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‘COVICANE’ – How One Caribbean Country is Coping with the Hurricane Season during COVID-19

Dominican Farmer and Vendor Ayma Louis has COVID restrictions and the hurrricane season to contend with. Credit: Alison Kentish (IPS)

DOMINICA, Aug 31 2021 (IPS) - Around 2 pm on August 18, 89-year-old farmer Whitnel Louis and his wife Ayma began packing up their unsold produce, hoping to leave the capital of Roseau and get home way ahead of the 6 pm curfew recently put in place to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Their pickup was among dozens that lined the Dame Mary Eugenia Charles Boulevard, known by locals simply as ‘the Bayfront,’ a wide street near the ocean with a cruise ship berth, sea defense wall and a docking port that pre-COVID would receive passenger vessels from neighboring islands.

During the three-week curfew period, farmers were permitted to sell their produce along the Bayfront for a few hours every day.

“The curfew was necessary but it was rough. Look at the sun, the heat we are taking. When it’s raining and windy it’s worse. It’s a challenge. We can’t ship our produce overseas like before. The vendors who buy from us to resell want to give us next to nothing for the produce, forgetting all the hard work that goes into farming,” Louis told IPS.

While the farming couple is dealing with the impacts of measures to curtail the spread of COVID-19, the present hurricane season is anxiety-inducing. The Louis were hard hit by two weather systems in the last six years. In 2015, during Tropical Storm Erika, a river burst its banks and raged through their home, destroying all their belongings. In 2017 category five hurricane Maria destroyed their farm.

“Everything was down. Pears, mangoes, coconuts. I had five sheds and the hurricane ripped them apart. Wood was flying everywhere. Today, I still don’t have a single shed on my farm, because I do not have the money to rebuild,” Louis told IPS.

Ahead of the annual hurricane season, the country’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit referenced the dual challenge facing small island states in the Caribbean.

“Hurricane Season is here amid a COVID-19 pandemic. To be safe during the season, I suggest you all prepare a COVI-CANE supply kit,” he stated in a social media post.

Residents were urged to follow guidelines that included having a traditional hurricane preparedness bag with adequate supplies to last at least three days, along with a COVID-19 kit with gloves, masks, hand sanitizers and rubbing alcohol.

The messaging, tailored for a time when the country might have to deal with two major crises, mirrored the instructions and operations of the Office of Disaster Preparedness.

“Where we were at this time last year to where we are now, we have a lot more information and we have made some advancements, so all notices and public announcements have included current COVID-19 messaging, reminding Dominicans that even as we prepare for hurricanes, remember that COVID-19 is still around and we must take all necessary precautions to protect lives,” Programme Officer at the Office of Disaster Management Mandela Christian told IPS.

The pandemic has spared no sector and the disaster preparedness official said the department is using technology to continue its work.

“A lot of the old preparations were done face to face including meetings and training to prepare for upcoming hurricane seasons. With this pandemic, one of the key management protocols is physical distancing. It changes things, for example, if we get impacted, we would have had to convene the National Emergency Operation Centre and bring people into a central location. This has to be reformed and restructured. As far as possible we have transitioned to virtual sessions,” Christian said.

“There are some limitations for example in rescue operations. You can’t remotely rescue somebody and there will be times to deliver relief supplies to the population. What we have been doing is reviewing protocols, informed by health systems, not just nationally, but also regionally and internationally,” the disaster official told IPS.

Dominica, like countries the world over, has been promoting vaccination as one of the best safeguards against the pandemic and to avoid a mass outbreak of COVID-19 in the event of a natural disaster.

The country has seen a recent surge in positive cases and in August, recorded its first COVID-19 related death.

“I am confident. For myself, for my family and everyone that vaccination works. I am not saying that it is 100 percent effective, or bulletproof, but it works in reducing transmission and the severe disease form of COVID-19. I am appealing to those still waiting and deciding – it’s time to get vaxxed,” National Epidemiologist Dr Shalauddin Ahmed told an August 24 press briefing.

It is a plea that health officials throughout the hemisphere continue to make.

Director of the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), Dominican Dr Carissa Etienne has expressed concern over the slow vaccine uptake in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Just about 18 percent of people in the hemisphere have been fully vaccinated against COVID 19.

“What we are seeing now is persons totally relaxing on the public health measures and a high level of vaccine hesitancy,” Etienne  told a press briefing. “Even when vaccines are available, persons are not coming forward. We are seeing vaccine hesitancy in healthcare workers.”

“I don’t know the sources of the information that is triggering this level of vaccine hesitancy. I can tell you that they are not scientifically proven, and I want to appeal to you to listen to the sources where you have truthful, scientifically based information and evidence,” she added.

PAHO’s suggested measures for a ‘COVICANE’ season include evacuation and emergency shelter plans that factor in physical distancing and rigorous sanitization – along with mass vaccination campaigns.

Dominica’s curfew has been lifted and farmers like Whitnel Louis can sell their produce for longer hours – as long as they adhere to the strict public health and safety protocols.

But with an average of 80 cases a day over the past week and continued appeals for thousands more people to embrace vaccination, COVID-19 concerns are far from over.

“There is no good sign in sight,” said Mr Louis, as he reflected on his series of losses to natural disasters and the present challenges in a pandemic that has left no sector untouched.

“I’m hoping the Lord spares us this hurricane season.”


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