2020: Ravaged by COVID-19

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By Lakhram Bhagirat

Captain Jermaine Newton assisting a little girl in Tiger Bay with her mask on Sunday

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which emerged in Wuhan, China in late December 2019, has wreaked, and continues to wreak, havoc on the world one year later. The deadly virus has sent the world in a frenzy, while at the same time bringing operations to a standstill.

The ease of transmission of the respiratory virus and its fatal effects on some two percent of those infected have caused economies to shut down and made millions of people jobless. Families lost not only material things, but also their loved ones to COVID-19, and it seems as though the virus is not about to go away any time soon. as at this date, there have been 83,201,215 infections and 1,815,161 fatalities worldwide.

According to information coming from the World Health Organisation (WHO) COVID-19 is caused by a newly discovered coronavirus. Most people who become infected with COVID-19 would experience mild to moderate symptoms, and recover without special treatment.
Research has shown that the virus that causes COVID-19 is mainly transmitted through droplets generated when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or exhales. These droplets are too heavy to hang in the air, and quickly fall on floors or surfaces. You can be infected by breathing in the virus if you are within close proximity of someone who has COVID-19, or by touching a contaminated surface before touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

It is the very reason why the use of masks is impressed on persons, and physical distancing is mandated when out in public or interacting with any person.
The symptoms of the virus vary, but include respiratory illnesses, fever, diarrhoea, loss of taste and smell, and rashes in some persons. Again, some infected persons may have no symptoms, and would not know their status unless they are tested, hence the reason using a mask is ever so important.

COVID-19 coming to Guyana was quite inevitable because of the fact that there were no stringent worldwide measures during the early days of the discovery of the virus. In fact, scientists did not know the cause of the virus, and initially associated it with the consumption of bat soup in China.

The entire Wuhan Province was on lockdown for several weeks following the discovery of the virus, and travel was banned to and from China by a number of countries in the initial stages.

COVID-19 in Guyana

On March 11, 2019, Guyana recorded its first case of COVID-19, and patient zero was identified as 52-year-old Ratna Baboolall, who posthumously tested positive for the dreaded virus. Baboolall, of Good Hope, East Coast Demerara (ECD), had travelled from the United States to Guyana to celebrate Phagwah with her family as per their tradition.
Days before she travelled to Guyana, she had complained of body aches, but that was dismissed due to her diabetes. She had visited a doctor in New York, who told her that her headaches and body aches were due to diabetic pain.

She had taken her insulin and those pains had gone away.

On March 10, a test of her blood glucose level revealed it was at 578. Later that day, another test showed that her blood sugar level had risen to 598. Sensing that something was wrong, her son Suraj Baboolall drove her to a health facility at Lusignan, East Coast Demerara (ECD), where they were told that it was suspected that she had pneumonia. However, further testing had to be done to confirm this suspicion.

The then worried Suraj asked if his mother could receive some saline and insulin to bring her blood sugar level back to normal, but was told that the facility was not licensed to administer such. He then decided to take his mother to a private medical facility in Georgetown.

While taking her medical and travel history, a doctor at the private hospital immediately referred them to the Georgetown Public Hospital, since they had travelled from NY. After about 20 minutes of waiting, he realised that his mother was having trouble breathing, after which they realised she needed a doctor immediately. Her entire medical and travel history was again related to the doctors who attended to her, and at no point did they indicate COVID-19 was suspected.

They began treating her, and after about five minutes, Ratna had her first pulmonary embolism due to what was diagnosed as diabetic ketoacidosis. She lost consciousness and had to be resuscitated. After Ratna was resuscitated, doctors intubated her and informed Suraj that his mother would need to be hospitalised in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU).

The following day, he was summoned to the hospital, where he was informed that his mother had died of suspected COVID-19 infection, and a test would later confirm the suspicion. He was advised to return home and have the family quarantine (there are some controversy as to whether the family self-isolated), and then on March 14, they learnt via a televised update from then Public Health Minister Volda Lawrence that several members had tested positive for the dreaded virus.

On the same day that Guyana recorded its first reported case of COVID-19, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared that an assessment of the outbreak had led to the conclusion that it should be classified as a pandemic.

“Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death. Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this virus. It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do. We have never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus. This is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus,” he had said.

To combat the spread of the disease locally, the then APNU/AFC Government formed the National COVID-19 Task Force (NCTF) headed by then Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo. The NCTF introduced several measures in accordance with the Public Health Ordinance, and those measures included (and still include) closure of bars and indoor dining restaurants, a curfew, and public transportation guidelines, among a whole host of other measures.

The Guyana Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) on Tuesday, March 17, had announced that both airports – Cheddi Jagan International Airport at Timehri and the Eugene F. Correia International Airport at Ogle – will be closed to all international flights to prevent imported cases of the coronavirus. Those airports remained closed up until October 12, when the NCTF decided to allow international flights.

The Health Ministry has now begun utilising the billion-dollar Centre for Disease Control and Prevention located at Liliendaal, Greater Georgetown. The APNU/AFC coalition Government had expended $1.6 billion to rehabilitate the Ocean View facility, but the works were still incomplete when the Dr Irfaan Ali government took office in August. That led to an additional $750 million being spent by the new Government to complete the works and operationalise the facility.

Deaths

Since discovery of the first case of COVID-19, 164 persons have died from the disease, and at the time of going to print, there have been 6332. confirmed cases of the virus.

On March 31, the country’s second COVID-19-related death was announced. The victim was identified as 38-year-old Jermaine Ifill, an emergency medical technician who tested positive and was admitted a patient. His wife later tested positive as well.

The third death, recorded on April 2, was that of 59-year-old Shadrach Stoll, who also died while receiving treatment in the ICU. The fourth person to succumb from the virus was Osa Collins, a 78-year-old resident of New Amsterdam, Berbice in Region Six (East Berbice-Corentyne). Collins died at the Georgetown Public Hospital on the same day she was admitted into the COVID-19 ICU after testing positive for the infectious disease.

Health officials noted that Collins was considered an imported case as she had travelled to Guyana from the United States of America.

Four days later, on April 6, the country learnt of the fifth death. Popular racer Deryck Jaisingh tested positive days after complaining of feeling unwell and displaying symptoms associated with the novel coronavirus.

The sixth death was recorded on April 8. Colonel John Percy was a 77-year-old engineer who died shortly after testing positive.

The seventh death, a 49-year-old Lindener, was announced on April 18. Sydney Trellis hailed from Wismar, in Region 10 (Upper Demerara-Berbice) and was visually impaired.

Reports surfaced of an eighth death on April 24. Lennox Williams, a 45-year-old man, also died at the Georgetown Public Hospital. Caretaker Public Health Minister Volda Lawrence had confirmed that Williams had been receiving treatment in the ICU after contracting the virus. However, he, too, suffered complications.

The ninth death was recorded as Samuel Morris, a 67-year-old diabetic patient.
Shortly after, the Ministry took the decision to stop naming the COVID-19 fatalities; rather, they just released the age and Region the victim was from.

On November 29, a six-day-old baby boy of Region Three (Essequibo Islands–West Demerara) succumbed as a result of COVID-19. He was the country’s youngest fatality, and is believed to have contracted the virus at the hospital, since both parents had tested negative.

Recoveries

Individuals with certain co-morbid conditions, such as diabetes, and the elderly are considered the most at risk when it comes to COVID-19, mainly because of their weakened immune systems and history of chronic illnesses. So, when it was announced, in June, that over 10 persons at the Palms Geriatric Home had contracted COVID-19, there was much worry.

However, many were surprised when a 105-year-old female resident was among the residents who made a full recovery.

The road to recovery has been long and hard for us, and over the months, they have publicly shared those struggles.

In April, frontline worker Nurse Rene Atkinson called for better meals to be served to patients battling COVID-19, particularly at the Diamond Isolation Facility – where Atkinson is also battling the disease. At the Diamond, East Bank Demerara facility, patients are served bread at least twice per day, along with a lunch that consists of white rice and some stew. He had contracted the dreaded virus while on duty at a private medical institution.

Relief

The Government, through the Civil Defence Commission (CDC), has been providing relief hampers to affected residents. When the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) Government came to power in August, it announced that households across the country would benefit from a $25,000 cash grant.
More than 153,000 households across Guyana have so far benefited from the Government’s $25,000 per household COVID-19 relief cash grant initiative, the National Assembly heard on Monday.

Human Services and Social Security Minister Dr Vindhya Persaud revealed this figure while making a presentation on the supplementary request for $2.5 billion to continue the initiative. The National Assembly passed the Government’s proposed $17.4 billion Supplementary Budget to offset expenses between January 1, 2020 and December 31, 2020.

Dr Persaud said distribution in nine regions was almost completed, and distribution is ongoing in Region Four with communities along the East Coast of Demerara, East Bank of Demerara and in Greater Georgetown currently benefiting.

Race to the vaccine

The world is now in the process of developing and administering a vaccine for COVID-19. There are two on the market at this time – Pfizer and Maderna.
On December 11, the United States’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted approval to Pfizer for the rolling out of its COVID-19 vaccines – shortly after it was granted approval for distribution in the United Kingdom. The other competitor – Moderna – was granted approval on December 21.

Health Minister Dr Frank Anthony on Monday announced that the first set of COVID-19 vaccines acquired by Guyana would be used to immunise frontline healthcare workers.

He shared this position during the COVID-19 update, noting that the first batch is expected in 2021. This is approximately three per cent of the vaccines needed to immunise the population.

Guyana has been identified as one of the countries eligible for coverage under COVAX, a body of organisations, including the WHO, that will ensure there is equal access to, and distribution of, COVID-19 vaccines when they become available on the market. Some 20 percent of Guyana’s vaccines will be distributed through this mechanism.

Anthony indicated that after the first consignment, more vaccines will be procured. Next in line are the older population and persons suffering from comorbidities – regarded as the high-risk category. This is another 17 percent of the vaccines required.

He shared that Guyana would need to immunise approximately 80 percent of its population to safely protect itself and emerge from the pandemic. This is termed “herd immunity”, whereby there is indirect protection from an infectious disease after a percentage of the population has become immune to an infection.

A few days ago, Dr Anthony disclosed that Guyana has already commenced making submissions to COVAX as part of arrangements to secure COVID-19 vaccines.

The United Kingdom and the United States have already administered the coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, according to international news reports.

The vaccine, which had undergone a gauntlet of clinical trials and is said to be 95 per cent effective against the coronavirus, is a two-dose injection.
WHO, UNICEF, Gavi (the Vaccine Alliance) and other partners are currently working collaboratively to help prepare countries to be ready to introduce the COVID-19 vaccines, which they said is likely to become available for distribution in early to mid-2021.

WHO said adaptable guidance, tools, training, and advocacy materials are being developed to support countries in their preparation.

At Guyana’s end, work has commenced to prepare Guyana for vaccines, as the National Vaccine Taskforce has been established to lead this process.

Storage facilities across the country and cold storage units are currently being procured and retrofitted to ensure that Guyana is well prepared when the vaccine becomes accessible.