How The Family of Guyana’s Patient Zero Was Ravaged By COVID-19, Paranoia and Crime

The Tragedy Involving the Baboolall Family Highlights How The Corona Virus Has Disproportionately Affected Guyanese in New York—And At Home

Scene from the funeral of Ratna Baboolal

Not long after the 52-year-old mother of four died from Covid-19 on March 11, authorities discovered that she had spread the virus to eight relatives, including her 59-year-old husband Ramnauth Baboolall, her two sons, two sisters, one niece, her son-in-law and one of her granddaughters. 

On March 7, Baboolall  and her husband had returned to their native Guyana from Queens, New York to visit their children and other relatives. They had travelled on Caribbean Airlines from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Georgetown via Piarco International Airport in Trinidad. 

On the day they left New York, where they had lived for the last 10 years, the state had already recorded 89 cases of COVID-19, causing New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to declare a state of emergency. 

The Baboolalls would stay at their house at Good Hope on the East Coast of Demerara (ECD), a village located just 15 minutes from the capital city of Georgetown. 

On March 10, three days after their arrival, Ratna became ill. According to family members, she suffered from uncontrollable diabetes and hypertension. She was taken to a private hospital in Georgetown where she was asked about her travel history. The hospital refused to treat Ratna, referring her to the Georgetown Public Hospital where she was admitted in the emergency ward.  

Doctors there tried to control her hypertension and diabetes but Director of Medical and Professional Services at the GPHC, Dr. Fawcett Jeffrey, told the media that Ratna’s condition worsened overnight. She had to be intubated and resuscitated. At about 8 AM on March 11, Ratna was pronounced dead.

Guyana’s patient zero, Ratna Baboolal

The Guyanese Diaspora Experiences The Brunt of COVID-19

Ratna’s death occurred in her native land. But she was among dozens of Guyanese nationals who contracted the virus during the first few months of 2020 when Covid-19 ravaged New York.

Guyana, which borders Venezuela, Brazil and Suriname on the Atlantic Coast, has a population of about 750,000 people. Over the last several decades, hundreds of thousands of other Guyanese have migrated from the country, fleeing dire economic conditions and political oppression. 

By some estimates, some 150,000 Guyanese live in New York, mainly in Queens and Brooklyn, making them one of the largest immigrant groups in the city.

In April, the Guyanese Consulate in New York reported that 34 Guyanese nationals had died from COVID-19. Media reports suggest that many more have perished since that report.

Jennifer Jabbar, a Guyanese-born journalist based in New York, chronicled the deaths of Guyanese from COVID-19 in a moving report for Newsroom, a leading digital news outlet based in Guyana.

After Ratna died, doctors at the Georgetown Public Hospital, mindful of her travel history, decided to collect samples from her nose to test for COVID-19. 

The Ministry of Public Health at the time was only monitoring travellers who entered Guyana from January 18, 2020 from China, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand through Brazil, Finland and the United States of America. There were 26 people under surveillance while 48 others were cleared of the virus. Limited screening was also ongoing at the various ports of entry.

At about 5 p.m.  on March 11, health authorities confirmed that  Ratna was Guyana’s first COVID-19 diagnosis—and fatality.

Ratna Baboolal’s Covid Test Results

Ratna’s relatives were given the devastating news about her death and told at the same time that anyone who came in contact with her would have to be quarantined..

“With the stress and losing mom, anyone can break down and start crying,” Ratna’s son, 27-year-old Yudhisthir Baboolall told the Caribbean Institute of Journalism Network (CIJN).  “My family was so distraught [wondering] where will they take us, what is going to happen next? Are we about to lose another family member? That’s what was going through most of our minds.” 

The family had no time to mourn their loss. Ratna’s death triggered a chain reaction to find and isolate relatives and anyone, including healthcare workers, who spent time with her.

Caribbean Airlines placed its crew from flights from JFK and Piarco airports in quarantine while it worked with local health authorities to track other passengers. 

When Ratna was diagnosed, many Caribbean countries, including Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago, had not yet reported their first case.  Jamaica confirmed its first case on March 10- a woman who travelled from the United Kingdom on March 4. The second case was confirmed in Jamaica on March 11; also a passenger who travelled to the island from the UK. 

Fighting Covid-19 During An Election Stalemate

Guyana’s first fatality from Covid-19 came during a controversial general election which, despite a March 2 vote, took five months to resolve. On August 2, 2020 the elections came to an abrupt end and the new People’s Progressive Government was sworn in as it hurriedly tries to combat the spread of the disease. 

The former Government which was left without a legitimate Government in place or a cabinet to make pertinent decisions, had appointed a ministerial task force to deal with the pandemic but critics have said they showed little interest in dealing with the pandemic and more on stealing the election.

The unpreparedness of the government was shown in the time taken to isolate and test Ratna’s family members.

The relatives who all visited Ratna at her Good Hope home on March 9 for the Hindu festival of Phagwah, or Holi, were collected a week later from their various homes.

Her son, Yudhisthir told CIJN that officials from the Ministry of Public Health and the Civil Defence Commission (CDC) – an army unit known for coordinating responses to natural disasters –transported 14 family members including himself in an ambulance and a bus. Two army vans escorted the mini-caravan transporting the relatives.

Included in the group of relatives transported to the Government’s isolation facility was Ratna’s son-in-law, 33-year-old Pradesh Thakram, a father of two. According to Thakram,a fisherman,  he had not seen his mother-in-law because  he had 17 days at sea.

On March 16, he arrived at the Good Hope house to see his family being transported to isolation.

“I hadn’t any contact with any of them. I came the same day from sea,” he said.  When I come, I saw the ambulance in front and my wife told me told me to not come into the yard as the ambulance will take everyone to the [hospital].”

 Authorities told Thakram that he would have to join the others in quarantine at the West Demerara Regional Hospital located just fifteen minutes from the capital city in Region Three. 

Several hours later, three of his relatives tested positive while six others, including his wife, Nalini Thakram, tested negative and were sent home. 

Thakram was kept in isolation for 21 days before he tested positive for COVID-19 on April 1. 

Guyana closed its airports on March 17 but COVID-19 cases continued to increase. Until then, Guyana had direct flights from the US which had already confirmed 4,459 Covid-19 cases with 87 deaths. 

Trinidad and Tobago closed its borders on March 22 when it had 49 cases of COVID-19.

By April 1, Guyana had 19 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and three deaths, including one healthcare worker. CIJN learned that a second woman who died from Covid-19  had also travelled to Guyana from the United States.

Twelve Covid Tests For A Son-in-Law

Thakram believes he contracted the disease at the facility and ended up spending the longest in isolation –106 days –before he received two negative tests to return home on June 29. 

 “At the Hospital they have two washrooms…so they had other patients with COVID-19 who went there from the Georgetown Public Hospital, they were using the same washroom and we had to pass through them to go and use the washroom,” Thakram told CIJN. 

He has complained publicly about the food given to patients which includes bread for breakfast and dinner while noting that sometimes these meals are served too late.

Throughout his stay he, like other relatives, had shown no symptoms of the disease.

Thakram said he spent his day sleeping, eating meals provided by healthcare workers and interacting with other patients at the facility. The remainder of the time was spent speaking with his wife and other relatives on the phone.

Thakram was tested twelve times because testing protocol required that he secured two negative tests within 24 hours before he could be released from isolation. Thakram said his first test would return negative but his second test always returned positive. 

At the time, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr. Karen Gordon-Boyle told CIJN that the case is being investigated in partnership with the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) as health officials could not explain what led to the phenomenon. 

Thakram was released from isolation on June 29. 

Two weeks later in July, the WHO reassessed and changed its protocols which now allows asymptomatic persons to be released from isolation once they show no symptoms for three consecutive days. 

The fisherman and furniture maker recalled days being frustrated as he could not provide for his wife and two children; a 7-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl.

“Being in here is not easy…I ain’t got no symptoms. I don’t know how to deal with it anymore, I just give up,” Thakram said. 

At home, his wife, Nalini,was worried about how she would provide for her children.

“Right now, me feel like to run crazy,” the mother said as she sat in her home. “You know as a wife and a mother, to run a house right now without any support from my husband is very hard right now…I have to pay for lessons for my daughter and the bills are also coming in.” 

Paranoia Grips The Family’s Village

Good Hope is populated with mostly Indo-Guyanese who engage in various economic activities from planting cash crops including tomatoes and various vegetables, poultry farming to lumber yards and supermarkets. The younger folks mostly seek work in the city just 15 minutes away. 

A street in the family’s community of Good Hope Guyana

Nalini said she previously worked with her neighbour to help them retrieve eggs from their chicken farm but after her relatives were tested positive for COVID-19, the once close-knit community has become less friendly. Nalini said her family’s previous illness has made it difficult to hail a taxi or shop at the grocery store.

“During the incident with my mom and so, they [neighbours] fired me because they said they don’t want anyone with coronavirus in the yard. Even if you send any of the children to the shop, nobody wants to sell them because everybody knows the children…even the taxi service don’t want to work for we sometimes,” Mrs. Thakram said.

The discrimination faced by the family is not new.

Yudhisthir, Nalini’s brother who was tested positive for COVID-19 and later recovered and discharged on April 05, told CIJN that “we were treated like we cause Corona[virus]” by health officials. 

(Health officials have since denied the claim, insisting that they were only trying to take precautions to protect themselves and others at a time when little was known about the virus.)

“Our family was going through this distress of losing mom, they’re saying she died of Corona and [the health officials]…they way they started treating us was like we caused the problem, like we caused Corona,” he said. 

He recalled that while some neighbours were supportive, some took photos of the personal protective gowns thrown into the bins in front of the yard by health professionals and sent it to social media commentators, who lambasted the family. 

As The Family Battles The Virus, Criminals Target Them

Yudhisthir and other relatives are assisting his sister to take care of her two children. But the family lacks money and other resources because their house was broken into in late March while they were in quarantine.

Thieves escaped with jewelry valuing close to USD$5,000

along with local and US currency amounting to another USD$5,000.  

According to Yudhisthir, the stolen jewelry included family heirlooms including a pair of diamond earrings and a diamond ring belonging to his mother, his sister’s wedding ring and jewelry belonging to his nieces and nephews. 

“We didn’t get to secure anything as we had to leave [home] so sudden and was still mourning the death of mom,” he said. 

He added that “the kids had those piggy banks and they [thieves] saw those and cut them open. One had about $23,000 GYD and the other had $24,000 GYD.”

The cash would have been used to perform his mother final rites and book tickets back to the US. 

The family had to raise money through a Gofundme page set up by relatives and borrowing to cremate Ratna on April 17. 

Yudhisthir said his family managed to follow Hindu rites but were not allowed to touch his mother spend significant time near her body before her pyre was lighted.

“We were allowed to see the body from five feet away,” he said. “We did a video call for persons who were still in isolation at this time.”.

He recalled his mother always wanted a small funeral. “We’re telling everybody that my mom literally planned the way she wanted to go, a small funeral with close family members,” Yudhistir said. “She got what she wanted.” 

By August 11, 2020, Guyana recorded a total of 602 confirmed COVID-19 cases.

There were 189 recoveries and the Capital City and Region Four where the Baboolall family resides and interacted has been COVID free for several weeks.

All new cases are coming from areas in Regions One, Seven and Nine which shares close borders with Brazil and Venezuela. 

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