Little did we suspect, but as our last update was being posted, Belize’s first COVID-19 case was on her way to Belize. Not a tourist, but a 38 year old Belizean returning home from Los Angeles. That was Thursday, March 19 th; the day before Holy Cross closed. On Friday she felt ill and went to the doctor. Sometime that weekend she visited her family. Late on Sunday her test results came back – positive!
The next morning the island was buzzing. People were trying to leave the island, but the water taxi and flights were cancelled. Everyone was told to get what they needed then stay home. The entire island was put in quarantine while the Ministry of Heath did a mapping exercise.
The island waited with baited breath while more tests were done. Eight more people were tested, while an unknown number of others were ordered to quarantine at home for 2 weeks. One person tested positive – the mother of the original patient. More tests were done on those the mother had been in contact with.
Thankfully, so far, no more positive cases have been found on the island. But just the other day, a Belizean male residing in Belize City reported mild symptoms. He had travelled home from New York, then rented a small apartment by himself and stayed home. None the less, the Belizean Government could not take the risk of the disease becoming established in the densely populated Belize City. They put the entire country into lockdown – everyone is to stay at home unless you’re getting food, medical assistance or working in an essential service.
And now we wait again. For a few days the tests were coming back negative, but just this morning a new case was identified on the mainland in San Ignacio.
Life on the island has changed dramatically
Everyone has to stay home. No fishing. No-one is allowed on any on any kind of boat. One person can leave the house to shop for essentials between 7am and 10am No construction is allowed. No alcohol can be sold. No-one should be within 3 feet of someone who doesn’t live on their property. Shops can only allow 5 people inside at once, the rest forming a spaced queue. Some shops won’t let anyone inside – they’ll take your order at the door or over the phone.
The rules are mostly followed, but social distancing is hard, especially in this family oriented culture. People still give golf cart rides to their friends. Some people visit friends and relatives. The queue for the weekly lottery stretched way down the main-street, and not surprisingly was cancelled the following week. I saw a woman wearing latex gloves still absent mindedly touching her face. Another lady with a mask pulled it down to have a conversation with a friend. People still walk in groups together.
It’s not perfect, but most people are mostly trying.
New services have popped up. An enterprising sewing lady is selling homemade masks. The rum distillery now produces hand sanitizer. A hot corn tortilla delivery service now comes through my neighborhood twice a day – this is wonderful, and stops dozens of people having to go out and touch the same cooler in the supermarket. Hope Haven has done a simply incredible job of expanding their food bank, ordering in bulk and distributing essential groceries to the many out of work families now trapped on this island and unable to return home to the mainland where life is cheaper. Someone is also using a private reverse-osmosis system to fill a water tank and distribute free drinking water to local residents. One lady has started a large cooking venture, offering cooked meals to those trapped at home without cooking facilities. Even a new clinic has been set up just for flu and COVID cases, keeping the polyclinic free for other health needs.
No doubt tensions will increase over time, but there’s some relief. The Belize Government is sending fortnightly checks of $150bz to workers affected by the shutdown. The water company will offer some reduction to small customers, and won’t disconnect anyone during the shutdown. The power company is also offering help with bills and won’t disconnect anyone at this time. It all helps.
How is the school doing?
The Prime Minister of Belize ordered all schools to close for four weeks beginning at the end of classes on March 20 th . That would have the schools closed up to and including the normal Easter holiday break. That action put teachers and staff off of work. The Ministry has committed to paying teacher salaries during this time and because of your generous giving during our end-of-year matching campaign last November and December, the Holy Cross Foundation Board is continuing to pay our maintenance, office, security and kitchen staff during this closure. Thank you!
Mr. Freddy, the school maintenance man, is continuing to live on the school property and is keeping a watchful eye over the school. Before the school closed we had received a large delivery of building materials that would have been used by the mission team from St Michael’s Episcopal Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. Mr. Freddy is now using this time to do as many repair jobs as he can – jobs that are usually impossible to do safely while the children are in school. It’s a blessing of sorts.
What about the community?
This shutdown is a story of 100s of lives impacted in different ways. Here’s what some of those stories look like on Ambergris Caye. All names have been changed.
I saw Donna shopping a few days after the shutdown. She was shopping for her father, a diabetic who lives alone. Her husband had tried to deliver food the other day, but had been turned back. She hopes she’ll be allowed to deliver it today. Her hotel was only able to keep 2 staff, and she was one. She works the front desk during the day, dealing with cancellations. A security guy works at night. They have a sister hotel, where most of the staff chose early holidays and returned to the mainland. One was put into 2 week isolation by her village authorities. Donna was upbeat and cheerful. She’s lived through tough times before.
Anna runs a fruit and vegetable shop, and stayed open the day the first case was reported. She has a strong faith in God, but nevertheless was nervous. “I have to stay open.” she said. “People need food, and I have food. I can’t just close.”
Rebecca sells lunch to construction workers, so lost her income when the government ordered a halt to all construction work. Her husband also lost his income – he had travelled to the mainland to collect their son and bring him back to the island but didn’t make it back before the island was quarantined. She’s incredibly focused and has already found another job, but there’s no work in her husband’s village. Neither of them know when he’ll be able to come back.
Jim is worried. He works hard doing construction, but his work site has been shut down and he doesn’t know when it will reopen. He’ll get a government check, but the money doesn’t go far on Ambergris Caye when there’s still rent to be paid, and a wife and 2 very young daughters to look after.
What happens next?
So now, we wait and hold our breaths and see what will happen next. Maybe we’re lucky and the island has nipped the cases in the bud, and then the government can look at relocating those currently trapped on the island who want to return to their home towns. But who knows what the future looks like now, and when the country – and the world – can reopen.
Please continue to keep Belize in your prayers.
During this time we’ll continue sending updates on the situation in Belize. If you want more regular and very detailed information, you can follow the San Pedro Sun or the Government of Belize Press Office pages on facebook.
Our sincere thanks and gratitude to all who have made Holy Cross possible.