Calls mount for national lockdown

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by Gemma Handy

Government is facing increasing calls to implement a second national lockdown, which many say is crucial to protect the country’s health care system amid spiraling coronavirus cases.

The non-profit Human Resource Professionals of Antigua and Barbuda (HRPAB) yesterday became the latest to push for a shutdown. The group acknowledged the “catastrophic” economic effect the closure of all non-essential businesses would have, but claimed the health system was being “stretched to breaking”.

At the weekend, the opposition United Progressive Party (UPP) also urged the government to give the tough measure “serious consideration”, saying a planned lockdown would yield better results than the current “slow and uncontrolled spiral downwards” as more and more businesses are forced to temporarily shut their doors due to Covid exposure.

Those sentiments were echoed by Dr George Roberts – a private specialist and a consultant with the public hospital – who said an “immediate” lockdown was needed “to give our health services a chance to maintain control” pending the rollout of Covid vaccines.

Last month, Information Minister Melford Nicholas told media that if cases continued to surge by more than three a day over a seven-day period, a lockdown was likely. But, despite recording dozens more since then, the government has so far been reluctant to follow through.

Last night, Cabinet announced extended curfew hours but stopped short of introducing more drastic measures.

Other commentators have expressed fears that the economy would not recover from another national shutdown.

Last week, Mount St John’s Medical Centre’s medical director Dr Albert Duncan warned that the hospital was currently under more pressure than ever before from the pandemic. He said problems were being exacerbated due to a shortage of manpower as more health workers fall sick with the virus.

“As of February 11, 2021, we had 419 confirmed cases with 211 active and a total of nine deaths. That represented an increase of 204 cases in 14 days,” the HRPAB said in a statement.

Yesterday a second health care worker died of complications from the illness, taking the country’s Covid death toll into double figures.

HRPAB’s statement noted the “social and emotional traumas” that could be brought to bear if the disease’s spread and death rate continue to surge.

“We believe that it is time for a government mandated shutdown or a national pause that would give our overwhelmed health care system an opportunity to recover and help to reduce the alarming rate of infection. This should be followed by widespread testing,” it said.

“It will be painful but we must.”

The body advised businesses to fully sanitise their premises and begin a testing regime of employees to identify the asymptomatic.

The HRPAB also recommended shift systems be set up to limit exposure should a worker fall ill.

“The public sector has been asked to scale down operations and other sectors have implemented reduced hours for their staff and reverted to working from home.

“However, the health and safety of our employees must be our concern and a complete national lockdown protects our employees – most of whom are customer-facing – and this to us is more important at this time than protecting the detriment that it will cause to the economy,” the statement added.

The UPP on Saturday expressed concern at the “alarming increase” in new Covid cases in recent weeks.

“We recorded 159 cases in nine months: March to December 2020. Now, in seven weeks, we have logged 260 cases, with domestic infections more than doubling those imported,” the party said in a press release.

“These sobering statistics bring us to the point of reassessment, and we can only conclude that, despite the curfew, the present strategy is not working.

“We are very sensitive to the fact that a lockdown could cause great harm to people’s ability to feed their families and even for businesses to survive. However, caution dictates that we no longer postpone the inevitable. It is the safest and most responsible option,” the UPP said.

Dr Roberts, in a widely shared social media post on Saturday, said he felt “compelled” to speak out.

“The number of infected individuals is rising rapidly, and the Mount St John’s medical director himself has declared that the medical services are under severe strain as a result,” he wrote.

“We have seen what has happened in Britain, the USA and nearby St Lucia where there has been some inertia in adopting strict control measures. From my perspective, the right decision is obvious.

“We need to lock down immediately to give our health services a chance to maintain control, while concurrently expediting the acquisition and distribution of the vaccine.”

Dr Roberts added, “I really hope that the authorities reconsider their stance and move toward a stricter public distancing policy. If they don’t, I hope my fears are dead wrong. Otherwise many of us may be dead. Right?”

Last night, the country recorded an additional 16 coronavirus cases, taking the current count of active cases to 229.

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