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  • @ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Belize Struggling in Latest Hurricane: COVID-19

Updated: Oct 9


Hurricane Iris in 2001 killed 24 and left 150,000 homeless in the Central American country on the Yucatan Peninsula.

The British Honduras Hurricane of 1931 killed 2,500, making it the deadliest hurricane in the country’s history. Property on six streets was swept away. Most of Belize City was destroyed, inundated by water taller than many. My mother remembered a kind man, a neighbor from across the road, who navigated the rising waters outside and inside the house, to save her, holding her tiny body up high.


Hurricane Hattie struck in 1961, causing 307 deaths, 10,000 homeless, and the destruction of 70 percent of Belize City, the country’s capital. It forced relocation of the capital from a city below sea level to the newly built Belmopan on higher ground. It killed my father’s father.


Since 1930, Belize, formerly British Honduras, has seen 16 hurricanes, eight of them major. Much of its history can be told through its hurricanes. Now, we are living through another storm, which is not passing quickly.


Its name is COVID-19.


In times of crisis, the true spirit of Belizeans is captured in Zee Edgell’s novel, Beka Lamb (1982):


“The town didn’t demand too much of its citizens, except that in good fortune they be not boastful, not proud, and, above all, not critical in any unsympathetic way of the town and country. Then in bad times, whether individuals forsook the common reality, murdered or went bankrupt, Belizeans generally rallied around to assist in whatever ways they could. The townspeople rewarded those citizens perceived as truly loyal, with a devoted tolerance that lasted for generations.


“The inhabitants of the other five districts of the country, and those living on some of the offshore islands, seemed to feel more or less about their towns and villages as the Belizeans felt about Belize, the main town. In times of danger, it was a tradition for all races to present a united front.”


The pandemic has brought “times of danger”. More than ever, we need to rally round each other.


(Banker and convicted thief, Joao Rendeiro, fled Portugal to avoid prison. After receiving an additional three-year sentence on September 28 for fraud, Rendeiro announced from London that he would not be returning to Portugal. The media has said that he may have gone to Belize or Singapore, where it would be difficult to extradite him.)


At the beginning of the crisis, Belize was one of the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean with the lowest rates of COVID-19 cases.


Now, the government is considering a shutdown of Belize District, which has seen the highest number of cases with Belize City at the epicenter, according to the IFRC (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies) August 2021 report. The country’s main hospital, Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital, has shifted into emergency mode, canceling elective surgeries and appointments.


What happened?


In September, Channel 5 showcased a new weekly television show, Get the Facts, with guests, including two hospital doctors who had recovered from COVID-19, a Pan American Health Organization technical advisor and a psychiatrist. It runs for about one hour and, at the end, answers questions from the audience. The Ministry of Health and Wellness features the live show and recordings as well as other COVID-19 news on its Facebook page.


Dr. Fernando Cuellar, an internist at Belize Medical Associates, had been incapacitated for four weeks with COVID-19. On his first day out, Dr. Cuellar, who spoke in English and Kriol, was a guest on the September 16th show.


Dr. Cuellar knew he was sick when he could not get out of bed and fell out of it trying to do so.


“I come up the steps (of the studio). I feel well fortunately. I am one of the fortunate ones.”


The show’s presenter, William Neal, cited that 18 people had died of COVID-19 that week. Dr. Cuellar reacted quickly:


“What would ya say if 18 had been shot, or dead ‘pon Orange Walk (Northern Highway) or Hummingbird Highway? We are becoming a lee bit numb to the numbers. We nuh reach rock bottom yet. It gan get worse. When we gan say: People dey dead, fuh true. When 50 dead in a day?


“We nuh reach rock bottom yet, if we nuh go where we supposed to go as the Belizean community, which is basic public health: wear your mask properly, wash your hands, physical distance, nuh da crowd up. If you see somebody in the aisle, hold back.”


At the start of the pandemic, Belizeans were taking these precautions, but they have grown lax.


Dr. Atanacio Cobb, an Ear, Nose and Throat doctor at Belize Medical Associates, the other guest on the show, also had COVID-19. In November 2020, he had three days of fever, intense muscle aches and loss of appetite.


“Then, breathing problems set in. You anxious. You can’t stay still simply because you can’t get enough air. Anxiety creeps up on you. So, you go to your chair. You sit up. You go to your bed and get up. You’re just completely anxious.”


Finally, Cobb visited the hospital and found that the bottom of both of his lungs were infected. Sitting on the hospital steps, he could not breathe. He checked himself in.


Because of donations from Mexico, the United States, Barbados, India, other countries and COVAX (COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access), Belize has enough vaccines. Its population is about 400,000.


“Only 19 percent of the population is fully vaccinated,” said Cobb. “There is no excuse for us to have these low numbers. We are unique. Other countries, like Guatemala, don’t have enough. We are so fortunate to be able to vaccinate everyone.


“When people you see on TV screaming, “Do not get vaccinated,” they can scream anything they want. If we put them in hospital, 12-hour shifts, using Pampers because they can’t take toilet breaks, if that person has not experienced that, that person is not free to talk what they talking.”


The number of beds does not reflect medical care available for COVID-19 patients. Both doctors agreed that nurses, who are taking temperatures, feeding patients, changing intravenous drips, and checking urine, are the backbone of the fight against this virus.


“We tend to two, three people easily, goodly, top of the line, but can’t for four,” said Dr. Cuellar. When the numbers increase, the quality of care diminishes greatly. The Ministry of Health and Wellness reported on October 6 that there were 52 hospitalized and 10 in intensive care units.


A Cuban medical team of 22 registered nurses and 49 doctors, including 20 specialists, worked for nine months in Belize before returning home in January, reported Granma (January 28). A second group of Cuban collaborators from the Cuban Medical Brigade arrived on September 17, according to a Government of Belize press release. “A total of 36 will be deployed across all our health regions and our primary referral hospital, the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital, to support our COVID-19 response efforts.”


During Channel 5’s Get the Facts show, the presenter read an announcement from the Karl Heusner hospital asking relatives to go into hospital to claim the bodies of dead family members because the morgue is now full.


The morgue is full.


“Before You Relax, Get Vax” is a health ministry’s slogan.


Get vaccinated, said Dr. Cobb, “if not for you, then for someone around you. If you love yourself, or you love your neighbor, then you should try to vaccinate yourself because a lot of people are struggling every day to put food on the table because there’s no income.”


Dr. Cobb said that 99 percent of the hospitalized COVID-19 patients have not been vaccinated, and no one in the country has died of COVID-19 vaccination.


The vaccine protects people from getting seriously ill or dying. A total of 144,531 people had been fully vaccinated, including 26,146 who are aged 12-17, according to the Ministry of Health and Wellness on October 6.


On another Get the Facts programs, a nutritionist for the Ministry of Health and Wellness, Robyn Daly, answered the audience’s questions about herbs, which Belizeans traditionally use for various maladies. Did she recommend fever grass (lemongrass), ginger, and honey and lime? They all boost the immune system, she answered. Daly suggested ways to get and stay healthy:


“We are each other’s keeper at this time. We do that every day. Let’s keep that going. (Also,) find time for reflection, by the seaside, good music, church, praying. And eat healthy, cut out processed and fried foods, and reduce (alcoholic) drinks.


“And, of course, get vaccinated.”


Indeed. In the previous show, Dr. Cuellar had said that when he was sick, he smelled of garlic “like a good seasoned piece of meat”. However, an audience member had misunderstood him, believing that he was saying that herbs were a cure-all. No, the doctor said, they are not. Keep to the public health rules and get the vaccine.


The government is attempting to stem the tide with new regulations.


Those entering government buildings must show proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test as of October 1, reported Amandala (September 30), which is published twice weekly and is the country’s largest newspaper. The government, previously, had singled out frontline workers, police officers and medical personnel, according to the IFRC (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies) August 2021 report.


The Commissioner of Police, Chester Williams, said that an increasing number of officers are being infected with the virus, reported Amandala (September 27). At least 100 officers were off-duty for COVID-19 reasons: 60 for testing positive and 40 in quarantine for possible exposure. More than 90 percent of the force is partially vaccinated, and Williams expected no resistance from officers. Government figures showed the Police Department to number 1,073 sworn officers and 141 civilians in 2008.


IFRC reported: “Despite the obvious increases in active cases of the virus and the rising numbers in deaths, Belizean people are still not adhering to the protective regulations and are still being charged for not wearing masks, wrong use of the mask, and for holding illegal gatherings and parties.


“The ‘anti-vaxers’ also continue to disseminate baseless and factless messages against the vaccine creating more doubt in the public minds. This has made it even more difficult to convince the public to abide by the regulations, take the vaccine and/or to stay at home.”


Prime Minister John Briceno spoke about the anti-vaxers on 7 News Belize (July 21):


“It is unfortunate that you have a group of people who want to confuse Belizeans when it comes to the vaccines. I feel strongly that what they are doing is wrong.


“Nobody has died because of the vaccination.”


A total of 426 have died of COVID-19 as of October 7, according to Worldometer, a reference website that provides statistics in real time.


An anti-vax group officially formed and met at the seaside arena of Bird’s Isle in the summer. The Belizean Rights and Justice Movement, which numbered about 50 including Zenaida Moya, a former Belize mayor, opposes government’s push on vaccines and testing. It wants Belizeans to refuse the vaccine because it is a medical experiment, reported Love FM (July 21). The COVID-19 vaccines are not experiments.


The Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Home Affairs have stated that no one is forced to take the COVID-19 vaccine. However, frontline workers who refuse it must present a test result every two weeks. Moya said that there should be a third option: not getting the vaccine or a test.


Four months before the anti-vax group proclamations, Moya was saying something radically different:


“I want to thank the government of India for their kind gesture of giving our country, Belize, 25,000 doses of coronavirus vaccines. I am sure our people appreciate it,” the former mayor said in a video message according to ANI (South Asian Leading Multimedia Agency) (March 25):


I am leaving it there.


“Community spread of the COVID-19 virus is still being seen in Belize City despite the enhanced regulations recently implemented by the Government of Belize. Over 100 new cases have been found daily within that jurisdiction within the last few days,” reported Amandala (October 2).


“This has caused a spike in hospitalizations. This week, the COVID-19 infographic reported as many as 50 persons hospitalized across the country on a single day. While the distribution of these patients was not shared, it must be noted that the national referral hospital (Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital) has a capacity of about 23 beds within the COVID-19 ward.”


In March 2020, Belize detected its first COVID-19 case. The following month, there were 20 cases and two deaths. From April 13, 2020, when the last newly confirmed case was reported in Belize, to May 5, 2020, when the last two active confirmed cases recovered, Belize did not record any new cases for 53 days, according to the Asia Pacific Journal of Public Health (September 25, 2020).


In January 2020, the government inaugurated a National Oversight Committee and National Surveillance Team committees to provide social guidelines and monitor virus strains. Hospitals, temporary health-care facilities and triage were arranged to manage potential COVID-19 cases.


The government declared a state of emergency. It shut down churches, restaurants, clubs and general social gatherings. It encouraged people to stay at home. When in public, the use of face masks was enforced, and those with flu-like symptoms were told to get tested and quarantine themselves. Finally, Belize declared three days of Christian prayer during the Easter period.


These measures worked well for some time.


Rudolph Neal wrote an impassioned plea in Amandala for Belizeans to show love for one another during a period of increased violence in Belize City and spikes of COVID-19 throughout the country:


“The issue of COVID-19 and vaccination continues to divide us. The stigma associated with COVID-19 is an egregious and callous one. Even after recovering, persons who were infected with COVID-19 are stigmatized and scorned upon. As their bodies struggle to rebound to a semblance of pre-COVID normalcy, they are faced with a daily battle to immerse themselves back into society and be accepted socially once more. Tragic, isn’t it? Speaks volumes to the absence of love and that abiding spirit and camaraderie where, in times gone by, we would truly care for and look after one another and their well-being.


“This is further compounded and exacerbated by the issue of vaccination. Whereby there are some people who have been inoculated who look down on the others who have not been inoculated. Yes, I’m telling you! There are many out here who view these little vaccination cards as a passport: a sort of armored vehicle that provides a sort of firewall security and protection, and they believe themselves to be better off than the unvaccinated. Somehow, this little card or by taking the jab make them feel that they are somewhat ordained or entitled above the others; but pity them!”


The vaccinated can contract and spread the virus. However, most will not get seriously ill or die.


“The virus continues to spread unabated, and it’s coming closer to our doorsteps than we had ever expected. When the dust eventually settles and a new day is dawned, it’s not our thoughts and perceptions that will see us through, but that abiding love that breeds a spirit of unity will ultimately be our firewall and our source of protection.”


Neal quoted the lyrics of soca artist, Supa G Martinez:


Weh di love gone, no one seems to know,

Weh di love gone, we need it more and more;

Love is what we need to move on,

Tell me where the good love gone

Tell me weh the love gone.


In “times gone by”? From “befo’ time”?


That time is now.


When we don’t remember who we are, who are we?


Ghosts.


I’m not ready for that. Cha! None of us are.


COVID hurricane winds are battering us, and rain is falling hard hard. We must reach out to each other.


If that neighbor hadn’t crossed the road to save Mami, I would not have been born. Pure and simple.


So, my fellow Belizeans, you know what to do because COVID-19 is no joke.


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