By Earl Bousquet
Thirteen months after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, April offered the clearest indication of just how far the Caribbean is from even starting to vaccinate enough people to offer any comfort for the future.
World Health Day was observed on April 7, with Oxford-AstraZeneca symbolically flying limited supplies of vaccines across the world in small amounts to as many nations as possible, if only to reassure countries waiting in line for the delivery under the United Nations (UN) COVAX facility.
But by then there was also another worrying spike in US numbers, as the UK strain spread faster across America in a vacuous race between vaccines and variants.
The vaccination rate had accelerated in President Joe Biden’s first 100 Days and covered the majority of willing one-third of the population, but the health authorities now face a slowdown in the rate as they come up against the hardcore majority of American doubters, resisters and those who simply refuse to vaccinate.
Europe and Australia, USA and Canada continue to maintain their stranglehold on vaccine availability, but medical authorities on both sides of the Atlantic also pulled the plug on Oxford-AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson following ‘blood clot’ problems, adding to levels of vaccine hesitancy internationally.
The rich countries together threw trillions of dollars into the battle to resist the unending spread of the virus through new strands and strains across borders, but to no avail:
- America has delivered 240 million vaccines to over 100 million people under President Biden’s $2.3 Trillion COVID rescue plan, but at a cost so far of over 576,000 deaths
- Brazil has lost over 400,000 souls and ended the last week of April with a record of 386,000 new cases in 24 hours
- India has become the world’s new COVID epicenter with 7.7 million new cases registered since February; and
- Canada also completely shut down this month after its infection rate surpassed that of the USA
By mid-April, however, the number of COVID deaths worldwide reached three million, after the first million was registered only four months earlier in January.
India, which produces the most vaccines globally, has neither enough (vaccines) nor sufficient oxygen — and hospitals have run out of both – and beds too…
Thousands are dying by roadsides and being cremated, leading to even a shortage of wood across India, as 400,000 new cases were officially registered daily in the last week of the month.
India continues to attract the world’s full attention with friends and enemies – from USA to Pakistan — doing everything to provide oxygen — and the USA taking the extraordinary to send-back to India 60 million extra doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca it’s Center for Disease Control (CDC) had shelved over concerns about effectiveness.
The USA and Europe were caught in the crosshairs of battling the virus’ spread and responding to growing manifestations of Lockdown Fatigue, resulting in countries and states responding differently, from early reopening businesses and schools to extension of restrictions.
With more people being affected in rich countries and many more even without their first vaccines in developing countries and the rich nations maintaining their stranglehold on vaccine production, the pressure grew on the vaccine producers.
Director General of the World Trade Organization Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala loudly called in the middle of the month for the rich countries to ease restrictions and share licenses to allow developing countries to produce vaccines instead of relying on deadly promises and delayed deliveries.
Some countries are also experimenting with interesting new ways of testing means of reopening and returning life — as near to normal as possible.
An experimental ‘Club Night’ was held in Liverpool this past week, with over 3,000 persons (all tested negative) allowed into a controlled venue to make merry in a like ‘celebration of an end to lockdowns’, in a disco setting with no Social Distancing.
The results will show government and public health authorities the extent to which people who’ve tested negative for COVID can be allowed to move freely amongst themselves – like normal.
Disneyland also reopened and the 2021 Kentucky Derby was held in America this weekend, as the USA releases on restrictions in many states, but the country has only vaccinated 30% of its population – a far way away from the 70% required for ‘Herd Immunity’.
But every indication is that the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games may be held – if ever – without audiences.
However, there’s also been some bright good news in April, with countries that took tough measures earliest continuing to show remarkable levels of recovery and projections that despite COVID-19’s wreckage in 2020 and thus far in 2021.
China’s economy grew by 18.3% — and Barclays Bank is predicting that Britain (which is far ahead of the rest of Europe in the number of vaccinations sourced, available and applied) is on path to register its biggest economic boom since 1948.
So, where has the Caribbean been after 13 months in the global war on COVID and the arms race for shoulders?
Cuba’s ‘Soberania 2’ and ‘Abdala’ vaccines continue to be aviated.
But, still mainly dependent on the COVAX rollout in the circumstances where the Serum Institute of India (SII) has been unable to reach earlier ambitious production targets and forced to curtail exports to help catch-up with vaccinating 300 million Indians by July, Caribbean countries’ hopes were only raised in April by the added amounts of Oxford AstraZeneca vaccines delivered on World Health Day 2021.
And while The Americas (especially through the US, Brazil and Canada) continued to carry the burden of over half the COVID deaths globally (until India’s explosion), nations differed in their levels of vaccination rates.
Saint Lucia also experienced mixed fortunes in April, the island registering and health authorities applauding a rare but very welcome decrease in the number positive cases, even though the vaccination rate is lowest across the region.
On April 27, the official account of daily vaccination doses per 100 persons across the Caribbean registered Dominica at the highest with 0.75% and Saint Lucia at the lowest with 0.02% per head of population.
Within the rest of the OECS: Antigua and Barbuda (0.26%), St. Kitts and Nevis (0.19%), Grenada (0.18%), and St. Vincent and the Grenadines (0.14%).
Barbados and Trinidad & Tobago are also each on 0.14%.
The statistical comparisons would appear meaningless, but in COVID terms they tell a lot about the distance the region still has to travel, with no country yet at one percentage point (1%) of its population being vaccinated against the worst pandemic to hit the world in over 100 years.
Ahead of an expected return to tourism numbers that will delight and assist countries most dependent on travel from Europe and North America, some Caribbean nations are also tightening restrictions, with Saint Lucia also heading to parliament on Tuesday (May 4) to extend the national COVID-related emergency for another six months to October.
But one negative series of events in April followed the eruption of the La Soufriere volcano in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, starting with its interruption of the COVID vaccinations drive there and created conditions for spread in the shelters for one-thirds of the population displaced or sharing homes and later compounded by heavy rainfall on the last Thursday of the month that caused landslides and flooded the capital, Kingstown.
In the circumstances, more urgent response was given to India than the small multi-island Caribbean state, even though the United Nations General Assembly held a special session to encourage international assistance to the CARICOM and OECS member-state that had hardly received a cent of the amounts pledged by large nations.
In all of it too, the need is now more than ever for an active and effective vaccination drive in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, whose citizens have also been allowed emergency entry into neighboring OECS and CARICOM countries, as equal citizens, without needing to have been vaccinated.
But all in all, April closed with many eye-openers that may make May an even more interesting month on the COVID calendar for CARICOM and the Wider Caribbean region within The Americas, what with the India crisis already resulting in countries refusing to allow their own citizens to return home freely from India.
And with three months to go to the expected July reopening of the tourist season, the industry is simply hoping that nothing happens between now and then to alter current projections that global travel will; return with a vengeance as a result of Lockdown fatigue and people’s natural urge to want to Break Free!
Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of St Lucia Times.