Carnival 2022 – Antigua and Barbuda’s next public health milestone or nightmare?

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Countries around the subregion, including St Vincent and the Grenadines, have recently seen the return of their annual Carnival festivities, with little reported public health issues (Photo courtesy Georgia State University blog)
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By Orville Williams

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After two agonising years of waiting, thousands of revellers are anticipating the return of Antigua Carnival, but this year’s festival could go one of two ways – either very good or very bad – from a public health standpoint.

If all goes well, the celebrations will be a magnificent display of Antigua and Barbuda’s culture, and will serve as a signal to the region and the rest of the world that the twin island nation is well on the way to normalcy, and it will both start and end without incident.

But if things go wrong, Carnival could serve as an example of what not to do, with major events such as this consistently threatening to be a hotbed for the spread of Covid-19.

The country has been through arguably the worst of the ongoing pandemic, with the current infection rate one of the lowest it has ever been and the vaccination rate one of the highest among Caribbean countries.

This has given the government, which dictates the ever-changing rules for Covid-19 management, the confidence to accept and even promote the large crowds that are likely to be a feature of the entire Carnival season.

In fact, broadcasters are being discouraged from streaming any of the events online in real-time and are instead encouraged to adopt a 90-minute delay in order to motivate patrons to attend in person.

The aforementioned confidence has also been fuelled by the relatively safe re-opening of the entertainment sector over the past few months, according to this week’s Cabinet spokesperson, Minister Samantha Marshall.

“There have been a number of events leading up to Carnival [and for] all of these really, the Ministry of Festivals has been working closely with the Ministry of Health.

“We’ve practically been monitoring the situation to see what has been happening. That is why we did open up [the entertainment sector] a little earlier to allow for large events, so we could see what would happen.

“Given what has been happening so far, we doubt that it will create a situation that is not manageable,” she said.

The government has been commended in the past for some of its pioneering decisions on Covid-19 management, such as enforcing a vaccination mandate for the re-opening of schools.

That move was met with some pushback, mainly from the ‘anti-vax’ community, but after eligible students and staff were made to take the jab, distance learning was scrapped and the school environment returned to a commendable state of normalcy.

This year’s Carnival could follow the same path, with the majority of revellers likely to have been vaccinated, but the fact that some unvaccinated persons will undoubtedly participate remains cause for concern.

And on the flipside, the government’s failure to clamp down on the hundreds of returning residents who travelled home for the festive season back in 2020, resulted in community spread of Covid-19.

The low vaccination rate at that time, however, will likely be pointed to as reason for the outbreak early in 2021.

But even though the high vaccination rate will mean less hospitalisations and less deaths if there’s an outbreak due to Carnival, the need to isolate and quarantine affected persons could have a detrimental effect on the country and, in particular, the economy.

Imagine an employer having to halt business operations because half the staff is at home isolating due to Covid infection, and the other half is at home quarantining after being exposed to infected persons.

These questions will be answered in a matter of weeks and the health system will certainly have to be prepared for any eventuality, based on the lessons learned over the past two years.

Marshall revealed that no immediate emphasis is being placed on bolstering widescale Covid testing for the post-Carnival period, referring to the increasing number of persons adopting a sense of personal responsibility.

“Months ago, the Cabinet made a decision that persons who wanted to bring in their own [at-home] Covid tests [could do that] and even some of the mas’ troupes, I believe, will be doing that.

“We have allowed for that to happen [and] the Ministry of Health will do whatever they can in terms of providing free Covid testing, but most persons at this moment – based on reports coming from the Ministry – are testing at home or at their own private doctors.

“So, we will monitor the situation and if the demand is there, the Ministry will ensure that the [necessary] testing is done,” she explained.

The new threat of monkeypox is also a reason for revellers and the wider public to be concerned, as the virus has already been confirmed in the Bahamas, Barbados and Jamaica, and suspected cases are being investigated in many others.

Travellers from these countries frequent Antigua and Barbuda, perhaps no time more than during the summer and, specifically, during Carnival.

That threat, coupled with that of Covid-19 means ‘what to do’ and ‘what not to do’ will be the basis of the public health lessons that will come out of this year’s Carnival. For now, however, the mood is one of great anticipation and optimism; whether that mood changes in a couple of weeks is anyone’s guess.

“This is really a situation of us not wanting to continue to have to live in fear, but rather to have people get back to the normality. It has been a very stressful two years and we believe that this Carnival is going to be our best yet,” Marshall added.

This year’s official Carnival celebrations run from July 27 to August 2.

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