By Indranie Deolall
A young medical student was driving home last Sunday, when the frantic siren of a speeding ambulance forced her to pull aside and stop. She spotted the hazmat suits that have become the uniform of the COVID-19 treatment personnel, who are among those battling at the forefront of the resurgent pandemic that threatens to also engulf Trinidad and Tobago.
Within minutes, a second wailing vehicle flew by with another high-risk patient aboard, and attendants wearing the same distinctive personal protection clothing. A survivor of the killer virus, the worried University of the West Indies (UWI) graduate who holds other degrees and spent weeks in quarantine, told me she recognised immediately, that the highway encounter portended the country’s infection figures were rising rapidly, and she feared “how bad, things are going to really get.”
Record new cases
Yet she is unable to convince her sceptical parents of the urgency to take the limited AstraZeneca vaccines still on offer to some, as the country recorded another four deaths of elderly and middle-aged patients up to Wednesday afternoon, bringing the known fatalities over the past five days to 20, and the overall number to 189.
A frightening record of nearly 400 new positive cases out of a rounded 1,000 tests were reported by that evening, reflecting samples taken during May 2-4, the health ministry said, but only seven persons were discharged from public facilities. In March to April, cases began to rise, taking the known tally to date to just over 12,000 with about 3,000 being active.
Health system collapse
With alarmed experts warning that Trinidad and Tobago parallel healthcare system is on the verge of collapse, given current COVID-19 trends, they estimate that the services could be overwhelmed within a week or so. The largely smooth roll-out of introductory vaccines for initial vulnerable groups is ongoing with around 55,000 individuals receiving a first dose of the AstraZeneca shot, and just under 300 getting the second final jab.
Reflecting the growing crisis in poorer areas of the world, there are not enough vaccines to inject a sizeable amount of Trinidad and Tobago estimated 1.4 million population as chronic shortages in developing countries worsen, with key supplier countries and donors like India now struggling to manage the deadly explosion in cases at home, and others such as Italy placing embargoes, too, on critical export shipments. After an ugly diplomatic spat, India, in April presented Trinidad and Tobago with 40,000 doses of its Covishield version of the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab.
One-Dose better than no Dose
Days ago, the government of prime minister Keith Rowley reversed the decision to end the inoculation programme, choosing to use up the remainder of 38,000 vaccines that were reserved as final doses. Trinidad and Tobago expects a second tranche, of 33,600 shots from the COVAX Facility through the PAHO/WHO (Pan-American Health Organization/World Health Organization this month. Guyana is due another 38,000.
“The worst that can happen is that the second tranche does not get here. Its means that all 80,000 who were vaccinated, only got one dose. The worst-case scenario is that one-dose is a lot better than no dose,” Dr Rowley reasoned at a media conference last weekend, in his birthplace of Tobago.
A third of Guyanese given first shot
In comparison, Guyana with a smaller population of around 800,000 has given around 146,000 persons, or 30 percent of adults, nearly a third of its’ residents a first shot of a COVID-19 vaccine. Apparently, health minister Dr Frank Anthony is gambling on a different, if risky approach than that of Trinidad and Tobago wider spread strategy, as he sought to assure Guyanese there is an adequate supply for second doses. Over 5,000 individuals received their final jabs and are considered fully inoculated.
Guyana acquired a total of 260,000 vaccines through gifts or purchases, including about 102,000 AstraZeneca vaccines from India, 20,000 Sinopharm vaccines from China and 138,000 Sputnik V vaccines from Russia. However, deaths are mounting in Guyana as well, with another two, on Wednesday, taking the fatalities from the pandemic to 308. The health ministry found 173 new cases of infection that day, pushing the overall amount to around 13,800 cases, most of whom, 11,600 patients, recovered, but there has been no rush to return to lockdown or to close the airports, although the death rates are soaring across South America, including in neighbouring Brazil and Suriname.
Mere days to disaster
On Monday, the Trinidad and Tobago, chief medical officer (CMO), Dr Roshan Parasram, reported the country was counting mere days to disaster, highlighting the at least 25 confirmed cases of the more dangerous and transmissible Brazilian P.1 variant, which is “moving faster and hitting harder,” noting that younger people are now dying from the virus in the twin-islands. Pointing to the “snowball” effect, he explained cases would double, then quadruple, octuple and so on.
Nations ranging from Laos to Thailand in Southeast Asia, and those bordering India such as Bhutan and Nepal, showed significant surges in infections in the past few weeks, media house Bloomberg said. The increase is mainly because of more contagious virus variants, and through complacency and lack of resources to contain the spread.
Trinidad and Tobago triple-digit case jump
Citing figures from Johns Hopkins University, Bloomberg ranked countries by the change in newly recorded infections in the past month. Laos topped with a 22,000 percent leap, followed by Nepal and Thailand, which saw fresh caseloads skyrocketing more than 1,000 percent on a month-over-month basis. Bhutan, Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname, Cambodia and Fiji, have also witnessed jumps at a high triple-digit pace.
At a joint news conference on Monday to announce the latest re-imposition of a wider lockdown and restrictions to counter the rise of the novel coronavirus, Trinidad and Tobago prime minister curiously declared, “We in Trinidad and Tobago are in a peculiar geographical location. This virus is raging in Brazil. Brazil has a border with Guyana. Guyana is part of CARICOM. People are coming from Guyana by way of CARICOM arrangements into Trinidad and Tobago.”
A piece of water and North Korea
Criticising the blame being cast on illegal Venezuelans entering Trinidad where borders remain closed, Dr Rowley felt, “We should not take a lot of comfort in the fact that if we focus in that way on migrants that we’ll be given a pass for the rest of our population. All over the world, this virus is raging among populations of human beings, without Venezuelans.”
He disclosed Jamaica was the latest country preparing to ban residents from Trinidad and Tobago, because of the Brazilian variant. Dr Rowley acknowledged, “Yes we have a migrant problem because we are literally attached to South America” for “we have a piece of water between us and Venezuela, and it is extremely difficult unless you have a North Korean-type of system in place for you to say that you will guarantee that nobody comes into this country from outside” but there “is just too much old talk.”
Consider special restrictions on Guyana
“We have done very well in the last few months in managing and controlling migration across our borders,” the prime minister, who recently recovered from COVID-19, insisted, maintaining “tens of thousands” have benefited. “But what do we say to Guyanese?” Dr Rowley queried, divulging that he had raised with the minister of health “when we first saw what was happening in Guyana that maybe we should consider putting special restrictions on Guyana (and Guyanese) but then the logistical and other difficulties arose…”
*A startled ID is still trying to work out why, how, where and when, her resourceful countrymen managed to invisibly sneak into Trinidad and Tobago. The prime minister observed about the COVID-19 case hike, “I don’t want the local population of non-Venezuelans to get a pass” and say, “Is the border, the border, the border, the border…”