Dr Peter Gentle, retired consultant orthopaedic surgeon and parishioner of Our Lady of Perpetual Help RC Church, San Fernando, reflects on life with COVID-19. His commentary has been edited for length and clarity.
Every passing day, living with COVID-19 has been stressful for persons worldwide. The situation of some people who have lost their loved ones, jobs, houses, friends, money, or their sanity is becoming more unbearable.
The Japanese have published figures showing that in November 2020, the number of suicides in that one month due to COVID exceeded the total number of COVID deaths in 2020 up to that time. The medical profession is finding out that the psychological effects of COVID are worse than the physical effects, and it is worse for women than men. The problem is that psychological problems still carry a stigma today and psychological patients are at the lowest end of medical care.
The American Cancer Society at one time had a slogan:
“They said leprosy was hopeless.
They said TB was hopeless.
They said Polio was hopeless.
Cancer is only a Disease.”
And now COVID is only a disease.
But we were so frightened of leprosy in those days that we built the leprosarium at Chacachacare; and we were so frightened of TB (tuberculosis) that we built the Caura Hospital to keep patients away from the public. But the diseases still carried a stigma.
Since that time, humans have moved on to AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome), HPV (Human Papillomavirus) and Ebola, all of which are caused by viruses and carry associated stigmas.
Some medical authorities now say we are living in the age of viruses and the medical response to this in the long run, is vaccines. But to the public, these diseases still perpetuate stigmas, and the public is frightened of them.
The average member of the public is always at first more concerned with the fear and stigma of a new disease before they think of a cure.
Living with leprosy
I remember in the 1950s when my father was head of the Caribbean Medical Centre which was on Wrightson Road, Port of Spain. In those days, we went as a family of four to live in the doctor’s house in Chacachacare with the lepers for a few months.
It was wonderful for me because I bathed in the sea every day and I learnt about the lighthouse there which is built at the top of a very high cliff. It is the sixth highest lighthouse in the world with a magnificent view.
There was also the government launch which came from POS every day with people, baggage and 100 lb blocks of ice for the island. The launch had a diesel engine which played a catchy tune: ‘chica-chaka, chica-chaka, chica-chaka’ all the way from POS to the island.
But there was still the stigma. When I returned to school at St Mary’s College, my friends were frightened to touch me because I had been living with the lepers.
The stigma continued even into the 1980s when my father diagnosed leprosy in a serving government minister in a certain Caribbean island. They said that the ‘Doc’ was senile, so they asked for another opinion. Leprosy was confirmed but the stigma was such that it caused my father to retire.
The stigma persists to this day so that we now call leprosy Hansen’s disease, but it’s ‘the same khaki pants’.
So, we come to the present time. It is wonderful that the vaccine will soon be here but how long will it take to vaccinate the whole island and how long will it take for T&T to have herd immunity?
Every country is different but we in the Caribbean are at the poorer end of the spectrum. So, what do we do when we see the richer countries getting the vaccine and the populations freeing-up themselves, but we will still be under heavy manners with masks, social distancing, and small groups etc? This will cause Trinbagonian people to rebel and stop obeying the rules. Since most of our tourists come from the US and they have the most COVID cases in the world, it will be unconscionable if we allow tourists to come here even with COVID negative tests before we repatriate all our T&T citizens who have been stuck overseas for months. How long will it take before we reopen Piarco?
We are not going to vaccinate the very young, those with allergies or those who do not wish to have the vaccine etc, but when can we stop wearing masks and having social distancing in spite of this?
We are now on the downward side of the curve, but we must allow children to play with their friends in the mud and dig in the sand and get dirty, and laugh and cuddle one another and be cuddled, and go to school otherwise, they will not thrive.
We cannot expect teenagers and young people to wear masks for another one to two years or more because they will not do it. Have you ever tried asking a teenager to do something daily for three weeks? We must allow teenagers and young people to lime, fete and gather in groups again otherwise the antisocial problems will increase rapidly.
Then there is all the fake news on social media about all the non-existent things that will be injected into us with the vaccine causing people to get scared.
Also, it is a well-known fact that West Indians are scared of needles and I still remember the nervous giggling and the anxious stares from my friends at school in POS when we lined up to get the BCG (Bacillus Calmette–Guérin) vaccine to prevent TB.
The Chief Medical Officer and the Minister of Health are going to have to do a lot of reverse public relations.
Finally, after over 40 years as a doctor and as a member of the Archdiocesan Family Life Commission, I have discovered something simple.
We can defeat anything bad or evil with love or goodness. COVID will be with us now so we can defeat it with love. We must designate a permanent place of love to treat COVID patients as they will be with us forever, whether it be Caura or Couva.
We must get as many people as possible to give the COVID vaccine with love as fast as possible. We must let our children and young people know that we still love them by removing the masks and social distancing and cuddling them again before we send them to school.
We must let the people of T&T know that we still love them by allowing the jobs and work to come back, the rum shops, restaurants, and cinemas to reopen and the whole island to reopen for liming and playing sport.
The question is, when? And what and when is the next virus going to be? But we must not forget to love one another in the meantime because COVID has distracted us from this, hence the increase in domestic abuse and depression due to the stress of COVID.
But thank goodness we are on the downward side of the curve and love is in the air again instead of COVID.