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By Kadeem Joseph

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The announcement of Antigua and Barbuda’s first case of the novel coronavirus struck an ominous tone.

Prime Minister Gaston Browne’s announcement on Friday March 13 2020, a day with its own superstitious undertones, sent shockwaves throughout the country, already struggling to understand the origins of the virus and its potential impact.

Recall the rush to the varying supermarkets and gas stations upon the announcement of initial restrictions and varying states of emergency.

At that time, the scientific community was still making new discoveries about the virus which was spreading rapidly across the globe.

Impacts on health

While initial reports concerning the Covid-19 disease had pegged the virus as a pathogen that caused respiratory infections that could possibly cause severe respiratory distress, it is now widely understood that the virus affects multiple organs throughout the body including the heart, kidneys, vasculature, neurological systems and more. 

Of further importance, scientists and healthcare professionals continue to stress that individuals with underling health conditions, to include diabetes, obesity and hypertension, are of concern since the virus affects such patients more severely.

Thankfully, despite the anxieties surrounding the virus, Antigua and Barbuda fared relatively favourably with only a handful of deaths initially associated with Covid-19.

Scientists also knew that Covid-19 was a matter of numbers, meaning that increased spreading of the virus would likely mean increased potential for deaths due to the disease it causes. 

In a presentation during Thursday’s sitting in parliament, Minister of Health Molwyn Joseph reminded that in December, after nine months of battling the pandemic, Antigua and Barbuda had 150 confirmed cases, six of which were active and only five deaths.

Although we were spared the worse in 2020, without doubt the sting of the disease is evident now more than ever. For 2021 thus far, we have more than doubled the recorded cases of the virus and with that seen a sharp increase in fatalities as well.

The economic and political fallout

One of the first and hardest hit industries to be dealt a catastrophic blow by Covid-19 was the tourism sector – Antigua and Barbuda’s mainstay.

As 2020 progressed, hopes that there would be a silver bullet that would return safe travel quickly diminished, taking with it employment prospects for industry workers.

While hotel managers were optimistic that the appetite for travel would keep the industry alive, many were forced to close their doors as major source markets went into lockdown.

Antigua and Barbuda also suffered another blow with the grounding of LIAT in the initial stages of the pandemic in the region, and the ultimate effect on the company’s hundreds of employees as the company remains under administration.

With the economic fallout, evidenced by decreased economic activity, the political directorate have debated – and vigorously so – how to manage the social implications.

Political analyst and regional pollster Peter Wickham has posited that the short-term impact of the pandemic has been “good” for the ruling administration, “while the long-term impact has created some opportunities for the opposition, and the UPP [United Progressive Party] seem to have maximised on some instances in which the government dropped the ball”.

“Take for example the second wave and vaccine rollout… both of these instances the opposition has helped itself by raising logical concerns about the government’s handling, while initially there was less room for objection,” he explained.

Wickham said that the other aspect of the impact, however, will be a judgement that is made closer to the elections when voters must consider if the UPP could have handled the pandemic better.

“Here I am less certain that the UPP will come out on top. If this were a sprint, then the UPP’s chances would have been greatly enhanced by the Covid crisis. However, the fact that the election is not due until 2023 means that it is a marathon which will generate several opportunities for the ALP to take and hold the lead,” he explained.

Struggling to socialise and educate

The fight against the Covid-19 pandemic has proven to be a marathon rather than a sprint and the fatigue brought on by a year of physical distancing and limited social interactions has perhaps made residents who are used to fun and frolic and the warmth of being a close-knit society weary.

The dreaded impact of the so-called Covid-19 fatigue was seen in full force following the holiday season.

The mixture of retuning nationals, holidaymakers, and laxed protocols were the perfect recipe for a spike in cases to welcome the new year, the results of which we are still experiencing to date.

The pandemic has also left its fingerprints on education. It was just this week that principal of the Clare Hall Secondary School Ashworth Azille stressed that virtual learning continues to “widen the learning gap” between students who have been able to adapt to virtual learning and those who have not made the transition smoothly.

Teacher and youth advocate Zahra Airall also underscored how virtual learning adversely affected social learning, adding that many of her students cried because they were being negatively impacted by the change in the method of instruction.

What now?

For so many, Covid-19 is a sad reminder of all they have lost, from jobs to opportunities and their view of normality.

For others it has been marked by the deaths of relatives due to the virus.

In continuing his presentation in Parliament on Thursday, the minister of health also asked residents to pause and consider if they had done their best to prevent the escalation of virus cases.

“We have moved from 150 confirmed cases to 882 and still counting,” he said as he painted a picture of the grim situation the country had found itself in.

To date, the country has confirmed 945 cases, with 351 active cases and 25 deaths.

However, while debates will continue about the cause of this major increase in the spread of the virus, citizens and residents are now being asked to take their commitment to safeguarding the health of the nation one step further.

The rollout of the government’s Covid-19 vaccine campaign has not been without errors, but 21,730 people have already opted to take their first dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab, a step that is seen as a key step in the fight against this deadly pandemic.

The availability of doses remains low globally and health experts condemn vaccine nationalism and other counterproductive practices in the distribution of vaccines.

Nonetheless, all is not lost. With continued emphasis on proper hygiene, mask wearing, physical distancing and continued vaccinations, Antigua and Barbuda and the rest of the world can still turn the tide against the spread of the dreaded Covid-19 pandemic and move closer to some form of normalcy.