Guyana, One of the Poorest Countries in South America, Defers its Dreams of Oil Riches to Battle COVID-19


Vessels carrying supplies for an offshore oil platform operated by Exxon Mobil are seen at the Guyana Shore Base Inc wharf on the Demerara River, south of Georgetown, Guyana January 23, 2020. REUTERS/Luc Cohen - RC2WLE9DPLMM

When news that Guyana had joined the club of oil rich nations came in May 2015, residents of this country of 785,000 people imagined a future with state of the art schools, modern thoroughfares, and skyscrapers that would replace the colonial-era structures left behind by British colonisers.

The first oil flowed from wells operated by ExxonMobil on December 21, 2019. At the height of production, Guyana would surpass Democratic Republic of the Congo and vault itself as one of the world’s largest oil producers.

The country’s two major parties campaigned heavily in the March 2020 elections to control the oil riches. In the end, the opposition People’s Progressive Party won after a five-month deadlock over the election results. 

In mid-July, U.S. Secretary of State Secretary Mike Pompeo called on then President Granger to step down, while announcing visa restrictions on unnamed individuals connected to the regime. Pompeo warned that more sanctions could follow. He did not specify. His call for Granger to step aside came after election authorities had failed to declare a result five months after the close of polls. 

 By all accounts, the vast oil reserves found off the Guyana coast is the ticket for the nation to shake off its status as one of the poorest countries in South America. 

Then the corona virus hit. Many Guyanese, who once felt the giddy spirits of people riding an oil rush,  felt deflated. 

Officials with ExxonMobil and the Guyanese government had to work together to resolve the question: how to keep the oil flowing and foreign oil workers entering the country. Guyana’s borders were closed after the number of COVID-19 cases began to worry and cause panic among the population.

Guyana has recorded 20 deaths and 389 confirmed cases from 4,416 tests. Of the 389 cases, 188 people remain in isolation under the care of healthcare providers. A total of 181 people have since recovered.

The pandemic forced ExxonMobil, the lone oil operator in the country—and its supply companies/-to try to figure out how to safeguard workers health and safety.

Head of the Department of Energy, Dr Mark Bynoe said authorities considered halting production when COVID-19 hit but it was not a viable option.

“We were able to establish COVID-19 protocols, quarantine facilities in Guyana, Houston, and London, and facilitated various chartered flights into and out of Guyana to maintain production,” he said. 

After the borders were closed, foreign oil rig workers were locked out of Guyana because commercial flights could no longer enter the country. ExxonMobil, which has partnered with Hess Guyana Exploration Limited and Chinese-owned CNOOC, has made 16 massive oil discoveries offshore Guyana since they began exploration in 2015. The latest discovery was made last January in the so-called Stabroek Block, which could produce up to eight billion barrels of oil.

It is expected that by 2025, this small South American country will produce an estimated 750,000 barrels of oil per day. This number will soar when foreign oil producers join the exploration. 

During the political uncertainty, the Guyana Civil Aviation Authority granted permission for approximately eight flights to enter the country during the pandemic.

Foreign workers have been subjected to strict safety measures after their arrival at private quarantine facilities set up their companies. At the facilities, the workers are subjected to 14 days mandatory quarantine where they are monitored by health officials for COVID-19 symptoms before being allowed to fly to the Stabroek Block offshore.

Health officials have confirmed that there have been no cases of COVID-19 among workers.

“The only thing different is before coming out to work, you quarantine for 14 days before coming offshore and also when you are working, the person relieving you has to quarantine, your period extends by 14 days,” said a rig worker, who requested anonymity.

BeforE the COVID-19 measures, workers worked four weeks on the rig.  But before returning home, they were not required to spend six weeks on board and two weeks in quarantine at the Marriott hotel.

He added the quarantine at the hotel involves daily temperature checks. Workers cannot consume slcoh and are barred from using some facilities including the pools and gym.

“We take very seriously our duty to safely and responsibly develop and produce Guyana’s oil and gas resources for the benefits of all Guyanese,” said ExxonMobil spokeswoman Janelle Persaud.

ExxonMobil’s own health experts worked with doctors and other medical personnel from the International SOS group, a leading medical and travel security service company, to design and manage staging areas in Georgetown. During the process, medical professionals are on hand to conduct health screenings twice a day.

The hotels such as the Marriott, Pegasus Guyana, Cara Lodge and Grand Costal have been accommodating rotational workers. These hotels once buzzed with visitors and businessmen involved in oil and gas production.

A lone worker is now stationed at the front desk at The Marriott. Business  meetings at restaurants and bars within the hotels are now a feint memory. Many conference and meeting rooms are shuttered. 

“These oil companies are very serious about the measures in place by hotels [to prevent the spread of] COVID-19” Carlos Montenegro, general manager at the Pegasus Hotel told us. 

“They tend to more trust established hotels, like us because we operate with a high standard [at all times] and this is what they are looking for,” he said. 

Many Guyanese are waiting for the corona virus to be defeated so that they can begin to experience the fruits of an oil-rich Guyana. 

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