The spike in COVID-19 cases in the region has alarmed the head of the Pan American Health Organisation, who warned that Caribbean nationals who do not get vaccinated are “playing with fire”, risking hospitalisation and deaths that could stall the region’s recovery.
Dr Carissa Etienne said she is also worried that as the Delta variant of the virus continues to spread at an alarming rate, putting pressure on the healthcare systems throughout the region, there is a possibility that the death toll could also rise significantly.
She said: “If we don’t get vaccinated, the population forever remains at risk even when you wear masks. We know that those public health measures have worked, but what we are seeing also is a growing fatigue with these measures.
“So, we have to make a decision as to how soon we want to come out of some of those public health measures and how soon we want to start opening up, and in particular, how soon do we want to restart our economy?
“Because without high-level coverage in terms of vaccinations, we will not be able in earnest to restart our economies. And of course, that also ties in with access of children to education, access of informal workers to their livelihoods”.
The PAHO director, who raised her concerns during an interview with the Caribbean Tourism Organisation’s Johnson Johnrose, said she was surprised by the reluctance of some Caribbean nationals to get the COVID-19 vaccine which will lower their risk of getting severely ill or even dying if they contract the virus.
Dr Etienne said she was also surprised and disappointed that some health care workers were also reluctant to take the jab, when they should be setting an example.
She reminded that for the past 30 years, the Caribbean has always had high coverage of other vaccines and has led the way in eliminating vaccine-preventable diseases.
As the Delta variant continues to spread widely across the region, there is the risk of emerging variants being detected, Dr Etienne declared.
She warned that the possibility stands that a new variant can arise that has the potential to learn how to overcome the COVID-19 vaccines “that we are relying so heavily on”.
“People are playing with fire and they don’t realize it. Many of the anti-vaxxers are ending up in hospital and have died. And sometimes on their dying bed, they then want to say ‘look, it’s not it’s a hoax, it’s really true and to get vaccinated’. What happens is if you get many people vaccinated, the virus does not have susceptible hosts to spread.
“So, it will stop spreading. Now I need to tell you that the ambition of the virus is to survive. So, the virus does not set out to kill its hosts, but it will mutate so that it can become better at infecting people, and that it can have higher transmission rates,” she said.
PAHO is also concerned about the unprecedented number of people who have become COVID-19 fatigued and are suffering from mental health disturbances, ranging from depression and anxiety to more severe forms of mental ill-health, Dr Etienne said. She said to address this issue, PAHO is now working with member states’ leaders on how they can set up mechanisms to recognize and treat mental health issues.
Dr Etienne said: “We have seen an increase in domestic violence. We have seen an increase in societal violence. We have seen, as I said, various forms of mental illness. Many people get to a point where they can’t take it and they will say, ‘I don’t care if I die, I just can’t take it’. And it is because of the mental stress.
“People suffer mental illness because of the lockdowns, not being able to find work, not being able to go to work, having to work with kids in your house day in and day out. Particularly healthcare workers and people who work in that area, they are having longer days. So, it is a stressful time and people just want to be free.”