Coronavirus reaches the Caribbean


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The first cases of Covid-19 – the new strain of coronavirus that’s killed nearly 3,000 people worldwide since December 2019 – were confirmed in the Caribbean on 1 March.

Two people showed symptoms of the disease as they prepared to fly to Paris from Juliana International Airport on the Franco-Dutch island of Saint Martin/Sint Maarten on Friday 28 February. They tested positive for the virus, as did the couple’s son, who lives in St Barthélemy, according to French news agency AFP. All are reported to be in reasonable health.

Just two days earlier, there had been a sense of relief in the region when three people from Guadeloupe and one in the British Virgin Islands were given the all-clear from the virus.

Covid-19 arrived in the Caribbean as Caricom leaders and health officials met in Bridgetown, Barbados, to discuss how best to protect their communities and respond to the threat.

Even before discovery of the three cases on Sunday, the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) had upgraded the risk of Covid-19 transmission from “low” to “moderate to high”. The agency’s executive director, Dr Joy St John, said that it was working to develop a Caricom Regional Plan to manage the outbreak and stressed the need for rapid response.

Since December, when the disease emerged at a wildlife market in Wuhan, China, Covid-19 has infected 86,000 people around the world (36 in the UK), of whom nearly 3,000 have since died. Although it is similar to influenza, Covid-19 is a completely new type of virus and can spread more quickly and with a higher death rate than seasonal flu (a disease that nevertheless accounts for half a million lives a year).

Even if Covid-19 does not take hold on the islands, the epidemic’s economic side-effects could be severe. As people cancel travel plans, companies curtail business trips and airlines stop flying to certain destinations, global tourism could take a hit of $22 billion or more, according to the UN. The Caribbean islands will share in that pain. Several major sporting events, shows and conferences have already been cancelled, and some countries have banned all large gatherings of people – which must put some of this year’s post Lenten carnivals in doubt.

Cruise tourism is facing a wave of cancellations after 705 passengers and crew were infected on Diamond Princess while it was quarantined in Japan. As they try to keep the virus at bay, several countries have turned away cruise ships and flights. For example, passengers from an Italian flight that arrived in Mauritius were given the choice of immediately returning to Italy or undergoing quarantine in a specially adapted isolation centre. That’s a tactic that Caribbean countries may feel they need to copy.

However, in a recent report, the World Health Organization painted a gloomy picture of most countries’ readiness for a major Covid-19 outbreak:

Much of the global community is not yet ready, in mindset and materially, to implement the measures that have been employed to contain COVID-19 in China. These are the only measures that are currently proven to interrupt or minimize transmission chains in humans. Fundamental to these measures is extremely proactive surveillance to immediately detect cases, very rapid diagnosis and immediate case isolation, rigorous tracking and quarantine of close contacts, and an exceptionally high degree of population understanding and acceptance of these measures.

The message is stark: wherever in the world we live, when it comes to Covid-19 we’re all in it together.