Trinidad and Tobago Sets the Standard in the Fight Against Ebola

Trinidad and Tobago Sets the Standard  in the Fight Against Ebola

By Dialogo
March 10, 2015




Most of the countries in the Caribbean are heavily dependent on tourism. Even for Trinidad and Tobago, a twin-island country rich in oil, the tourism industry is an important component of the national economy, so a single case of Ebola could seriously affect its national product. A potentially 30-to-50 percent drop in tourism was very possible in the region, according to the Caribbean Community Chairman and Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne. Maybe that’s the reason why Trinidad and Tobago took this threat seriously and decided to appoint Brigadier General Anthony Phillips Spencer, the Vice-Chief of Defence Staff, as lead of the National Ebola Prevention Information and Response Team.

To talk about this difficult task and other issues involving Trinidad and Tobago’s national security, Diálogo
met with Brig. Gen. Phillips Spencer at the XIII Caribbean Nations Security Conference (CANSEC), which took place in Nassau, Bahamas, at the end of January 2015.

DIÁLOGO:
What are you taking away from this conference?

Brigadier General Anthony Phillips Spencer:
I think we achieved a level of openness on the need for very concrete action on matters that have been discussed at CANSEC in the past. I think the focus on improving the regional training system is a clear indication of the success of CANSEC 2015. You note as well that the issue of information-sharing is so critical to our success when we work together to deal with threats like illicit trafficking; it was another year where clearly there is a deep commitment to taking action beyond many of the things that we have discussed in the past.

DIÁLOGO:
Do you think the discussion will move from talk to action?

Brig. Gen. Phillips Spencer:
Correct. A plan is not a basis for action. Similarly, an instrument is not a basis for implementation.The instrument needs to be institutionalized. All of the actors need to come together and determine how we will organize ourselves, align our efforts, coordinate our capabilities and capacities, and then proceed to action. I think the discussion at this CANSEC focused on how we will move from those instruments that have been approved for us in many instances by our governments to the effective execution and implementation of those measures that will deal with the many issues that threaten the security of our citizens.

DIÁLOGO:
During CANSEC 2015, there were many discussions about information gathering and sharing. Why is this so hard to implement?

Brig. Gen. Phillips Spencer:
Information sharing is predicated on two imperatives. The first is trust. The second is standardization. Trust really goes to the issues of making sure that the risks involved in sharing information by any country can be managed and the best response, and the best context in which you feel comfortable accepting those risks is where there is trust. Building trust among security partners in the Hemisphere requires us to be sure that we have set the same standards for screening and vetting, and all of those things, making sure the level of professionalism in all of the agencies involved in information sharing is at a sufficiently acceptable level. So, two issues: it’s about trust, it’s about standardization. No country would want to know that it has, in good faith, offered sensitive information to another country to then discover that that information has not been treated with the appropriate level of confidence.

DIÁLOGO:
But information sharing apparently works well when it comes to the Joint Interagency Task Force-South (JIATF-South), where different agencies from different countries work very close together. Is this a model that should be replicated?

Brig. Gen. Phillips Spencer:
Absolutely. In fact, during the conference, you may have heard the Executive Director of CARICOM IMPACS, Mr. Francis Forbes, referring to JIATF-South as the ideal type of information sharing hub. It is because at JIATF-South, the standards are sufficiently high to afford and to convey that there is trust in the system for information sharing. Therefore anyone seeking to participate in information sharing through JIATF-South’s arrangement must be prepared to meet the standard. That’s why I spoke earlier about the importance of standardization. You can’t come to the game unprepared to meet the standards that are required.

DIÁLOGO:
In October of 2014, you were appointed as the lead of the National Ebola Prevention Information and Response Team. How is that effort going? Is it working well?

Brig. Gen. Phillips Spencer:
Yes. I think we are doing well. One of the key insights for responding to or being prepared to respond to the Ebola virus is a clear understanding that no single agency – Ministry of Health, Ministry of National Security– can respond effectively to this disease. And so once we were able to achieve a willingness on the part of the key actors to work together, we found that implementing a strategy that we have developed became very achievable. So, at this point, we have, in fact, been able to conduct several simulation exercises. We have done all our site-readiness surveys at all ports in Trinidad and Tobago. We have established vessel quarantine anchorages for any vessels entering our jurisdiction. At our respective airports, we have been able to establish isolation rooms in the case of Piarco and isolation wraps in the case of also at the Robinson Airport in Tobago, and we are now at a point where we have developed SOPs [Standard Operation Procedure]
for several of the other areas and specific events for which we have to be ready and are now moving to simulation exercises. It really has required us to bring all stakeholders together, so we have not only public sector agencies, we have private sector agencies, too. We have civil society agencies, we have labor unions being represented as part of the team, because bear in mind that anyone who has a stake in preventing the arrival or the importation of the Ebola virus will want to be involved in the process. Apart from that, we have really succeeded at making sure that we reach out to the respective communities in Trinidad and Tobago. For instance, after my return to Port of Spain, we will meet with the Cora community. Cora Village is where the Ebola Treatment Center for Trinidad and Tobago has been established and therefore we need to engage directly with that community so they understand very intimately the extent to which we have taken measures to minimize risk to them as a result of having an Ebola treatment center in their community. So, I think we are doing well.

DIÁLOGO:
Do you feel that every country in the region is at the same level of standardization as Trinidad?

Brig. Gen. Phillips Spencer:
I can’t speak for the other countries. What I know is that when the CARICOM heads met in Port of Spain in early December, they agreed that all of its member states would work together and that we would be prepared to support each other. For instance, we have already received a request for assistance from Grenada, because it’s a matter of the capacity of the public health infrastructure in every country. Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea were three countries in West Africa with very underdeveloped public health infrastructures, and it’s for that reason that containing the spread of the Ebola disease has proven to be so difficult. You’ll observe that in Nigeria, a country with a much more sophisticated and developed public health infrastructure, recovery for an incident was very swift.

DIÁLOGO:
Talking about transnational organized crime, two years ago, one of the biggest issues in Trinidad and Tobago was the fact that drugs were passing through the country, even though they were not staying, but the drug traffickers were leaving behind weapons that fell into the hands of the youth, especially young males. Did this problem diminish since?

Brig. Gen. Phillips Spencer:
There is no question that in Trinidad and Tobago there are more illegal firearms than we would be comfortable with. The good news is that in 2014, the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service has succeeded in taking the highest number of firearms off the streets, more than they have ever taken off the streets in many years. It means that if illegal weapons continue to arrive and get left behind, it is our problem and our capacity to take them off the streets has improved. The next requirement is to prevent those illegal firearms from even entering our jurisdiction, so for that reason the Ministry of National Security is seeking to equip the Coast Guard with the necessary vessels and interceptors to improve the rate at which we are able to secure our borders from the infiltration and the importation of illegal firearms.



Most of the countries in the Caribbean are heavily dependent on tourism. Even for Trinidad and Tobago, a twin-island country rich in oil, the tourism industry is an important component of the national economy, so a single case of Ebola could seriously affect its national product. A potentially 30-to-50 percent drop in tourism was very possible in the region, according to the Caribbean Community Chairman and Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne. Maybe that’s the reason why Trinidad and Tobago took this threat seriously and decided to appoint Brigadier General Anthony Phillips Spencer, the Vice-Chief of Defence Staff, as lead of the National Ebola Prevention Information and Response Team.

To talk about this difficult task and other issues involving Trinidad and Tobago’s national security, Diálogo
met with Brig. Gen. Phillips Spencer at the XIII Caribbean Nations Security Conference (CANSEC), which took place in Nassau, Bahamas, at the end of January 2015.

DIÁLOGO:
What are you taking away from this conference?

Brigadier General Anthony Phillips Spencer:
I think we achieved a level of openness on the need for very concrete action on matters that have been discussed at CANSEC in the past. I think the focus on improving the regional training system is a clear indication of the success of CANSEC 2015. You note as well that the issue of information-sharing is so critical to our success when we work together to deal with threats like illicit trafficking; it was another year where clearly there is a deep commitment to taking action beyond many of the things that we have discussed in the past.

DIÁLOGO:
Do you think the discussion will move from talk to action?

Brig. Gen. Phillips Spencer:
Correct. A plan is not a basis for action. Similarly, an instrument is not a basis for implementation.The instrument needs to be institutionalized. All of the actors need to come together and determine how we will organize ourselves, align our efforts, coordinate our capabilities and capacities, and then proceed to action. I think the discussion at this CANSEC focused on how we will move from those instruments that have been approved for us in many instances by our governments to the effective execution and implementation of those measures that will deal with the many issues that threaten the security of our citizens.

DIÁLOGO:
During CANSEC 2015, there were many discussions about information gathering and sharing. Why is this so hard to implement?

Brig. Gen. Phillips Spencer:
Information sharing is predicated on two imperatives. The first is trust. The second is standardization. Trust really goes to the issues of making sure that the risks involved in sharing information by any country can be managed and the best response, and the best context in which you feel comfortable accepting those risks is where there is trust. Building trust among security partners in the Hemisphere requires us to be sure that we have set the same standards for screening and vetting, and all of those things, making sure the level of professionalism in all of the agencies involved in information sharing is at a sufficiently acceptable level. So, two issues: it’s about trust, it’s about standardization. No country would want to know that it has, in good faith, offered sensitive information to another country to then discover that that information has not been treated with the appropriate level of confidence.

DIÁLOGO:
But information sharing apparently works well when it comes to the Joint Interagency Task Force-South (JIATF-South), where different agencies from different countries work very close together. Is this a model that should be replicated?

Brig. Gen. Phillips Spencer:
Absolutely. In fact, during the conference, you may have heard the Executive Director of CARICOM IMPACS, Mr. Francis Forbes, referring to JIATF-South as the ideal type of information sharing hub. It is because at JIATF-South, the standards are sufficiently high to afford and to convey that there is trust in the system for information sharing. Therefore anyone seeking to participate in information sharing through JIATF-South’s arrangement must be prepared to meet the standard. That’s why I spoke earlier about the importance of standardization. You can’t come to the game unprepared to meet the standards that are required.

DIÁLOGO:
In October of 2014, you were appointed as the lead of the National Ebola Prevention Information and Response Team. How is that effort going? Is it working well?

Brig. Gen. Phillips Spencer:
Yes. I think we are doing well. One of the key insights for responding to or being prepared to respond to the Ebola virus is a clear understanding that no single agency – Ministry of Health, Ministry of National Security– can respond effectively to this disease. And so once we were able to achieve a willingness on the part of the key actors to work together, we found that implementing a strategy that we have developed became very achievable. So, at this point, we have, in fact, been able to conduct several simulation exercises. We have done all our site-readiness surveys at all ports in Trinidad and Tobago. We have established vessel quarantine anchorages for any vessels entering our jurisdiction. At our respective airports, we have been able to establish isolation rooms in the case of Piarco and isolation wraps in the case of also at the Robinson Airport in Tobago, and we are now at a point where we have developed SOPs [Standard Operation Procedure]
for several of the other areas and specific events for which we have to be ready and are now moving to simulation exercises. It really has required us to bring all stakeholders together, so we have not only public sector agencies, we have private sector agencies, too. We have civil society agencies, we have labor unions being represented as part of the team, because bear in mind that anyone who has a stake in preventing the arrival or the importation of the Ebola virus will want to be involved in the process. Apart from that, we have really succeeded at making sure that we reach out to the respective communities in Trinidad and Tobago. For instance, after my return to Port of Spain, we will meet with the Cora community. Cora Village is where the Ebola Treatment Center for Trinidad and Tobago has been established and therefore we need to engage directly with that community so they understand very intimately the extent to which we have taken measures to minimize risk to them as a result of having an Ebola treatment center in their community. So, I think we are doing well.

DIÁLOGO:
Do you feel that every country in the region is at the same level of standardization as Trinidad?

Brig. Gen. Phillips Spencer:
I can’t speak for the other countries. What I know is that when the CARICOM heads met in Port of Spain in early December, they agreed that all of its member states would work together and that we would be prepared to support each other. For instance, we have already received a request for assistance from Grenada, because it’s a matter of the capacity of the public health infrastructure in every country. Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea were three countries in West Africa with very underdeveloped public health infrastructures, and it’s for that reason that containing the spread of the Ebola disease has proven to be so difficult. You’ll observe that in Nigeria, a country with a much more sophisticated and developed public health infrastructure, recovery for an incident was very swift.

DIÁLOGO:
Talking about transnational organized crime, two years ago, one of the biggest issues in Trinidad and Tobago was the fact that drugs were passing through the country, even though they were not staying, but the drug traffickers were leaving behind weapons that fell into the hands of the youth, especially young males. Did this problem diminish since?

Brig. Gen. Phillips Spencer:
There is no question that in Trinidad and Tobago there are more illegal firearms than we would be comfortable with. The good news is that in 2014, the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service has succeeded in taking the highest number of firearms off the streets, more than they have ever taken off the streets in many years. It means that if illegal weapons continue to arrive and get left behind, it is our problem and our capacity to take them off the streets has improved. The next requirement is to prevent those illegal firearms from even entering our jurisdiction, so for that reason the Ministry of National Security is seeking to equip the Coast Guard with the necessary vessels and interceptors to improve the rate at which we are able to secure our borders from the infiltration and the importation of illegal firearms.
yes I think you are doing a very good job, keep up the good work against human trafficking and exploitation for the benefit of the young people who are our future generation. I am Donna Dussard from Dover, St. Mary
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