Life in the time of COVID-19: A Caribbean perspective on isolation

One egg wears a face mask, while the other is in self-isolation. Image by Ivan Radic on Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every aspect of life the world over, and the Caribbean is no different. At the more southerly end of the archipelago, Trinidad and Tobago — as of April 17, 2020 — had 114 cases of the coronavirus, while Jamaica, to the north, was at upwards of 143 confirmed cases. In addition, various regional territories are under some form of lockdown or stay-at-home orders.

In the midst of this “new normal”, netizens have been sharing their experiences via social media. The three examples highlighted here are all different: one is a gripping account from a COVID-19 survivor, another is a traveller who had to quarantine at a state facility, and the final testimony comes from a teen with autism who writes about coping with self-isolation.

All of them had to dig deep in order to emerge on the other side of their adversity.

St. Vincent's ‘patient zero’

Ranelle Roberts-Williams, who describes herself as “a 34-year-old wife, mother and Vincentian lawyer”, became St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ first confirmed case after testing positive for COVID-19 on March 11, 2020.

Upon her recovery, she shared her experience “not only to reassure those who have questions or fears but also as part of [her] own therapy” following what she calls an “unfortunate ordeal”.

On March 10, she contacted the island's Ministry of Health, Wellness and the Environment to report a persistent dry cough, which was worrying to her considering that she'd recently returned from the United Kingdom, where COVID-19 was quickly turning into an epidemic.

Although her initial call was not taken seriously, she persisted until she got tested and immediately isolated herself at home, thereby preventing potential spread of the virus:

I dare not imagine what the consequences would have been had I not insisted that I be tested for COVID-19 after having been told that I ‘did not fit the criteria’, as I would have been commuting daily and conducting business as usual.

Roberts-Williams’ anguish over her diagnosis was exacerbated when she discovered that her patient confidentiality had been breached:

My name and photos were being circulated on social media […] Imagine having to cope with a medical diagnosis for an emerging virus, while being in isolation away from your family and loved ones, with your business and staff impacted, while much inaccurate and malicious rumors are swirling around about you and your family.

Although Roberts-Williams revealed that “isolation was difficult and has been a rollercoaster of emotions”, her COVID-19 symptoms were mild and she recovered without medical intervention. To her, the fallout from the unauthorised dissemination of her medical information was far worse than the virus itself — including the fact that people who were never even in contact with her were stigmatised.

After 23 days in quarantine, Williams is now fully recovered, having tested negative for COVID-19 on two consecutive occasions. She did have some advice for her fellow Vincentians, though:

STAY AT HOME. Be kind to one another. COVID-19 does not require the stigma attached. Desist from shaming and discriminating against suspected or confirmed cases and their family and persons in quarantine. […]

No man is an island. We need each other. It is important to let our loved ones know that we love and appreciate them. Leadership involves listening and making and communicating critical decisions with humility and with empathy.

In quarantine in Trinidad and Tobago

In an anonymous letter to the editor at Wired868, the virtue of empathy featured in a quarrantined patient's description of forced quarantine:

Life in quarantine is sometimes being disappointed by the lack of empathy of your fellow countrymen.

Making the point that being asked to quarantine in a state facility is “first and foremost a national duty […] for your safety and that of your countrymen” the author also acknowledged that it is also more difficult to manage that self-quarantine — “and it isn't any safer”:

It is policing your co-residents because your health depends on them as much as it depends on you. It is reminding 21 other mates to: wash their hands after their vitals, before going to the fridge or to our make-shift kitchen counter, to not pick their nose, to keep on their masks, to keep their distance when they speak to you.

The author found the unpredictability of quarantine to be one of the most difficult aspects, but he found solace in prayer:

It is loving the God you cannot see and hating the neighbour you can. […]

It is being ostracised by those you thought were friends and being ‘befriended’ by some who are not. It is trying to keep your physical health while feeling the loss of your mental health.

It is being part of the forgotten; not positive for the virus so you can be treated—but seemingly ineligible to return home.

Amid the despair, the author noticed bright spots — humanity at its best:

It is pleasant when the strong console the weak, when you can still see gratitude from co-residents in spite of the grumblings. It is seeing loved ones outside drawn even closer in spite of the physical distance.

Life in quarantine is knowing that this too shall pass.

It is unclear whether the author is still a temporary resident at the COVID-19 quarantine facility.

Having special needs while isolated

Everyone experiences isolation differently, as Rowan McEwan, a student who attends Trinidad's prestigious Queen's Royal College, can attest. Blogging at causeaneffect, McEwen describes himself as “one of the many teenagers in the Caribbean who live with autism”.

Though he admits that learning about Trinidad and Tobago's first case of COVID-19 was “devastating” for him, he also says:

Throughout my life, I have overcome multiple barriers to get to where I am, and the one I’m currently facing is no different.

Despite his determination, life in quarantine is undoubtedly challenging. He misses school, the place where he used to socialise and take sanctuary:

To not be able to visit this place at all was truly painful. And it wasn’t just school that was off-limits either. The entire outside world was suddenly beyond my grasp.

As a former refugee in the Libyan Civil War, the isolation McEwen is experiencing under the Trinidad and Tobago's current COVID-19 stay-at-home order dredges up painful memories of when he and his family were “stuck at home, living in constant fear”.

There is no doubt that life in seclusion can be harrowing, but perhaps the more stringent the measures are now, the sooner the world will be able to emerge from this pandemic, with fewer deaths and greater appreciation for our shared humanity.

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