Health, Safety, Security, Environment and Standards
October 19th, 2020
Writer: Sheldon Waithe
These five pillars of T&T society have been sorely tested in the past few months, as the COVID-19 pandemic examined the nation’s infrastructure. The results offer a mixed outlook.
Preparedness and swift action by a Ministry of Health that took the lead when the first Coronavirus cases emerged globally, minimised the spread of the disease in T&T. Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh and his Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr. Roshan Parasram became a formidable team, guiding the rollout of quarantine measures, lockdown procedures (and the subsequent scaled reopening of the country). It proved that T&T could cope with a pandemic regardless of its size, by applying the logic of working backwards based on its medical capacity i.e. the number of patients that can be treated at any one time due to beds available. The suspension of non-essential surgery and treatment during the lockdown period was further evidence of this logic. As of June 2020, normal medical services resumed.
The support of the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) in carrying out COVID testing for all its member Caribbean nations was a crucial factor, enabling the Minister and CMO to provide daily updates about the spread (and eventual lack thereof) of the disease while providing opportunities to reinforce the precautionary measures and the reasoning behind it. The daily briefings also helped pave the way for a seamless, staggered, transition from the full lockdown status to the “New Normal”.
Strict adherence by the public and implementation put T&T into a relatively enviable global position of 10 cases per 100,000 people, though the number of tests, 5.6K tested as at July 2020 with 133 cases & 8 deaths, was also very low.
The sector has not rested on its laurels, with work continuing with the reiteration of the safety requirements in the workplace and schools. Companies have been advised to undertake a shift system with workers that will satisfy social distancing protocols, while at the time of writing, schools, which had been closed since mid-March, were deemed to reopen January 2021. Online teaching – undertaken by some schools from April to July 2020, will continue throughout the September – December school semester. Due to the rise of cases, the Government has announced that schools would reopen in January 2021.
The second wave of COVID-19 cases, though expected, did not limit its impact of quick community spread across the local landscape. Over a four-week period T&T saw a spike that took the total number of confirmed cases from July 2020 to 1,941 with
28 deaths by September 3, 2020.
The General Elections in the same month were considered a factor in said spread with Dr. Parasram warning of the increase as a consequence of the subsequent public gathering and advocating the need to continually adhere to safety protocols instead of being lax due to the perceived lack of new cases.
With the issue of bed space enhanced by the global onset of COVID-19, there was the welcome news of the new Arima General Hospital opening its doors in June 2020, together with the 100-bed Point Fortin Hospital. The opening of the Couva Children’s Hospital remains a point of contention, despite its designation as a quarantine facility.
The Occupational Safety & Health Act 2006 (OSHA) was followed closely by the Ministry of Health for the phased return to work post lockdown. OSHA’s position was clear “Safety & Health must come first when considering recommencing work in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak.” Their call was for employers to ensure the 4 P’s: People, Plant, Premises, Processes. “These parameters can tell us where to intervene to protect people and can help us to understand the effectiveness of these factors and improve their design.”
As such, a comprehensive document ‘Returning to Work Guidelines: The New Normal’ has been issued, covering all areas and concerns. With working from home a major part of the new working landscape, OSHA has also updated its guidance document relevant to that arrangement.
As always, OSHA’s guidelines incorporate global standards for these matters, while also following the advice issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Ministry of Health.
Joint exercises by the police and army throughout the pandemic lockdown created an excellent atmosphere of adherence that was largely incident-free. The police have remained at the forefront of enforcement of the restrictions laid down by the Government, with patrols of beaches and bars just one of the many areas under their remit to maintain protocols in terms of limited numbers and social distancing. It will remain a crucial part of their responsibility for the foreseeable future but thus far, they have ably coped with the added tasks.
The bane of T&T society is its poor record on nationwide security; as such, it remains the country’s number one concern. Illegal immigration issues – especially from a troubled Venezuela – were tackled by a massive registration scheme in 2019, resulting in a degree of greater awareness and control over a worsening situation. However, the bulk of the country’s security problem pertains to internal gang wars, fed by the narcotics trade.
Natural resources, climate change management, pollution, chemical and waste management continued to be issues throughout the COVID-19 lockdown and T&T has some catching up to do to attain its stated mandates for these sectors. The Environmental Management Authority (EMA) took the opportunity of a nation in lockdown to measure the effects of factors such as traffic on ambient air quality, finding that there was a significant and immediate improvement in the quality of air across both islands. With three sites gathering the data, the differences were significant enough to push the EMA to widen testing with a total of 10 sites. (Source ‘Observations of the EMA during COVID-19’)
The private sector has latched onto the international trend of environmentally friendly practice and the feasibility of it as a business; 17 plastic recycling companies now exist. Growing in importance, the EMA’s iCare project continues its growth as a Vision 2030 initiative. It was deemed an essential service throughout the pandemic lockdown and haulage personnel adopted sanitisation as part of the new health and safety guidelines, allowing the public to recycle throughout.
Coronavirus data now offers proof of the positive effects of reduced traffic and reduced air pollutants. The need to diversify into greener practices as part of the post-COVID-19 recovery provides scope for prioritising the environment, but funding in the post-pandemic era to implement more stringent environmental practices creates a catch-22 situation.
A crucial hub in the rollout of pandemic precautions, the Trinidad & Tobago Bureau of Standards (TTBS) began their role with the monitoring of products at the forefront of the Coronavirus battle, including household and industrial cleaning chemicals, disinfectants and sanitisers, to ensure they contained the properties required to protect consumers. With uncertainty rife in the early days of the pandemic, the TTBS issued notices (in conjunction with the Ministry of Health) containing all information as to what each product should contain to be effective. Its spread of information continued with the publication of standards for face masks, encompassing international standards for ventilators and respiratory equipment by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). It ensured that both ends of the spectrum – from the Government and medical fraternity to the general public – had all the information to give themselves the very best protection in the fight against the Coronavirus.
In quick time, the TTBS rolled out information to enable every size commercial site to implement plant quarantine if required, to understand the ISO & WHO requirements within the sites considered to be essential services and, therefore, in operation throughout the lockdown (e.g. food production, waste disposal, energy sector, health division).
Utilising the New Normal approach, a number of TTBS webinars have been made available to businesses and the public, disseminating crucial advice across myriad COVID-related topics, including cybersecurity and information security management, in the wake of the huge increase of dependence upon the digital working world. TTBS has covered most bases thus far but will – like all industries – have to adapt and prioritise different areas for an ever-evolving immediate future and beyond.