Today makes it 318 days since this country closed its international borders to all travellers, including T&T nationals.
At the time it was hard to imagine that almost a year later, with all of us reeling from the economic and social impact of that measure, there would still be no end in sight to the pandemic or this border restriction.
The reminders from National Security Minister Stuart Young about the balancing exercise required in allowing nationals back into the country so that the parallel health care system is preserved were repeated yesterday at the latest briefing on the often-maligned exemption system.
At that news conference, the second in a week called to deal with “national security matters”, Mr Young rolled out the latest figures on what he said was a decrease in exemption applications from more than 8,000 to 3,260.
There is no truth to reports of are tens of thousands of nationals stuck outside the country, he declared. The data showed that a lot of applications came from people who wanted to attend graduations or other family events, visit relatives who needed help, and even from nationals who live overseas who just wanted to return home.
According to Minister Young, so far 12,338 exemptions have been granted to enter T&T.
Unfortunately, facts and figures on the travel exemptions have been the focus of a political tug-of-war between the PNM and the UNC to the extent that the full story on the issue is not understood. And this alone is adding to pandemic fatigue, as citizens inside and outside of the locked borders rail against the tough restrictions.
The situation has escalated to the point of legal challenges and a no-confidence motion in Parliament alongside the constant stream of stories about locked out nationals facing homelessness and debt.
However, all of this doesn’t paint the full picture. Even with tight official restrictions, our twin islands are still susceptible to infiltration by undocumented migrants. Also, the full effect of the border closure on networks of transportation, infrastructure, and trade, is yet to be gauged.
Given all these difficulties and uncertainties, a more nuanced approach to travel restrictions might be required at this stage in the pandemic.
Studies done in other jurisdictions have found that strict border closures helped limit COVID-19 spread in the early days of the pandemic but are now of little benefit.
Even the World Health Organization (WHO), the very body that declared the global public-health emergency approximately a year ago, advised nations to keep borders open.
That advice was ignored by T&T and other countries that took steps to close their borders to all nations. Never mind that such a measure is of very limited success if not properly coordinated with steps such as testing, contact tracing and quarantining.
Travel from countries with a high prevalence of COVID-19 must be tightly managed. However, it is time that Minister Young, who has become the much-criticized face of closed borders and exemptions, consider a new and improved approach to this issue.