By Earl Bousquet: July and August 2021 saw the Caribbean’s sunshine completely overshadowed by overcast COVID-19 clouds as the Delta Variant flew unhindered through the Americas, including the USA and Canada, as well as North, Central and South America.
After arriving almost everywhere on Planet Earth, the Delta Variant erased all signs of relief from the costly human effects of high Vaccine Refusal and/or Hesitance rates, low Vaccination levels and increasing Vaccination Mistrust.
Signs and Signals
July dawned with early warning signs and signals that the world’s richest countries continued withholding the long-promised vaccines from the global poorest. The World Health Organization (WHO) pleaded with the rich nations to understand the world will never be safe from COVID-19 as long as the virus stays alive anywhere.
But Pandemic Profiteering had discouraged the manufacturers and donors from starting to deliver the billions of vaccines promised to scores of poor countries unable to afford. G-7 and European Union (EU) nations, with more-than-enough extra doses to vaccinate their populations several-times-over, hadn’t started making the sizeable-enough contributions to directly assist developing nations.
The US had returned and restored its annual contributions to the WHO, but it was China that was contributing the most vaccines directly to the United Nations’ COVAX facility, after having also promised to make two billion vaccine doses available worldwide by the end of 2021.
Sixteen months after the pandemic was declared, people everywhere were rebelling against Lockdowns, Masking, Social Distancing and other COVID-related restrictions, many governments buckling under popular pressure as politicians kept their eyes more on being re-elected than seeing how the virus was sending more unvaccinated people to hospitals — and taking more lives.
Knee-jerk UK responses ranged from fiddling with airline flights through frequent changing of border- entry rules, to removal of prevention protocols. But the continued metamorphosis of COVID-19 – from SARS-CoV-2 to the Alpha and Delta Variants –had by July seen the latter account for the vast majority of new cases in both the UK and USA.
New cases and ‘waves’ also started hitting nations on both sides of the Atlantic that had earlier reported happiness with progress in nearing required national (70-90%) Herd Immunity levels. Hospitals were filling-up across the North and running out of Intensive Care Units (ICUs), while patients in the South without access to any hospital care — like in India — were forced to either die at home, or wither-away along hospital sidewalks while families frantically sought rare oxygen.
Caribbean governments faced populations suffering from clear overdoses of Pandemic Fatigue. Vaccine Hesitance, Refusal and Mistrust levels were high regionally, the anti-vax lobby having successfully convinced too many Caribbean people to ignore the Numbers and question the Science.
The continuous overflow of negative international news reports of inefficacy of Oxford-AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and other vaccines also contributed to deepening of doubts.
Bulls and Chickens
Caribbean governments were ultimately forced to take the COVID bull by the horns in mid-July, before the proverbial chickens started flying home to roost (through visitors and returning nationals shipping or flying-in for summer).
The Delta Variant was expected in the CARICOM region anytime. Vaccinations at a standstill, the emphasis was now on stiffening enforcement of prevention protocols — even outlawing violations, as in Saint Lucia, where a special COVID team was established, with powers of arrest, to police protocols and enforce restrictions.
Cuban Vaccine Confidence
Another underestimated factor was the high number of Caribbean people who simply opted to await the arrival of the five Cuban vaccines, willing to risk possible infections instead of trusting available vaccines they consider were rushed to the market. The WHO had earlier approved the Cuban vaccines for emergency use, but Havana insisted on completing the testing requirements — at home and in full.
The Delta Variant had by July forced governments in the UK and EU, the USA and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, India and South Africa, China and Russia, to quickly take late actions that none ever had even thought of six months earlier, especially mandating vaccinations.
The smaller nations in the CARICOM region, represented by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) were also still low on vaccines while positive tests increased and death rates climbed in many instances.
Poorer nations in The Americas ravaged by Delta shared many different and similar experiences that both helped and hindered, pushed and pulled the wider Caribbean in directions that yielded positive and negative results.
Regional governments were also forced to start thinking anew of how best to handle and eventually curb the rising tides of new COVID waves, even in the face of evident Lockdown Fatigue and growing political resistance.
July was also pregnant with sorry signs the North had no intention of delivering early on promises to share excess vaccines with the South. The manufacturing companies were now proposing ‘Booster Jabs’ through third vaccine shots from overstocked supplies as Pfizer applied to US regulators for permission to start rolling-out third extra doses to already-vaccinated Americans.
The rich nations and manufacturers had long started to back-peddle on their earlier pledges and promises, refusing to even consider allowing developing nations to produce vaccines to stem their growing tides of viral infection.
Prescriptions for third-dose, booster-jab, ‘mix-and-match’ cocktails and concoctions came fast and furious, as governments reaped the whirlwinds from earlier derelictions of duty and succumbing to natural negative public reaction to extended lockdowns. But – yet again – the world’s poor, poorer and poorest nations were forced to watch the arrival of promised vaccines remain on the donor nations’ back burners.
Wimbledon and Wembley…
The UK government’s early July relaxation of restrictions to allow for mass crowd activities at European Soccer and Wimbledon Tennis events in London led to Scots and Germans being first to pay the penalty, hundreds returning home from the matches testing positive on arrival. The UK’s numbers also naturally increased soon after.
The WHO eventually blamed the continental Football Association (UEFA) for the costly ‘Football Strain’, which also went way beyond Europe’s borders. Europe’s tennis authorities were also blamed for removing Social Distancing and Mask protocols for the Wimbledon matches. But the after-effects of sporting-around with COVID did travel and were indeed felt way beyond Europe’s borders.
From London, focus quickly shifted to Tokyo as it prepared to host the already-postponed 2020 Olympics and the 2021 Paralympics. With only 10% of Japanese vaccinated, hospitals had already started running out of beds, forcing Tokyo through agonizing bouts of indecision over requirements for arriving athletes and keeping Japanese safe, resulting in the unpopular decision to host the Games, but without spectators.
The organizers, unable to cancel the Games without mammoth costs, argued they were necessary to go ahead, if only for the sake of the four billion TV viewers waiting worldwide — the Japanese Prime Minister describing it as ‘Uniting the world to overcome COVID!’ But a more likely reason for pressing ahead is that 73% of paid broadcasters’ fees would go directly to the IOC, the only entity that could have cancelled.
The UK’s decision to relax and remove masking requirements saw the WHO responding that masking was still being advised and urging nations to exercise ‘self-caution, restraint and protection’ and repeating the global entity’s mantra that ‘My mask is my best friend.’
The WHO also called on the nations that earlier promised, to start distributing excess vaccines to developing countries in need, instead of promoting new schemes like ‘Booster jabs. Citing the absence of scientific proof that third jabs are needed, WHO officials also noted that while 58% of populations in rich countries were vaccinated, the average for poor countries was only 1.3%.
Indeed, one top WTO official publicly opined that offering third jabs to vaccinated people was like throwing life jackets to people who already have. The WHO instead proposed the rich nations using their extra doses to help bring poor countries to at least 20% vaccination levels by the end of 2021.
But while the world watched virtually in shock and awe as the USA and Brazil exchanged highest global death rates, India’s death rate quickly passed 400,000 in July — surpassing both USA and Brazil — after the Delta variant wreaked havoc across the land that, until then, had produced the most vaccines for the world.
Delhi banned all vaccine exports, but its COVID crisis also gave US President Joe Biden a golden opportunity to launch a Vaccine Diplomacy charm offensive that saw Washington quickly return (by way of an emergency gift) 60 million Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine doses earlier purchased by the US for stockpiling.
Biden also supported calls by developing countries – particularly India and South Africa – for relaxation of patent and copyright restrictions to allow nations able to produce at home in required speed and numbers. But the rich nations and the companies shot the proposal down each time it was raised anywhere.
Children and Youth
The fate of unvaccinated children and youth also started coming into serious focus in July. In the UK, 1.4 million teenagers aged 16 to 18 were offered jabs (without parents’ permission), while the USA and France vaccinated children from age 12 and American parents were allowed to decide whether their children should wear masks to school.
But it was also emerging that unvaccinated children and youth could also transmit the virus to parents, family and friends. The WHO said it was not yet ready to rule on whether to vaccinate children, even though Pfizer was already being unofficially jabbed into young shoulders across America.
Young and unvaccinated persons also led the new July COVID wave in the USA; and with vaccination rates down some states recorded over 125% increases in new cases over June.
The Caribbean opted to await the cue from the wider world, despite many students showing willingness to be vaccinated, but were unauthorized – even ordered not to — by parents or guardians who themselves mistrust the vaccines.
US hospitals started overflowing and running out of beds in July, as the Delta Variant travelled from state to state. With 92% of persons hospitalized for COVID and most dying persons being non-vaccinated, President Biden started sending silent and quiet but absolutely clear signals that Washington had decided the only answer might eventually be mandatory vaccinations.
The USA ended July at a roadblock in its efforts to achieve the national Herd Immunity rate, forcing Washington to fast-track and increase the volume of the new narrative about mandating vaccinations. But it wasn’t only the USA, as hospitals in the UK were also starting to overflow while Downing Street dithered on the protocols, but more businesses started insisting employees be vaccinated. France also demanded all health workers be vaccinated and Greece made vaccination mandatory for aged persons and home care givers.
As July ended, Washington decided to accept that the anti-vaccination lobby had the upper hand over the administration’s persuasive efforts, in big part thanks to Big Tech. The White House therefore announced it planned to “directly confront misinformation campaigns” by taking on Big Tech.
But on July 26 – just as Saint Lucians elected a new government that pledged and sought to change the approach to the national COVID dynamic from Day One, it was also reported that the Delta Variant was detected in Antigua and Barbuda.
The feared COVID roosters had finally landed – and the Caribbean would soon be roosted!
Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of St Lucia Times.