Especially in times of crisis like these it remains essential for authorities to communicate with the people in a clear, effective, and consistent way. Unfortunately, government’s efforts leading up to Saturday’s repatriation flight from the US (see related articles) did not meet those standards.
Granted, there has been much uncertainty regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences, prompting frequent adjustments and – in some cases – reversals of earlier decisions all over the world. However, this regards a – fairly – simple, straightforward issue that other islands including within the Dutch Caribbean have already dealt with.
On Wednesday Minister of Public Health, Social Development and Labour VSA Richard Panneflek announced that the returning residents would not have to take a preboarding PCR test but could also opt to self-quarantine 14 days at home. This led to widespread public outrage, as indications were that returning students in the Netherlands – before civil aviation from there was restored – had not all complied with the same condition.
But it was not until Friday evening after 9:00pm that Minister of Tourism, Economic Affairs, Transport and Telecommunication (TEATT) Ludmila de Weever sent out a release saying anybody lacking a negative test received within 72 hours prior to boarding would undergo mandatory testing on arrival and have to self-quarantine one or two days pending the result. This was followed two hours later by a new statement of VSA Minister Panneflek that those with negative results from tests done either before or after travel would still need to quarantine two weeks because of the coronavirus incubation period.
The impression was created that what the TEATT Ministry had explained would be applied, but the VSA Ministry reiterated on Sunday that all passengers were to stay quarantined for 14 days. All this left both returnees and those who had picked them up understandably confused, while that seemingly could have been avoided with a bit more coordination between the two ministers who even represent the same coalition party (UP).
Speaking of unnecessary confusion, sending back two residents – who told their story in Friday’s paper – on the first regular KLM flight of July 7 was a questionable call. It turned out their negative tests obtained in Belgium and deemed invalid by Immigration officials were in fact legitimate and the doctor had merely added a handwritten note in French, one of his bi-lingual country’s two official languages in addition to Flemish (Dutch), perhaps due to Princess Juliana International Airport (PJIA) serving both St. Maarten and St. Martin.
With reopening to the destination’s biggest but high COVID-19 risk market the US already postponed twice, it’s important to stick to the current target date of August 1 to prevent more uncertainty in the island’s hospitality industry and among its partners abroad including airlines. Besides, survival of the tourism economy obviously to a large extent depends on receiving American guests.
Welcoming them back in a responsible manner appears to be possible judging from developments in Aruba during the past week, where there were a few related imported cases that could easily be isolated to protect the population. Here again, St. Maarten can benefit from their experience and certainly does not have to reinvent the wheel.
There is an obvious desire for well-considered yet timely, cohesive, and firm decision-making rather than mixed messages.