by Earl Bousquet
January will take a special page in the Caribbean’s COVID-19 history in 2021.
On January 26, The Americas — home to over one billion people — registered over one million deaths by COVID-19, almost half the global total of 2.2 million.
Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Director Dr Clarissa Etienne, who announced the deadly figures at a press briefing last week, described it as ‘a deadly milestone.’
On that day, she noted, out of 102 million positive tests worldwide, 44.1 million were in The Americas — over one million registered just week before; and more than one million health workers had been affected, of whom over 4,000 — mostly women — have died.
Rising food prices also placed millions more at risk of dying hungry; and an additional 16 million were forced into poverty during 2020, the first year of COVID-19.
North America has been hard-hit as well, deaths in the USA speeding towards half-a-million, with Canada banning travel to and from the entire region.
By contrast, most countries in Central America – except Honduras and Guatemala – reported decreases in infections during the period under review.
In South America, hospitalizations are on the rise, especially in Chile, Colombia and Peru; but the situation in Brazil was described by the PAHO Director as ‘particularly worrisome.’
The COVID-19 crisis has already had the deadly triple-effect of worsening the region’s health systems, fracturing social protection and destabilizing economies, while also introducing an unprecedented mental health crisis caused by fear, depression, isolation and loss and disruptions in related services reported in 29 countries.
And three new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus have now been detected in 14 countries – the two detected in the UK and South Africa and the new one in Brazil.
These facts and figures well spell and tell statistics of death, resulting in richer nations hoarding vaccines, the USA invoking dormant wartime legislation to early sequester already-paid-for protective supplies produced locally for export.
The Biden administration is going heads-over-heels to show how it can secure more vaccines than needed for all Americans, while European Union (EU) and North American nations and then big pharmaceutical companies (Big Pharma) are colluding to help rich nations stock-up many times more vaccines than needed for their entire populations.
Caribbean Community (CARICOM) nations, most unable to secure supplies independently, await arrangements with the World Health Organization (WHO) and PAHO to deliver a vaccine they probably won’t see before April, while waiting-in-line outside the locked gate.
Barbados, also experiencing worrying spikes lately, last week appealed directly to India for help to access its vaccines.
COVID-19 is already a grave matter of life and death in 2021, a hard and bitter choice between lives and livelihoods — and the Caribbean therefore has some hard choices to make and serious decisions to take.
Positive COVID test result numbers continue to multiply phenomenally through greater community spread across the region following violations of prevention and protection protocols, including Home Quarantine, during the Christmas and New Year holidays.
Governments are under strain and the levels of COVID Fatigue are becoming more evident as earlier half-hearted efforts return multiplied negative returns – in this case positive test results.
As with early access to AIDS vaccines and all other previous pandemic cures, CARICOM virtually stands alone, yet again, isolated on the global stage by size and limited by their small COVID-ravaged economies.
But this time there is a Caribbean vaccine: Cuba’s ‘Soberania’ brand that’s due to start Phase III trials on March 1 — and one hundred million affordable doses of which Havana promises to produce initially.
Cuba, which helped China halt the spread of COVID-19 in Wuhan within weeks of its confirmed arrival, has also promised to share its vaccine with neighbors and developing countries worldwide.
China too has indicated it’s prepared to share its vaccine with developing countries, likewise the UK.
CARICOM nations, witnessing the frenzy of Big Pharma battles as the companies compete feverishly to produce vaccines too expensive for average Caribbean citizens, unable to secure timely deliveries of those already available and paying the deadly price for late adjustments to the COVID-19 reality in 2020, must now urgently do more to stop the spread while awaiting a curable vaccine’s arrival.
But CARICOM must also start looking within, drawing even more on the expertise of the University of the West Indies (The UWI) COVID-19 Task Force — and talking even more too to Cuba, China, Russia and the UK about the dire need for delivering on their promises to help, as a matter of urgency.
Cuba’ Henry Reeve Brigade is already lined-up for nomination for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for how its thousands of members have saved millions of lives through early interventions globally, first in Italy and then on all continents — and it is also already present in the vast majority of CARICOM states.
Barbados invited a second batch from Havana last week and other CARICOM governments are also now reportedly considering doing likewise in the face of the current regional post-holiday spikes.
But in a case where Big Pharma, the EU and the USA are hoarding vaccines and Canada is locking the entire region out, Caribbean nations would do well to have their national health services rolling-out the Cuban, Chinese and Russian vaccines early enough, should they be approved and/or become available before those now being awaited from profiteering companies already fouling-up on delivery promises to their highest-paying rich client governments.
After the region’s very late start in the COVID fight, there’s still time to do what’s necessary when it matters most, especially with citizens living and paying the deadly cost of experiencing, like never before, the stark difference between ‘Public Health as a Human Right’ and ‘Medicine as a Commodity’.
Indeed, if ever there was a time to prove the truth of the age-old adage that ‘A stitch in time saves nine’, this is it!
Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of St Lucia Times.