Posted: Sunday, January 3, 2021. 5:13 pm CST.
By Aaron Humes: With 2,748 entries in our archives, none before February, it’s safe to say COVID-19 was the top story of 2020 – for better or worse.
The first mention came in an international story, with the first reports of deaths due to the disease in Europe. Twice, the Ministry of Health here had to deny the existence of cases, but as they started multiplying in the Old World and then the New, it was only a matter of time until the virus got here.
It did so on March 23, with the announcement of a daughter from San Pedro Town, then her mother, being the first stricken. They both recovered, but in April, Hubert Pipersburgh, a beloved Belize City Council employee, became the first of nearly 250 Belizeans to die of the virus or its complications countrywide.
This “first wave” saw only 18 confirmed cases in three districts. However, the Government of Prime Minister Dean Barrow reacted with swift and harsh measures, installing mandates for wearing of masks, social distancing, and at its highest, placing the entire country under quarantine for two weeks, including the closing of all borders. Other impacts from COVID-19 will be addressed later in this series.
For now, we focus on the health aspects. Under the management of Minister Pablo Marin, CEO Dr. George Gough, Director of Health Services Dr Marvin Manzanero and his brother epidemiologist Russell, their counterparts from the Cuban medical brigade sent here at the end of March, and countless others, a regime of testing, contact tracing, monitoring and evaluation began. Eventually, the treatments for the virus began to be implemented – dexamethasone, ivermectin and others, though cautiously.
The virus appeared to be in retreat as the country entered May and June, and the Government offered limited returns home to Belizeans. Inevitably, some brought the virus with them, and compounded by a problem of Belizeans and illegal immigrants defying border closures, the number of cases started to creep up again. By August, the virus contagion had become a full-blown crisis, affecting especially the northern districts and San Pedro Town. Three villages in southern Orange Walk were locked down, followed by two in the lower Stann Creek District. Efforts to re-open schools, churches and other places of gathering and socializing were repeatedly stymied by the rise in cases.
As the cases rose, so did the deaths: a six-year-old boy, twin brother doctors from Cayo, an almost-member of the House of Representatives, and many more. The National Oversight Committee formed in March in a rare unity alliance of the major parties and its associated task force crumbled months later as the Opposition pulled out with very little explanation. However, they became the Government in November and set to work, and within days thousands were declared recovered under the cover of new World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. At the turn of the year, the number of active cases was below a thousand.
We would be remiss here not to also mention the tons of medical help given Belize from many sources. We have already mentioned the Cuban medical brigade; our colleagues from the Republic of China (Taiwan) provided invaluable donations of equipment, as did the United States and United Kingdom, not to mention supranational organizations such as the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). Belizeans also stepped up internally, making masks and hand sanitizer, finding creative ways to drum up business, and (violators and mischief-makers aside), showing a determined and resilient spirit even as the news got grimmer and grimmer.
Toward the end of the year, the first vaccines for COVID-19 began to be completed, and these are expected to be widely distributed in Belize no later than the middle of 2021. The best defense, however, is still to practise regular handwashing, social distancing, mask wearing and limiting of travel and contact.
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