to criticism of the government’s movement of persons with mild cases of the new coronavirus into rural facilities.

“If everybody takes the position ‘not in my backyard’, I want to ask the question,” said Rowley, “when you come down with it, or your mother, or your sister or your child—whose backyard shall we put you?”

Photo: A satirical take on love in the time of Covid-19.

It is a sentiment likely to be welcomed by the 22 persons quarantined in Balandra from the Costa Favolosa cruise ship. Parasram noted that they are near the end of the 14-day period since the last positive test from a member of their group and, barring another confirmed case from their posse, they can be released ‘by the end of the week’.

“We are all keeping our fingers crossed,” said Parasram. “We are hoping by the end of the week, we can get those 22 people home to their families.”

Those travellers will enter a vastly different country than the one they left on 6 March, when they flew to Martinique to catch their cruise.

“This assignment is far from over,” said Rowley. “We do not know of any country that has come out of it; and on the contrary, we expect to be in it for more weeks. And we do not have any alternative response that is deemed to be useful other than to isolate.

“Stay home in order to increase the isolation […] that is the only known response for a virus that jumps from person to person.

“[…] What we want is [for] the individual human beings [to] reduce their exposure and potential to become infected. That is the objective.”

Photo: A China resident has a moment to herself in full PPE gear.

Paradoxically, Trinidad and Tobago citizens are asked to be unified in separation.

“We are all in this together,” said Rowley. “It is either we sink together, or we swim together.”

The prime minister returned to Isaiah 26:20 from the Holy Bible, which he shared on the national day of prayer.

“Go, my people, enter your rooms and shut the doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until his wrath has passed by.”

Additional Notes:

  • Kyle Rudden, president of the Caribbean Actuaries Association, is working pro bono with the Ministry of Health so that, once T&T reaches its 100 cases outside of the 49 cruise ship travellers, the government will have the predictive tools necessary to properly utilise the data;
  • If a child tests positive for Covid-19, as with other paediatric patients, they will be allowed a parent or guardian to stay with them, who will have to wear the necessary personal protective equipment at all times;
  • The health ministry has enough ventilators for 1,040 patients—based on the assumption that one in 20 Covid-19 cases needs the machine—and has contingency measures to purchase more if required;
  • National Security Minister Stuart Young stressed that fishermen were providing an essential service and are allowed to ply their trade;
  • The government remains committed to the view of Caricom, which is that the Caribbean is ‘a zone of peace’ and hopes that the United States follow rules set out by the United Nations, in their conflict with Venezuela;
  • Rowley: ‘These tensions [between the United States and Venezuela] have come to our borders. We do not have the wherewithal to prevent that, so we simply have to rely on the principles of international justice and national observance of the rules we have agreed to prior to these difficulties arising’;
  • The government is looking on at developments in Guyana but Rowley described as ‘disturbing’ a court ruling there that ‘the action of Caricom is illegal’.
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