The World Around Us
March 17, 2020
Life in the Epicentre of COVID-19

AS I AM writing this article, there is an eerie calmness resting over Geneva which belies the panic and sense of helplessness currently enveloping other major European cities such as Milan, Rome, Paris, Madrid and many others. At the time of writing, The Guardian reported that more than 100 million Europeans were on lockdown. Cafes, restaurants, cinemas and most shops are closed in many parts of Europe. Geneva, a city which is best known as the international centre of multilateral diplomacy is no longer a hive of diplomatic activity as many international organisations have scaled back their activities due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has now put Europe as its current “epicentre” for the global COVID-19 pandemic, warning that it was impossible to know when the pandemic would peak. According to the head of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom, outside of China, Europe now has more reported cases and deaths than the rest of the world combined. In an unprecedented move, the United States (US) banned all travelers from mainland Europe for 30 days, a move later extended to the United Kingdom (UK) and Ireland.

While I do not know anyone personally who has been infected by COVID-19, I have friends and colleagues in other European countries (several of whom are from the Caribbean) who are feeling the brunt of the measures being used to fight the pandemic. Some have been under lockdown for weeks and as a result, have had their movements severely restricted and their social life disrupted. Particularly for those who live alone, the mental side effects of being under lockdown must also be considered.

The pandemic is also taking a toll on healthcare workers, both physically and emotionally. Many are required to work long hours and they also have to work outside their areas of specialisation.

A friend in the UK who is an ophthalmologist, has already been put on notice that should the COVID-19 outbreak there intensify, which is likely, she will be called upon to treat those patients as a matter of priority. In Italy, the situation for healthcare workers appears to be much more dire than in the UK as reports indicate that some are now left in a position where they must determine which patients receive care and which ones do not. Essentially, these healthcare workers are now being placed in the unenviable position of having to determine who lives and who dies. As COVID-19 patients increase, the other implication is that it becomes more difficult to care for others with serious and even life-threatening conditions.

This article is not an attempt to create panic or fear. However, it is a call for the Caribbean to sober up and understand the magnitude of the problem, especially now that a few cases have been diagnosed in the region. Europe is a continent with a vast amount of resources; and some of the best scientists, doctors and healthcare facilities are also there.

However, places like Italy are buckling under the weight of the pandemic and the entire continent is grinding to a halt. This is certainly a lesson for the Caribbean in terms of the challenge that is ahead.

On a more positive note, the Caribbean has had the benefit of “lead time”, in that the first cases of COVID-19 did not enter the region until several months after the original outbreak in China and parts of Europe. The major benefit of “lead time” is that theoretically, it gives us more time to prepare, especially based on having observed how the crisis has impacted others as well as how others have dealt with the crisis.

The final point I want to make is that persons infected by COVID-19 are still human beings. They have a right to privacy, in that there is no obligation, even on the grounds of a responsibility to the public, for their identity to be revealed.