March 11 will be one year after “ground zero” for COVID-19 in Guyana – the day we had our first victim of the pandemic. Not unexpectedly, it involved someone from abroad, New York to be exact. She was Ratna Baboolall, a 52-year-old Guyanese mother resident in New York for the last ten years, who only arrived four days earlier with her family to visit relatives. The authorities rushed to implement protocols that had been hurriedly put in place: conducting contact tracing, which uncovered eight relatives, including her 59-year-old husband and two sons, had been infected. They were isolated at a facility at Diamond, but not without some confusion because of the novelty of the situation. Caribbean Airlines also placed into quarantine the crew that brought in Ratna, and conducted contact tracing on other passengers. Guyana was now launched into a regime that had spread inexorably across the world since the first case was identified in Wuhan, China on Nov 11, 2019.
The entire world became topsy-turvy as developed countries like Italy, UK and the US – which were supposed to have the most advanced medical facilities and personnel – reeled under the onslaught of the virus, and their infection and death rates careened out of control. Since viral infections were nothing new, it was known that vaccines would have to be created and manufactured to inoculate populations. The race was on. In the meantime, China demonstrated that if basic precautions – such as lockdowns of infected areas, wearing masks, washing hands, keeping a two-metre distance between persons etc – were observed in tandem with meticulous contact tracing, the infection and death rates would be controlled.
In Guyana, the COVID pandemic hit at the very worst time: in the midst of the blatant attempt by the PNC to rig the March 2 elections. The Government established a National COVID-19 Task Force (NCTF) under the Chairmanship of PM Moses Nagamootoo, but he was quickly removed from operational control as a National Task Force Secretariat was launched on April 25 under the leadership of Joseph Harmon, who was designated CEO. At that time, some 70 persons had been diagnosed as infected and 8 had died, but he used the NCTF to retard the elections recount. The PNC also entered into an incestuous relationship with a campaign contributor to acquire and equip the Ocean View Hotel as a COVID-19 hospital at a cost of almost $2 billion.
By mid-December 2020, the first COVID-19 vaccine had been given approval by several European countries, including the UK, and by the end of the month, one – the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine – became the first to receive emergency validation from WHO. Since then, there have been at least a dozen more vaccines created, and they have been rolled out in vaccination programmes in most developed countries. There was a new phenomenon discerned – “COVID nationalism” – wherein the developed countries somersaulted on their long-preached “concern” for the poorer countries, and not only made policy decisions to hoard vaccines produced in their countries, but used their superior financial position to forward-purchase many times the amount needed to inoculate their entire populations.
At this point, there have been 115,653,459 confirmed cases of COVID-19 across the world, including 2,571,823 deaths reported to WHO. A total of 249,160,837 vaccine doses has been administered. In Guyana, we have 8729 cases, 200 deaths, and 3000 AstraZeneca vaccine first doses administered. These were generously donated by Barbados. China has donated 20,000 of its Sinopharm vaccine, and 80,000 AstraZeneca vaccines have been received from India.
While it may appear that there is light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, mutant variants – as is standard with all viruses – have appeared in several countries, like the UK, South Africa and, most troubling, Brazil. The latter variant has shown itself to be resistant to most vaccines, and evidently can reinfect persons previously infected.
The authorities would have to work diligently to seal our porous border with Brazil.