COVERING COVID CARIBBEAN
by Earl Bousquet
Exactly one year, one month and one week after COVID-19 was belatedly declared a pandemic, the world still hasn’t come to grips with the New 21st Century Normal that’s cost over two million lives, put eight billion people at risk and dependent on billions of vaccines costing trillions of dollars.
By March 25, the UN Conference in Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimated that COVID-19 has already cost US $10 Trillion in its first year, forcing 124 million people into extreme poverty – and 250 million if the global benchmark wage of $3.25 per hour is applied.
Meanwhile, the earnings and riches of the top 1% globally have increased beyond imagination, thanks to the virus.
Humankind is today in the midst of a global COVID frenzy after the invisible virus transcended all seas and skies to enter all borders beyond boundaries, replicating itself and multiplying its spread faster than the multinational pharmaceutical companies could produce effective vaccines, while rich nations launched and threatened sanctions and vaccine nationalist trade wars, while poor countries wait and watch in hopeful and hopeless apprehension.
European and American governments and companies spar across the Atlantic over which is to get how many and how quick while developing countries in Africa, Asia, the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean can only look on.
Blacks Stay Back…
It’s like wanting to prove true at a global level today the old saying in the ‘Black Power’ times (late 1960s and early 1970s) that: ‘White is Right and Blacks Stay Back!’
Even before Oxford-AstraZeneca could have produced its first COVID-19 vaccine in 2020, the rich nations of Europe and North America bought-off every dose in advance, many ordering more than their populations needed while the poor nations of the South remained standing at the back of the line.
The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) is indeed among 190 nations depending on the World Health Organization (WHO) to deliver vaccinations, through its COVAX mechanism, to countries most in need but cannot afford.
Bur only single-digit percentages of needed amounts have been distributed to developing countries most in need while the already over-supplied rich countries fight over delivery of extra quotas.
The teaser amounts supplied to CARICOM nations (mainly through India’s vaccine diplomacy) led the leaders to call at their Intersessional Summit last month for an international summit to discuss equitable delivery of vaccines – which call was supported by the wider Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).
But even while the majority have not yet opted to open their borders to the Russian Sputnik V and China SinoVac brands and await the eventual external distribution of Cuba’s Soberania brands, they haven’t been able to convince the major contracted COVAX supplier, Oxford-AstraZeneca, to do anything to appease their delivery fears.
In the last week of March, some 2.2 million AstraZeneca doses were finally delivered to the Caribbean region, but while expressing relief at their arrival, Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Director Dr Clarissa Etienne noted that ‘millions’ are ‘still months away from receiving their first vaccine.’
The WHO Director General announced March 26 that ten million vaccines are needed to be sent urgently to 20 poorest countries most at risk among 92 identified for immediate attention and called on the rich countries with extras to make these donations – but with no response.
COVID Fatigue and Anxiety have thus far in 2021 led to increasing incidences of violations of Protection and Prevention Protocols — ranging from altercations with police and other enforcers in Saint Lucia and violation of Quarantine and Social Distancing requirements in Barbados to presentation of Fake Negative COVID test results in Grenada – and continued violations of Mask rules everywhere else.
CARICOM governments are nearing their collective wits’ end, most having launched national vaccination campaigns with less than 10% of the vaccines on hand — and depending entirely on thus-far unreliable COVAX deliveries.
Unable (or unwilling) to meet the costs while also observing the efficacy of the various vaccines – especially after AstraZeneca got shelved and redeployed in 16 European states after reports of everything from blood-clot after-effects to ineffectiveness against new South African, British and Brazilian variants – some Caribbean leaders are also quietly eyeing elsewhere, including the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was deployed in South Africa a week before the USA.
Two CARICOM nations (Guyana and St. Vincent and the Grenadines) in February embraced SINOVAC and Sputnik V, Guyana accepting a gift from China and St. Vincent registering the Russian vaccine alongside Oxford-AstraZeneca for local use.
This week, Grenada announced it too has signed an agreement with Russia’s Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) to facilitate registration and distribution of Sputnik V in Grenada ‘and CARICOM’.
With AstraZeneca’s list of woes continuing to pile-up, more bad news hit countries depending on the COVAX mechanism this week: India on November 25 announcing an immediate ban on exports of vaccines produced there.
Taking its cue from the European and North American nations that spent the last week slapping sanctions and restrictions to ensure vaccines produced on their soil be first distributed within their borders, the world’s most populous developing country said it’s done the same for the same reasons: to meet its vaccination needs that have reached catastrophic levels.
India’s tit-for-tat ban on exports of vaccines produced locally cannot be faulted by the rich countries counting on it for being the world’s largest vaccine producer.
Its Serum Institute of India (SII) has exported 60 million mostly AstraZeneca doses to 76 countries so far.
India’s Dizzying Numbers
But India’s COVID problem is very real: daily infection rates reached the highest this past Wednesday at 47,000 and registered 275 deaths.
The SII had promised to produce one billion vaccines for the COVAX scheme this year and in January said it could turn out between 60 million and 70 million cases monthly and was aiming to turnout 100 million from March 2021.
But the 100 million mark hasn’t been reached, even though US President Joe Biden this week increased the US vaccination rate pace from 100 million to 200 million in his first 100 days in office and Britain has inoculated close to 60% of its population through special home-advantage deals with Oxford-AstraZeneca in return for funding their research and production.
India began its vaccination drive on January 16 and has so far inoculated over 47 million – with fears of a possible second wave — while aiming to administer 600 million doses within the next seven months, at a rate of 85 million doses per month.
India’s numbers alone will send the average Caribbean citizen COVID-dizzy.
By comparison, CARICOM’s 15 member-states (including Haiti) cover a total area of over 177,000 square miles and the total population is no more than 18 million – amounting to 36 million AstraZeneca doses at most, or 25.2 million with the WHO’s ‘Herd Immunity’ prescription of 70%.
Hope is therefore not in abundance for the 190 COVAX-dependent nations and no Caribbean island has reason not to worry about delivery promises that have been quietly and embarrassingly delayed or postponed more than once.
With 4,191 diagnosed cases and 58 deaths and 21,183 persons having received their first AstraZeneca dose as of March 26, Saint Lucia’s health authorities are proceeding apace with more hope than assurance that there’ll be enough doses to reach the 70% ‘Herd Immunity’ inoculated population rate required to consider the vaccination drive a success – which would require vaccinating 126,000.
While India is preparing for preventing a second wave, Saint Lucia is this weekend facing a possible Fourth Wave if the health authorities are unable to police the prevention protocols over this Palm Sunday weekend and the long Easter Holiday season next weekend.
The island’s Third Wave in January followed widespread violation of quarantine protocols by Saint Lucian Nationals resident abroad who came ‘Home’ for the Christmas and New Year and fatigued or restless citizens simply violating the protocols to ‘have a good time…’
Saint Lucians, like Caribbean people everywhere, have a demonstrated penchant for ‘not missing-out on a fete’ and with the usual Easter Holidays starting on Good Friday (April 1) and continuing through Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday and continuing through Easter Monday (April 5), frontline health workers are expecting (but hoping not) to have to handle yet another surge caused by those who still haven’t accepted the New COVID Normal.
Luckily, Saint Lucians have defied the Conspiracy Theorists and more have decided to vaccinate than the vaccine skeptics would have wanted, with hesitance levels lower than before the campaign started and most of those hesitating saying they are only exercising the option to ‘wait and see’ how the vaccines work elsewhere, especially given the conflicting reports on the effectiveness of AstraZeneca against certain COVID-19 variants.
As pointed out by Antigua’s Ambassador to the US and OAS Sir Ronald Sanders in February, those spreading doubts and confusion to discourage people from vaccinating are simply contributing to the extension of the length of time that COVID will remain with us.
Meanwhile, the region and the world enter COVID’s second year with all assurances from the experts that the multiplying new variants of the old corona virus will continue to haunt Humankind in the new Age of SARS-CoV-2, through 2021 to 2022, 2023 and 2024.
And they’ll freely transcend boundaries and borders with many-times-more haste and effect than seen and felt during the first year of their parent virus COVID-19 in 2020.
Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of St Lucia Times.