[Reprinted: Miami Herald, 5-4-2020]
As Jamaica recorded a double-digit spike in new coronavirus cases in less than 24 hours last month, the government told the nation that there were indications that all who had fallen ill were linked to a call center in the parish of St. Catherine.
Alorica, a major employer in the country’s lucrative Business Process Outsourcing call-center sector, had been allowed to remain open even as the island closed its borders to cruise ships and airline passengers and enforced an island-wide curfew for its 2.7 million inhabitants.
Health and Wellness Minister Christopher Tufton said during an April 16 press briefing on the pandemic that 52 of Jamaica’s then-143 cases could be linked back to the St. Catherine-based call center, making it the largest cluster of COVID-19 infections on the island.
“The Alorica situation is the dominant challenge for us now in the country as it relates to COVID-19 and the response,” Tufton said at the time. “It represents for us, if you will, the weak link in the arsenal and the work that we’ve been doing.”
Unlike many countries in the region, Jamaica never fully shut down its economy amid the global pandemic, even as it aggressively enforced social distancing measures to prevent the spread of the virus. The decision has come with a steep price, and serves as a cautionary tale for others in the region that are starting to ease lockdowns and reopen their economies as cases and fatalities continue to climb.
“There is no very right answer,” when it comes to reopening, said Amanda Glassman, executive vice president and senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, a nonprofit Washington-based think tank that focuses on international development. The key concern is the reproduction rate of the virus. If it can be kept low enough, the disease will dissipate and “burn out” — as long as there are no new cases being imported, she said.
“Of course, all of that depends on the ability of governments to catch [those who are ill] and to do the contact tracing really aggressively,” added Glassman, an expert on health and social protection in Latin America who previously worked for the Inter-American Development Bank.
There is no doubt that the drastic measures that Caribbean countries have taken to try to stop the spread of the virus have had disastrous effects on their already vulnerable, mostly tourism-based economies. But the decision to reopen needs to take into account several factors including safety protocols and the ability to “apply the brakes quickly” when an outbreak occurs, Glassman warned.
“There will be flare-ups and there will be the need to put the brakes on again and go back to a lockdown,” she said.
The Pan American Health Organization is warning Latin America and Caribbean nations that the virus still has not peaked, and countries should be careful about loosening restrictions. Still, in recent days nations like Chile, Paraguay, Anguilla, the Bahamas and the U.S. territories of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico have started opening up for business. Haiti has already reopened factories.
Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis announced Sunday that several islands in the southern Bahamas can fully resume commercial activities as of Monday, and construction on the hurricane-recovering islands of New Providence and Grand Bahama can also restart. Businesses that can be provide curbside pickup and delivery are also being permitted to operate between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. weekdays.
“This phased reopening is aimed at striking the right balance between permitting some level of commerce to resume while still maintaining a vigilant national position promoting social distancing and reinforcing the health and safety precautions necessary to mitigate community spread of COVID-19,” Minnis said.
The Bahamas currently has 83 COVID-19 cases. During his national address on the phased plan to “gradually and safely” reopen the economy, Minnis warned that the plan is only a guideline and “if advised by our health officials to do so, we may have to go back to certain restrictions.”
Puerto Rico, which has been on lockdown since March 16, will also begin allowing some businesses to reopen Monday as it tries to pull off a “slow and gradual” economic reactivation.
In a national address Thursday night, Gov. Wanda Vázquez said some smaller professional service businesses will be allowed to open as long as they maintain social distancing norms and provide protective equipment to their employees. Construction and manufacturing firms can begin operating May 11, once they’ve provided the Department of Labor with protocols that guarantee worker safety.
Finally, if all goes well, Vázquez said retail stores, restaurants, barber shops and beauty parlors may be allowed to reopen starting the week of May 18-25. She warned, however, that if there is any indication that the coronavirus contagion is beginning to spike again, “we will return to the current restrictions. We will not risk everything we’ve gained over these weeks.”
Jose Ledesma, the president of Puerto Rico’s Chamber of Commerce, praised the decision to begin a gradual reopening, and the government’s decision to lay out a timeline for businesses to open. But there are also some serious concerns. As of Friday, the Health Department said it had detected 1,575 cases of the coronavirus on the island and 94 deaths. But it has also admitted that its data is tainted and it quit releasing figures on how many people it’s testing per day. Epidemiologists have complained that they’re flying blind. Ledesma said the lack of clear information also has the private sector worried.
In particular, the government hasn’t shared the criteria it’s using to decide when it’s okay to further open the economy — or when it might be necessary to reinstate measures.
“Is there a basket of numbers we can look at like the percentage of ICU beds and ventilators that are in use?” he said. “Give me a number that we can shoot for and that we can track.”
Alorica, which handles customer service calls for U.S.-based companies, was first informed on April 9 that a worker in its Portmore facility in the parish of St. Catherine had tested positive for respiratory disease. It immediately shut down the site along with another one in Kingston, the capital, out of caution.
Days later, when the health ministry received confirmation that 18 new cases in less than 24 hours also appeared to trace back to the St. Catherine call center, they officially ordered the site to close and told employees to self-quarantine at home.
A two-week lockdown was also imposed for the parish of St. Catherine, which has become the epicenter of Jamaica’s coronavirus infections. The quarantine was lifted Friday after a final three-day extension. That same day, Jamaica reported 432 confirmed cases of COVID-19 of which 205 were related to a workplace cluster spread involving call centers. Jamaica also reported its eighth death, a 63-year-old woman from St. Catherine who was a contact of a confirmed case.
Call centers are a key part of Jamaica’s growth strategy as the island promotes itself as a destination for third-party business outsourcing for companies like Amazon and others. Characterized by a high density of employees, the sector employs over 36,000 Jamaicans in more than 60 companies across the island and contributed at least $400 million annually to the Jamaican economy prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Jamaica Promotions Corporation, a government agency that promotes investments.
So far the government has resisted calls to shut down the sector and says if safety protocols, including quarantines when enacted, are respected, the spread of the virus can be controlled even in such work clusters. Still, on April 20, Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced that as of 12:01 a.m. April 22, all call centers would close for a period of 14 days following the discovery that more customer service representatives had tested positive for COVID-19.
But some businesses got exemptions and were allowed to remain open, even as 13,000 other customer service representatives worked remotely from home. On Sunday, the government said it was forced to shut down one of them, Centerfield Media in New Kingston, after a worker there, also a resident of St. Catherine, tested positive, triggering a public health contact-tracing probe. (The center is located within walking distance of the Ministry of Health where 19 employees recently tested positive for COVID-19 after 300 tests were administered ).
“Jamaica’s approach has been to contain [the] spread, not to totally shut down,” Tufton told the Miami Herald this week. “So we expect cases, and intervene with needy residents as we go along to contain or restrict the spread.”
Tufton said as in the case of St. Catherine, the government has used a strategy of restricting movement in a targeted way in communities and parishes as required. It has also imposed tighter curfews, with times for early closures of activities and certain businesses. Where an outbreak flares up, measures are increased and even full 24-hour lockdowns with shopping windows have been ordered.
“We think this can work since the virus is likely to be here for some time to come,” he said. The health ministry, Tufton said, is working with the call centers to improve their safety measures.
“It’s clear by the extent of spread in that particular company that old protocols did not work or were not properly followed, so we are stepping up audits plus enhancing the protocols,” Tufton said.
Wayne Cummings, the former president of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association, said it’s unfortunate what happened at Alorica, but it is time for Jamaican officials to start thinking about the full reopening of the economy.
“The call isn’t for tomorrow for us to all open. The call is for, ‘let us take a sensible date to assess what is going on and put in a set of protocols which are workable,’” he said.
“We are not the United States, where they have massive reserves.”
Even though some commercial businesses have been allowed to operate within the confines of the island-wide 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, the Jamaican economy is hurting, especially the tourism sector, which accounts for 34 percent of Jamaica’s gross domestic product, Cummings said.
“Between the ‘Stay at home’ and other things that have been put in place, people are now, literally, starting to become very hungry,” he said. “The coronavirus is what is here, it’s very important; it’s what needs to be managed. But the virus of starvation is going to be a very, very different consideration in our country.”
But what a reopened Jamaica — or that of any tourism-dependent economy in the region — would look like remains uncertain.
Cummings said it will depend on when others in the region open and when tourists feel safe enough to travel.
“What we have to do is put ourselves in the best place possible to even begin contemplating the return of business,” he said.
In the meantime, the business sector needs to identify best practices amid the pandemic that can be rolled out through the tourism and travel industry.
“When is that going to happen? I don’t have a date, but we have to start talking about what if a vaccine is not found for two years or beyond?” Cummings said. “And even then, remember, when will we get it? What do we do in the interim?”