Dickenson Bay, Antigua – Osmilta Prince sits on a rock beneath a palm tree, her homemade mask covering her face. By her feet, is a basket of handmade shell bracelets and calabash bowls. Close by, a laminated sign reads: “Stay Apart 6 feet – or 9½ coconuts”.
By this time of day, the 48-year-old single mother will have ordinarily sold enough curios to put food on the table to feed her four sons. But today, the sun-loungers on this usually popular beach are mostly empty.
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“It’s scary to realise that this could go on for another year,” she says, taking in the quiet beach. “This is my income, and the modest savings I have won’t last. I don’t want to go and beg. Everything I earn now goes on food because there hasn’t been a chance to save since we reopened.”
It has been a tough seven months for the residents of Antigua and Barbuda, twin islands in the Caribbean which rely heavily on the money ordinarily brought in by almost 300,000 tourists a year, plus an additional 788,000 cruise ship day-trippers. Visitors are drawn by the islands’ 365 beaches, low crime rates and luxurious hotels, but with this year’s drastic global decline in international travel, the country has been hit hard.
“COVID has been extremely devastating to our economy,” the country’s Prime Minister Gaston Browne tells Al Jazeera. “We’re one of the most tourism-dependent countries in the world and, as a consequence, our revenues fell by as much as 60 percent at one point. A lot of people were put out of work as a result of closure of the tourism sector, as airlines and cruise ships discontinued service.”
In spite of the challenging economic circumstances, the islands have, so far, been largely effective at suppressing the virus. In a population of 97,000, there have been just three recorded deaths from COVID-19. This translates to 31 cumulative deaths per million, a stark contrast to Peru’s figure of 1,006, the US’s 641 or the UK’s 630, for example.
While many governments dithered over the efficacy of masks, Antigua and Barbuda introduced mandatory mask-wearing in April and created a robust track-and-trace system which has so far traced 22,000 people, equivalent to a quarter of the country’s population. These policies, combined with stringent airport measures, have kept cases low.
‘We had to shoo the billionaires away’
The islands shut down on March 27, towards the tail end of high season. Ordinarily, cruise ships would have continued to dock for a further six weeks and a steady, though reduced, a number of tourists would visit during the hurricane season (from June until October).
“When shutdown happened, it happened fast,” says Lance Leonhardt, owner of popular restaurant Jacqui O’s Beachhouse on Crabb Hill Beach, which lost approximately $90,000 over the course of the closure – nearly 30 percent of normal turnover.
“We were told at midday on March 27 that everybody had to be out by 6pm. There were a couple of super-yachts anchored out front and we had to practically shoo some billionaires away after lunch. There was a lot of panic at the beginning – a few people online were saying it was all going to turn to anarchy, that people were going to starve and everybody should turn to agriculture.”
But in fact, the island’s lockdown was relatively smooth. Within days, handwashing sinks were installed outside shops and fines for non-mask wearers were introduced, while food parcels were available for those in crisis.
With so many jobs dependent on tourism, staying closed wasn’t feasible for the longer term. The country spent several million dollars rapidly converting an old hospital ward into a new infectious diseases centre in the capital of Saint John’s, equipping it with 50 ventilators and 17 state-of-the-art isolation ICU rooms specifically for COVID sufferers. So far, the facility has been used just a handful of times since it opened in late April. On June 1, Antigua and Barbuda became one of the first countries in the region to reopen.
“When we reopened, there was just one flight a week,” says Charles Fernandez, the minister for tourism. “We used that as an opportunity to test protocols, and fine-tune them – other islands that waited to open later didn’t have that training opportunity. We observed everything, made notes, and had a week before the next flight to see whether we thought there were gaps in safety to improve on it.”
Arrivals to Antigua’s VC Bird International Airport are now met by officials in full PPE and must supply a negative coronavirus test result, taken within the last seven days. Initially, visitors were tested upon arrival, but the government was forced to change tack after several tourists threatened legal action, claiming that the mandatory tests were a violation of their rights. “There were some smart-alecks suggesting that the International Health Regulations would deem nasal swabs to be invasive,” says Prime Minister Browne. “On that basis, we changed our policies to tests prior to arrival.”
As the tourists began to arrive, some locals were worried about infection rates abroad. “Where I live, people scowl at me because they know I work with tourists,” says beach vendor Prince. “They think I am going to bring the disease into the community.”
But for Star Hazelwood, 61, a jewellery seller and grandfather of two, the relief at reopening was overwhelming. “Of course, we worry about people bringing the disease to the island but life is just a risk,” he says. “If they did another lockdown, we’d be dead. Most people I know have jobs that rely on tourism. That’s what the island is all about – when that’s down, everything’s down.”
To date, not a single tourist has been found to have contracted COVID-19 on the island, although the number of visitors has been low. August saw a 73 percent reduction in the number of visitors compared with the same time last year. As the country moves into high season, the government must maintain the difficult balancing act of keeping people safe while still creating an attractive environment for visitors.
Staying alive versus living a life
“It does feel very safe here,” says Diana Taylor, 54, an administration manager from near London in the UK on a trip to celebrate her 30th wedding anniversary. “The problem is you can never tell how other people will behave – once people have had a drink, social distancing tends to go out of the window. My husband, Phil, and I had coronavirus at Easter. It was 10 days of fever and not being able to get up the stairs without panting, so we’re cautious because now doctors are saying you can get it again.”
But not all visitors to the island are that concerned about the virus. “I think everything’s being made such a big deal and it really shouldn’t have been as big a deal as it has,” says Brandon Arino, a data engineer from Texas, who cast his vote for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election before going on his honeymoon. “I like facts and figures, and facts and figures don’t add up to the amount of attention this has got.”
It is a sentiment echoed by fellow US tourist Lauren Cyr, a nurse from Indianapolis. “The media has played a lot into what people think,” she says. “I think it’s been misconstrued …. For us, it plays a lot into the politics. People are quick to point fingers at Trump.”
These attitudes sit in contrast with the stance taken by the local government in Antigua. “From the start, our people took the issue seriously, particularly compared to other countries in which the population – and even sometimes the leadership – did not,” says Prime Minister Browne. “We didn’t see the virus as a common cold; we saw it as a virus that could decimate the health of our people, as well as our economy.”
With the International Monetary Fund forecasting an economic contraction of 10.3 percent for countries that rely heavily on tourism, the effect on Antigua and Barbuda’s economy has yet to be fully seen. The return of the cruise ships this year looks unlikely, but the country is hoping to entice a new type of affluent, home-working visitor with the introduction of a two-year “digital nomad” visa.
The islands are also, inadvertently, receiving another type of tourist – while visitors from most European countries are still barred from the US, family members separated by the Atlantic are reuniting in Antigua, often after many months apart. “We’ve had a lot of these ‘rendezvous’ tourists dining at Jacqui O’s,” says Leonhardt. “Just recently, we had a famous American actor meeting up with his German girlfriend, and a British pop star stopping over here for two weeks so that he could enter the States to see his child and ex-wife in LA.”
With the number of coronavirus cases worldwide rising faster than ever and travel restrictions in place in many countries, the islands of Antigua and Barbuda are facing an uncertain season.
“The big thing I’m aware of is that it doesn’t matter how good a job we do on the island in keeping this place safe and having low rates of infection because we are subject to whatever happens in other countries,” says Leonhardt. “If air bridges get shut down, then there’s nobody to come. It’s like we’re waiting for the guillotine to fall.”