Let us cut through the white noise and chatter surrounding the rapidly spreading Coronavirus that many public health experts are saying has the potential to be a global pandemic. By making a DISTINCT comparison and differentiation between an epidemic (the geographical area where the disease/virus originated) and a pandemic a disease's global spread/reach where many countries are simultaneously infected organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) are sounding alarm bells that behooves ALL nations of the world to take note. That includes CARICOM.
In this context here's the nightmare scenario that CARICOM governments face BEFORE an epidemic outbreak of Coronavirus infections in the region.
1. The health infrastructure in ALL CARICOM nations is backward, poorly funded, inefficient and weak, even in the most advanced of these nations. These systems are overburdened, basic and are woefully underfunded.
2. These health systems are even weaker and more limited in the rural countryside, where very basic and rudimentary health centers are inadequately prepared to fight local outbreaks of mumps or measles infections in villages, towns and hamlets, much less a deadly virus like the coronavirus.
3. CARICOM governments do not presently have the kinds of basic preventative and protection systems setup to equip health workers who will be on the frontlines fighting the disease; for example, facemasks (not the cheap, ineffective masks that you can purchase in a Walmart store) and HAZMAT body suits.
4. Perhaps only Jamaica can now test for the disease, and in the rest of CARICOM any outbreak may be mistaken for the flu or common cold since these seasonal disease symptoms are literally, according to health experts, indistinguishable from those of the coronavirus. Even more disturbing, many people affected with the disease will exhibit those symptoms and can infect others while they get well contributing to massive misdiagnoses since smaller CARICOM nations do not have the ability to do instant testing or tracking methods to really map the disease's progression an important metric to containment.
5. How will CARICOM nations with very limited know-how, even scarcer financial resources, and sporadic, hastily planned public health education programs handle the inevitable panic when ONE positive coronavirus case is identified in a member state?
6. Are measures in place to handle limited quarantine(s) so that the disease is contained to the area where it originated? And is that even practical or effective?
7. How are CARICOM nations handling that other virus FEAR and CONFUSION? Remember, fear IS a virus just as dangerous and damaging as the coronavirus.
But there is a window of opportunity for CARICOM. Right now, the region with ONE VOICE and ONE COMMON, COORDINATED PLAN must reach out in a collective way to advanced nations of the world for help fighting a potential regional epidemic. CARICOM must do a massive regional public health education and information campaign, even as individual member states do their own local public outreach. Coordinated, professional and trusted sources must be at the forefront of the information war in the region.
CARICOM, if it has not done so as yet, must appoint a REGIONAL CARONAVIRUS CZAR (we need not reinvent the wheel; look at the US model and scale it to CARICOM) and a specific, one-issue committee to deal with this virus only. This small, nimble, and empowered body will report to the CARICOM heads of government AND the grouping of health ministers thus ensuring a well-organized, streamlined and coordinated management of the responses and how the fight against this disease is being waged.
The looming nightmare of a coronavirus outbreak in the Caribbean also impacts the key tourism industry. As the United States starts to ban travel to many areas of the world and sees a rapid rise in the weaponizing and politicizing of the crisis, this will depress and suppress travel to the region, further putting a strain on employment and negatively impacting local economies. Job and revenue loss can feed local discontent and drive reckless behavior that can help spread the coronavirus. And most troubling, it can detract governments from focusing on efforts to combat the outbreaks of the disease.
With this in mind CARICOM has to prepare for these eventualities. This is not doom and gloom or reckless projectioneering. No, it's presenting a MODEL of all (or most) of the macro-variables that can happen if the region is subjected to a coronavirus epidemic. The fact is that we are still in the EARLY stages of the virus's life cycle and while silly verbal grandstanding and uninformed speculations are riddling the social spaces, a cold sober look of what will happen, where the region is, and what needs to happen is the ONLY WAY TO FIGHT any outbreak in the region. Right now, Social Media and especially Facebook is now in the throes of an INFODEMIC where all kinds of memes, fake news, illiterate speculations, misunderstandings and outright lies and racial slander when it comes to the coronavirus, is dominating the social spaces.
Virus misinformation is rampant on social spaces where CARICOM expatriates gather, converse and populate. Indeed, coronavirus misinformation and social media infestations are spreading faster than the virus itself and is now a public/social square pandemic. For CARICOM and its populations this adds to the anxiety, fear and uncertainty and only helps to hobble local governments efforts to get out and disseminate genuine fact-based information. And this is all happening BEFORE a major virus outbreak hits the region. Can you imagine what will happen if and when the virus does hit and there are the intended and expected outcomes?
That is why it is CRITICAL at this moment with the limited window of opportunity that CARICOM prepares and set-up structures to deal with all of these issues and eventualities. The region cannot afford to wait until a major outbreak happens to try and manage the negative consequences that will occur. If CARICOM does not prepare NOW, on the front end, it will manage crises on the back end that will undermine its ability to focus on fighting the outbreak. I urge CARICOM to think ahead, think out of the box, and put in place methods and organization that will help manage what will be a very devastating episode in recent Caribbean history.
FOOTNOTE: Facebook is how fighting the avalanche of fake news, memes and outright misinformation on the platform. Now, if you search for "coronavirus" the World Health Organization pops up. It's also taken down and is monitoring better all of the "instant citizen journalists" deliberately spreading falsehoods and lies surrounding the virus.
(Article changed on March 1, 2020 at 17:41)