A year of COVID-19
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ON March 11 last year, COVID-19 became a stark reality in Guyana. Though it had already begun spreading across the globe a few months before, this novel coronavirus became a great concern for Guyana and many of the Caribbean countries only during March. From the very beginning, Guyana was exposed to the stark reality because the first person the local health authorities discovered was infected, died.

Guyana’s story of the pandemic, at least in the beginning, is a truly unique one. Certainly, the country was not as prepared as it should have been to conduct testing, do contact tracing, and treat patients to get ahead of the pandemic. But, that was not unusual; all countries across the globe had to adapt quickly and contend with the pandemic. What was unique about Guyana was its unfolding elections quagmire.

It is not unreasonable to assume–because there is no real empirical evidence–that the protracted elections’ period– and all of the shenanigans encompassed–distracted Guyanese from this pandemic. While the pandemic raged on during the first few months, and we were embroiled in our post-elections drama, it was not uncommon for there to be large gatherings and we had not yet developed an understanding of the need for the face masks, so cluster spreading was very possible. We owe our gratitude to all the frontline workers who were trying to keep the nation safe then, and who continue to do so even now.

Aside from the political occurrences, however, it is well-known that the pandemic also impacted every other sector. Business productivity was stymied, schools were closed and the tourism sector took the hardest hit with the closure of borders and the constraints to leisure activities. The closure of schools eventually prompted a shift to virtual learning— ‘Zoom school’—which has been fraught with challenges due to inherent inequalities and disparities.

Social services, too, have been constrained, which has been particularly worrisome since the pandemic has disproportionately impacted the vulnerable groups in our society. With the slowdown in business directly contributing to a reduction or loss of income, social safety nets were necessary to support persons. Moreover, it has been found that the pandemic— perhaps due to the ‘stay-at-home’ focus— has contributed to a rise in abuse and domestic violence. These present even greater concerns over the construction of social services. As time and the pandemic progressed, however, efforts would be made to ensure that these disproportionate effects were mitigated, on all fronts.

To a large extent, nevertheless, we’re still navigating the complexities of this pandemic and trying to manage ourselves better. Now, however, we’re also contending with the emergence of newer, modified forms of the virus — the variants, or strains as they are commonly called. The scientific and medical communities expected these variants would arrive at some point or the other, since viruses do mutate.

The variants that have emerged so far — the United Kingdom(UK), Brazil, and South African variants — all have the ability to infect more persons. If we’re not careful, their increased transmissibility could lead to a sharp rise in our cases, additional deaths, and an overwhelmed healthcare system. Guyana has not been able to identify whether we do any of these variants without our borders. We have been sending a few COVID-19 samples to the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) for testing, but those few samples were not variants. That is not enough to rule out the possibility that we have variants.

On the other hand, we’ve been able to secure a number of the COVID-19 vaccines and we have been vaccinating our frontline healthcare workers. Soon, other frontline workers, the elderly, and persons with comorbidities (underlying and undetected health conditions, such as diabetes) will be vaccinated too. The importance of vaccines is that they allow the body to create an immune response to the virus, thereby fighting off infection. And Guyana, incredibly, has been able to secure several vaccines in a short period amid global concerns of vaccine nationalism, where larger, wealthier countries are hoarding these vaccines for themselves.

But, even so, vaccines are not necessarily the ‘magic bullet’ for the population and there are, understandably, many concerns. Due to the perceived short period during which the vaccines were developed and granted emergency-use authorisation, concerns about the long-term benefits and impact of the vaccines linger. Additionally, the efficacy of the vaccines on the variants is still evolving. In Guyana, these concerns may contribute to the vaccine-acceptance rates unless greater efforts are made (or continued) to promote greater education, communication, and trust.

Despite this, we are still unsure when this pandemic may be over. Reasonable estimates project that we should return to a greater sense of normalcy by 2023 when all countries are finally expected to receive their vaccines and immunise their populations. We don’t yet know for certain, so this means that as we approach our ‘COVID anniversary’ we should be mindful that we still have to take all necessary precautions.

If you would like to discuss this column or any of my previous writings, please feel free to contact me via email: vish14ragobeer@gmail.com

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