Letters & Opinion

The Caribbean’s COVID Conundrum

A ‘carbolic carbuncle’ to be excised or exorcised, with unholy haste!

Image of Earl Bousquet
Chronicles Of A Chronic Caribbean Chronicler By Earl Bousquet

When I started writing this article on March 31, COVID-19 was Hitting Home harder the world over every day, rocking nations big and small, North and South, house-by-house, as the invisible virus raced across and around the globe faster than the speed of light, leaving a heavy toll in deaths and casualties.

Over a million people are already affected and thousands have died, while 250,000 have recovered.

And the church bells continue to toll loudly everywhere, as the numbers continue to double and triple globally, the statistics of death and deadly affection just impossible to keep up with.

Deadly Statistics

Take the week ending Tuesday, March 31:

  • USA: With the highest number of casualties worldwide, deaths surpassed 3,000 — more than on 9/11 — with over 87% of Americans in enforced lockdown, hospitals remaining overcrowded and estimates that up to 250,000 will die
  • Italy and Spain: Both continued burying people of all ages, at rates of over 800 every day
  • UK: A record 563 people had died in one day
  • United Nations: The UN classified COVID-19 as ‘The greatest catastrophe since World War II’
  • USA and UK: Together threw billions and trillions to fight COVID, but cases only increased
  • World Health Organization (WHO): The Director General called for debt cancellation for all small island states struggling for resources to fight COVID-19

CARICOM and the wider Caribbean’s COVID-19 story was the same. The numbers are smaller, but trends are similar:

  • All nations and territories were already affected, with only 1,000 cases across 29 assessed
  • Deaths were few, but growing
  • National health facilities were entirely unprepared
  • Governments were moving faster to take late steps that could have been taken much earlier
  • Emergency restrictions created panic buying and increasing violations by the unprepared
  • Some countries offered relief packages to workers and others gave Stimulus Packages to businesses
  • Trade unions, political parties and Civil Society were calling for urgent help to workers and vulnerable people, including homeless citizens and prison inmates

Worse Underway

The governments were meeting by teleconference and quite aware the worse and worst are yet to come.

In Saint Lucia, cases testing positive jumped from one to 13 in one fortnight, while quarantine numbers had tripled from almost 100 to over 300.

The 7-day shutdown and expanded curfew suddenly announced overnight by Prime Minister Allen Chastanet on Sunday evening (March 29) to take effect 5am Monday, came earlier than expected, leaving almost everyone unable to stock-up a week’s home supplies.

As Caribbean people, some always find ways to collectively register they can still be happy, from sharing loud party music and dancing in detention, to sharing ‘COVID Songs and Jokes’ online, to youngsters celebrating birthday parties electronically through photo and video posts on Facebook and by WhatsApp.

On the other hand, hotel and tourism employees, tour guides, taxi and minibus drivers, fishermen and farmers, food and craft market vendors – and so many others — are living the bitter truth of finding that earning their daily hand-to-mouth bread-and-butter is now only a nightly dream.

Those normally able to fly out to better health facilities abroad are also finding that COVID-19 is an equal opportunity virus that does not discriminate between Haves and Have-Nots.

The politics of handling COVID-19 is also worse than any politician’s worst imaginable nightmare.

No government leader can be happy in these times and those with elections on the horizon are silently wishing something would happen to ensure they never happen, while others argue that instead of suspending polls, elections can take place by electronic balloting.

Official wordage becomes unbelievable verbiage laden with adjectives lettered and uttered to suit embedded intentions shaped by and with eyes focused on elections.

Nothing Ever Like This

Caught in the Catch 22 of choosing between the consequences of being truthful and open with or delaying the unfolding bad news, some leaders and governments are dithering dangerously.

But the reality is that while the Caribbean is still at the bottom of the statistical curve, the rate of escalation is increasingly alarming.

Nothing has ever been anything like what the region is about to face.

But just as COVID brings death and takes lives, so too it’s also given life to grudging acceptance of certain ever-present realities that we’ve tended to take for granted, or simply ignore and/or deny.

Like no other common enemy, this invisible killer virus changes by day and night – from first said to only be a threat to the elderly, to taking lives of children and youth, as well as middle-aged persons in their 20s and 40s. A 13-year-old boy was shot dead by police in Kenya for breaking a curfew.

Humility of Humanity

COVID-19 has also brought out the stifled humanity in many everywhere, faster than ever.

Humankind has been reduced to a common humility, equalized by a powerful and irresistible force that’s no respecter of persons or places, islands or continents.

Washing hands is now more important than having all the ventilators you can afford. Hiding your identity behind a face mask is no longer illegal. Sports cannot be played. No more eating out. No more taking children for a walk – or the dog, for that matter.

Who ever thought the best way to protect our moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas, husbands or wives, children and grandchildren would be by completely staying away from them?

Or that money would ever become legally useless in your pocket or bank account and a cheque with your pay would not be worth the paper it’s printed on?

Uncomfortable Truths

Caribbean homes, big or small, are now mere shelters housing equally anxious, totally scared and mutually suspicious mainly Christians all wanting to go to Heaven, but none wanting to be the first to die.

However, more people are coming to accept some very uncomfortable truths coming to pass, in ways they cannot not see and feel: like not being able to attend Easter Mass or holiday observances this weekend, just as Muslims the world over are also being urged not to observe Eid.

This latest world plague has also brought challenges and opportunities that have bucked trends and unleashed levels of creativity and innovation that only reaffirm Humankind’s ability to adapt and survive by overcoming all odds.

Earth’s superior beings have coexisted with all other species cohabiting the earth, who seem to be doing much better than us right now, until we create the next catastrophe to accelerate their already accelerated extinction.

However, throughout all ages, after every disaster, we’ve always picked-up and moved-on, on our own.

People are realizing, not for the first time, that we must not only care for ourselves – and our very lives depend on how much others care for us.

What and Where Next?

So, where do we go from here?

COVID-19 is not the first global pandemic and it won’t be the last.

Just like it came, it will go — but the big question is: When?

Nothing yet shows when that will be, some governments planning for 30 to 90 days, others planning for six months to two years.

A certified cure is still in the making; and while the rest of the world is lining-up for the Caribbean’s Cuban COVID Cocktail, the UK and USA have also quickly learned from China how to build 1,000-room hospitals in mere days.

Over 800 Cuban medical combatants have been dispatched to a growing number of countries, starting with Italy and extending worldwide to include 11 of Cuba’s smaller 14 Caribbean Community (CARICOM) neighbors.

Ironically, countries that erased civilizations through genocide and enforced slavery over centuries are now forced to look to a Caribbean island that recently observed 500 years of European colonization for humanitarian life-saving help.

And big countries that once barred entry by people from small states are now being told by the smaller nations to stay away and keep COVID-19 at home.

Bleak Future

By the time I finally finished penning this article four days after having started, on the morning of April 4 the global figures had all drastically increased — some doubled, some tripled, while others broke records of affected cases and deaths – all pointing to a very bleak future:

  • Over 1.1 million cases were registered worldwide
  • USA registered 250,000 cases (25% of the global total) with over 7,000 deaths
  • UK registered over 700 deaths in 24 hours, with 3,600 dead
  • Spain surpassed Italy with 119,000 cases, over 900 deaths in one day and over 15,000 deaths
  • China observed three minutes of silence for its COVID dead, designating them ‘national martyrs’
  • South Korea was at the bottom of the list of Asian nations in mourning with less than 100 dead
  • The International Monetary Fund (IMF) said 90 countries had applied for the one trillion dollars it will be able to share
  • The IMF also warned that the world’s economy is in recession and COVID-19 will bring it to a standstill worse than the 2008 financial crisis
  • Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for lifting of United Nations Security and all other unilateral sanctions imposed on countries and for a truce in countries at war.

Necessary Temporary Interruptions…

Again, the Caribbean’s picture, while still taking shape, is no different to other regions at this stage.

With the virus everywhere, the focus is less on preparation and more on acceleration of national measures to prevent community spread.

Penalties for violation of restrictions are being more drastically imposed, with one escaped convict shot dead by police in Saint Lucia and violators moving people between marine borders with neighboring Martinique or escaping official quarantine being officially warned their security ‘cannot be guaranteed’.

Global trends indicated numbers are doubling and tripling by the week and fortnight, a trend registered in Saint Lucia, where community spread is taking its toll at a faster rate than the island’s health service will ever be able to handle, while 113 Cuban medical professionals who came to help fight COVID-19 are in compulsory quarantine.

With bad COVID weather already on the Caribbean’s horizon and the scientists predicting the peak will be in June or July, it is for governments to better arrange the mechanics of the sensitive flexibilities of easing restrictions without worsening the situation, while communities and families keep doing more to see and treat restrictions and COVID protocols as necessary temporary interruptions to save our lives by putting them on pause.

I borrow a phrase from Peepin’ Tom (an anonymous Guyanese daily newspaper columnist) used to describe the effects of racism on his or Guyana’s politics, to apply to an unrelated situation and conclude that: COVID-19 is akin to a ‘carbolic carbuncle’ to be excised and exorcised across the Caribbean with unholy haste.

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