In recent weeks, I have received letters on a variety of topics pertaining to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. I will focus here on the areas common to most letters. We are hopefully moving from a pandemic to an endemic phase. Many rules have been dropped and we are now opening up after 23 months of learning. So let us reflect deeply on our experience and prepare to move forward.
Since March 13, 2020, we have experienced several months of sometimes severe restrictions on movement and gatherings and a State of Emergency with strict curfews.
Non-essential businesses and recreational facilities were closed; our places of worship were closed for ten months; citizens were stranded overseas for many months as our international borders remained closed; some students are still barred from the classroom after these many months.
We have battled through four distinct surges in Covid-19 cases from four different variants of SARS-CoV-2 which claimed over 3600 lives. May their souls rest in peace+.
There is no playbook for managing a country in a pandemic. Our Chief Medical Officer and our Minister of Health have worked hard to reduce the risk of the spread of Covid-19. Citizens have not always agreed with the Government.
We have access to state-funded Covid-19 PCR testing and treatment facilities where international best practices are applied. Over the last ten months, four vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 have been made available free of charge to residents 12 years and older. We recently celebrated a landmark accomplishment with 50 per cent of the population vaccinated. As the pandemic rages, the situation remains uncertain but hopeful.
The Church supports vaccination
The Catholic Church, both at home and abroad, supports and recommends vaccination against Covid-19. Pope Francis has gone so far as to say the vaccine is a moral obligation.
The fact is: over 90 per cent of deaths due to Covid-19 occurred among the unvaccinated. All had chronic diseases. Most of those who succumbed to the complications of the infectious disease were over 60 and most had pre-existing chronic health conditions, e.g., high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity.
The burden of chronic disease in Trinidad and Tobago pre-dated the pandemic (PAHO, 2012). Tobacco use, poor nutrition, physical inactivity, and the unhealthy consumption of alcohol, along with a genetic pre-disposition to certain diseases and cancers created a silent pandemic which made our population highly vulnerable to severe illness from Covid-19.
Research data show that the vaccines protect against severe illness, hospitalisation, treatment in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and death (Thompson, 2021).
If more people were vaccinated earlier, we would have had fewer deaths, fewer people in hospitals, and fewer demands on the medical professionals who have been under severe pressure during the pandemic. But if our health was better, far fewer would have died or needed the hospital.
Mandatory vaccination for Church ministers
Our Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) Team agonised on how to keep us as safe as possible before they issued guidelines on the opening of churches in September 2021. Its intention was not to alienate people but to protect all of us. With the rise of the Delta variant, at that time, all the signs pointed to greater spread of the virus from the unvaccinated.
In 2022 with Omicron, we have a very different picture. Vaccinated and unvaccinated are both spreading the virus. Thus, after much consultation with the doctors and specialists, we are removing the vaccine mandate for all Church ministers—Eucharistic, hospitality, choirs, and others.
We never asked people who were attending church whether they were vaccinated or not.
The real distinction should be between the prepared and the careless, as with the wise and the foolish virgins in the Gospel parable (Mt 25:1–13). Both the prepared and the careless are found among both vaccinated and unvaccinated alike.
When wise persons feel flu-like symptoms, they stay at home and monitor their health. They take a test and do not mix with others till they have a negative test. If we all did this, the community spread would go down swiftly.
In a so-called ‘safe-zone’, if a foolish person who is vaccinated and exposed, and has symptoms enters it, there can be a serious spread. With the false security of the safe zone, people are dropping all their guards and taking off masks and being very close with many people for extended times.
This is our greatest risk in the workplace, our schools, and all public spaces. There is no easy way to allow only the wise, vaccinated, and unvaccinated, in safe spaces. They alone can make a zone safe.
A quickly changing situation
In November 2021, Trinidad and Tobago entered a third wave of high infection rates which was proven to be the result of community spread of the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2.
We witnessed the largest number of persons being hospitalised with high occupancy in the high dependency and intensive care units, and record daily deaths.
Policies are based on data. In December 2021, it became mandatory for public servants to be vaccinated. Three months on, the prominent variant in circulation globally is no longer Delta, but Omicron.
This variant is the most transmissible of the SARS-CoV-2 family. However, high transmissibility has not resulted in high hospitalisation and death but mild symptoms over a short period; many recovered at home with simple, over-the-counter medication and vitamin supplements.
Resistance to mandatory vaccination has come from within the public service, trade union representatives, faith-based organisations, and civil society. With the quickly changing situation of Omicron, Government postponed the implementation of mandatory vaccination on two occasions. That was a great call. Now all will return to work.
Prudence requires that we pay greater attention to our health, seeking better ways to promote it and raise awareness of the burden of chronic diseases. The pandemic has shown us many underlying weaknesses in our nation; the high number of people with chronic diseases is just one of these weaknesses.
The real enemy
As we all know, there is a raging battle between the ‘vaxxers’ and the ‘anti-vaxxers’ over Covid-19. This healthy and impassioned discourse is an opportunity to practise active listening aimed at understanding the other’s point of view.
I encourage you to drop the hostility and seek reconciliation wherever relationships have suffered. Listen deeply and where necessary, agree to disagree. But let love and reconciliation be the response.
In this time of pandemic, which hopefully will soon be declared endemic, we only have two enemies—the microbe and the devil. We must all guard against both enemies. The first will ravage our body and the second will divide and tear us apart. We cannot allow either to win.
During this Lenten season, let us unite and ask God to heal the divisions that have arisen over the last few months. Let us actively reach out to anyone we know who felt ostracised and become a truly wise, loving, and united people, keeping each other safe. After all, we are our sister and brother’s keepers.