• Vennetta Johnston

Antigua & Barbuda – a beacon of Wellness in the face of COVID-19

Updated: Jun 5

Caribbean leaders have demonstrated the most exemplary leadership in the face of COVID-19. They have put their people first and they have kept their people safe. Of course, they now must remain focussed on re-starting the region’s economy. With tourism grinding to an abrupt halt, the Caribbean region has huge economic challenges yet to face.

Meanwhile there is mounting concern that institutional bias in health research and health care is playing a part in the number of black people dying of COVID-19 among the UK and US Caribbean diaspora. Therefore, even whilst they face their own challenges, Caribbean leaders are now seeking to act collectively and stand in solidarity with the diaspora on the issue of disproportionate COVID deaths.

In March 2019, Antigua held a conference jointly led by the Ministry for Tourism and the Ministry for Health. The objective of the conference was to set out Antigua’s stall to the Wellness market. The explicitly stated intention to link the health of the nation with Wellness tourism was absolutely the right move. In the face of COVID-19 the intention is to accelerate that joint agenda and make Antigua a beacon of Wellness, for its customers, the diaspora, and the wider Caribbean community.

Sunshine & Vitamin D

Sadly, there have been 3 COVID-19 deaths in Antigua. The underlying health conditions of obesity, heart disease and diabetes, and the socio-economic factors that put the black minorities at risk of dying from COVID-19 are equally prevalent in the Caribbean. Yet per capita there have been far fewer deaths here compared to the US and UK.

It is believed that an early, and hard lockdown, plus sunshine, Vitamin D, and the natural Caribbean environment holds the key to the health and wellness of its global community.

Presently, there are too few research studies to endorse what the locals know to be true. Consider this; Why is there a substantial amount of well-funded scientific research on the effects of too much sun on white skin, yet barely any scientific research at all on the effects of too little sun on Black skin?

Living in the Caribbean, the benefits of sun on skin can be enjoyed every day. Without giving it a second thought, the body’s stores of Vitamin D can be replenished. This is critical to maintaining the immune system and fighting viral infections like COVID-19. In contrast, there is just not enough, strong enough sunlight in the Northern hemisphere to penetrate the melanin in black skin to make sufficient Vitamin D.

Caribbeans know that this is a key reason why so many black people are susceptible to COVID-19. Thankfully, now, there is a scientific study to prove it. Using the database of three hospitals in Southern Asian countries, Dr Mark Alippio conducted a study of 212 positive COVID-19 cases. He then cross referenced the severity of their illness with their Vitamin D levels. His study showed that 85% of patients with normal Vitamin D levels had mild outcomes. In contrast, 72% of patients with Vitamin D deficiency had severe or critical outcomes from COVID-19.

Clearly, the odds of having a critical outcome increase when Vitamin D level decreases. This is a double whammy for black people, since Vitamin D deficiency is already linked to the chronic diseases, diabetes, hypertension, and heart diseases, that also increase the risk of severe or critical outcomes for COVID-19.

But we are not naïve; lack of Vitamin D is not the only reason why black people are dying at least 4 times the rate of white people. This could be down to a combination of factors, including underlying health conditions, and inadequate, dismissive health care.

Getting COVID fighting fit

Apart from endorsing the calls for independent inquiries into the disproportionate COVID-19 deaths among black communities, to support the diaspora, there are two more things to do.

Firstly, share data that will allow us to understand the epidemiology of COVID-19 among Caribbean populations. Already nurses and patients of Caribbean descent are posting videos warning that black people can have different symptoms. Harness social media and other analytical ICT to learn from the data and give relevant advice.

In addition, start to proactively build the resilience of the people. This means ensuring that the Caribbean Wellness agenda speaks to the diaspora and is not overwhelmingly dominated by a narrative aimed only at people with white skin. Social media needs to be used to create on-line fitness communities led by professionals that understand that black physiques are different, and who can tailor programmes aimed towards shedding dangerous adipose tissue and get our community COVID fighting fit.

This is where Wild Lotus Camp will make a difference. Next month Wild Lotus Camp will launch a social media fitness programme aimed at preparing the body to fight off COVID-19, set against a backdrop of quintessential Caribbean scenes at Valley Church beach. In November we will re-open to welcome our guests. Six huge, fully furnished tents are set on one of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean, just 20 steps away from the shoreline. It is the most splendid isolation; most often than not, our guests have the beach almost entirely to themselves.

I was born in the UK and was 40 years old when I first travelled to the Caribbean. Never mind the jaw dropping beauty of the islands, the most striking experience was the difference I felt in the essence of my DNA. I felt well. Within a few days of stepping off the plane I looked 10 years younger. I knew instinctively that I was in the right natural environment to be both mentally and physically healthy and well. This is why I created Wild Lotus Camp. For black people like me, who have lived most of our lives in the Northern hemisphere, ‘sun, sea and sand’ is not a luxury, it is an absolute necessity.

Building resilience to COVID-19

I passionately believe that if I were in the UK right now, I would probably be dead already. Seeing so many of us dying of COVID-19, both in the UK and the US, is deeply distressing. It is argued that poverty has caused this inequality. This may be true, but it is a dead-end argument – it will not contribute to saving lives right now.

Once the airlines stop reeling from the body blow that is COVID-19 and VC Bird airport re-opens, two weeks in Antigua will contribute to saving lives.

The sun’s rays in the Northern hemisphere are just not strong enough at any time of year to tackle Vitamin D deficiency for black people. Our immune systems will continue to be weak. Of course, we could just take Vitamin D supplements, and this would be sound advice. However, we would still be surrounded by COVID-19, anticipating second and third waves, in countries that do not have the willingness or the capacity to test and trace.

Two weeks of sunshine and freshly caught Tuna fish to top up our Vitamin D will certainly help. Our bodies can store Vitamin D for up to 60 days. We can take it back with us and it will keep us well.

Re-learning all that our grandmothers knew about natural antivirals; fresh garlic, fresh turmeric, and fresh ginger to build our immune system and keep our beautiful black bodies healthy.

Finding new ways to derive the anti-inflammatory benefits of Cannabis other than smoking it. (In fact, smoking anything is a stupid idea, especially now. Smokers are 14 times more likely to die if they get COVID-19).

Spending at least an hour a day in the sun making Vitamin D, running barefoot in the sand and swimming in the sea to strengthen our hearts, increase lung capacity, and build resilience against COVID-19; this is what will contribute to saving lives, and Antigua has it in spades.

Wild Lotus Wellness

Re-opening the tourism economy, but at the same time stopping community spread of COVID-19 is uppermost in the minds of Caribbean leaders right now. So too is diversifying their economies to reduce dependency on tourism for the islands’ survival. Agriculture and food security are critical. In recent weeks backyard farming has been on the increase. Soon the challenge will be to create higher value products from our agricultural lands that can be exported to increase our foreign exchange. Creating and exporting health, wellness, and beauty products that encompass all the natural antivirals and anti- inflammatory plants that grow around us, and command a higher market value, could be part of the way forward.

But first things first. Here at Wild lotus Camp we are reaching out to our customers, and friends and family in the diaspora. We also want to give health professionals the Wellness retreat that they truly deserve to thank them for saving lives. Therefore, we are creating health and wellness programmes, both real and virtual, using our connections to keep our family, friends, and customers safe and well.

June will see the launch of our social media fitness programme aimed at preparing the body to fight off the infection. Once travel is safe, Wild Lotus Camp guests will spend the entire time glamorous camping (glamping) at Valley Church beach, one of the most stunning beaches in Antigua. They will cook their own BBQ freshly seasoned and delivered to their tents, then spend the evening chatting around a campfire. Twice daily fitness sessions, led by our in-house instructor, will focus on improving lung capacity and fat loss to lower blood pressure, tackle diabetes, and build resilience to COVID-19.

Guest will be given their own brand-new gym mats that are theirs to take away with them. All public areas will be checked, cleaned, and disinfected hourly. Social distancing is not an issue; there are only six fully furnished luxury tents accommodating a maximum of 14 people, and the beach is half a mile long.

We are not making this offer irresponsibly; our guests will have to be tested for COVID-19 within 48hours of departure. They will continue to be medically screened every day whilst they are with us. All airport transfers and day tours will be private, for members of the same family or travel group only. Interaction at large gatherings will not take place and contact with the wider community will be kept to an absolute minimum at this time to prevent the likelihood of community spread. This high-quality concierge service is our new normal. We will do this because we care about the health of our customers and our community, and we wish to honour our health care heroes.

Live long, and prosper

My mother left the Caribbean in the 1950’s and worked in the NHS all her life. I followed in her footsteps, qualified as a nurse, and also worked for the NHS. At the 2011 UK census, 40% of the black working population were employed in the public sector. Many of us now have our NHS or local government pensions and are looking for somewhere to spend a long, happy, and healthy retirement.

But as 90% percent of COVID-19 deaths are people over 60, and with black people at least 4 times more likely to die of this disease, a lower life expectancy is a bitter injustice to swallow, especially when so many of us work in health services saving lives.

Will there be a second wave? Or perhaps a third? We now must face the fact that as black pensioners, because of COVID-19 if we choose to retire in the UK, we may not live long enough to spend a penny of our pensions.

I love the way that Antigua celebrates its elderly. Every village has a huge poster of the oldest living person. I stare into the faces of the elders on those poster as I drive past, wondering what stories they could tell.

I also spent many years working in for local government and retired as a Director of Adult Social Care in a London Borough. In all my professional career that spans over 40 years, I do not know of a single black centenarian in the UK. Yet in Antigua two people celebrated their 100th birthday just this month.

Although most of the Caribbean diaspora in the UK is of Jamaican descent the community is no longer homogenous; we have succeeded economically, inter-married, become assimilated, and we are influencing British society at every level. The specific island that the grandparents came from is not so relevant today; we identify as Caribbean. I honestly believe that the first Caribbean country with a strong economy that reaches out to the Caribbean diaspora as a whole, and takes up our Wellness agenda, will reap the economic and social benefits, love and loyalty of a generation of professionals now looking for a place in the sun, to feel at home, and be well.

Holding the ring – saving lives

Following the Wellness conference last March, Wild Lotus Camp had already engaged black wellness professionals in source markets. Through the Yoga Green Book, a directory of Black yoga teachers in the US, we had made contact and organised a series of Yoga retreats scheduled for May and June this year. These have now been put back to 2021.

COVID-19 has only strengthened Antigua’s resolve to serve the Wellness market and to widen its reach to engage a more diverse range of wellness practitioners. In the meantime, our priority is to create a COVID free wellness sanctuary for both the diaspora and our heroes working on the frontline of this global pandemic.

COVID-19 is taking a deadly toll on the lives of black people in the northern hemisphere. There is an urgent need, and opportunity, for the Caribbean region to hold the ring on the Black Wellness agenda, drawing on the expertise of its own medical professionals, the wisdom of our elders, the strength of its diaspora connections, and the bounty of our sublime tropical environment. We plan to meet this urgent need and seize this opportunity. Together we can keep our people safe and well, both here and abroad. Together we can save lives.


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