Update: The Prime Minister of Belize, Rt. Dean Barrow, announced Aug. 5 that the re-opening of that country’s airport has been postponed. Belize was scheduled to re-open to some international travellers Aug. 15.
According to government statistics, the country of Belize has reported no new cases or COVID-19, for more than a month.
Considering this small developing country on mainland Central America depends heavily on international tourism and cross border trade, such a feat is an incredible one.
With a population of about 400,000, the country’s public health system could hardly hope to cope with a massive outbreak of Covid-19 if the disease were to spread to uncontrollable levels.
Despite the large numbers in neighbouring countries in its largest tourism market, including the U.S., Belize has had a total of 18 and no new case since April 13th.
The government says, this has not been by accident and it’s due to the early steps it took to manage the disease by quickly closing borders, bolstering its medical capacity, implementing a State of Emergency and by closely managing the population’s movements with an ever-evolving set of laws that were changed at a moment’s notice to suit the situation as it unfolded.
But, one of the least known factors that assisted greatly in achieving this positive outcome, is the use of technology to manage the crisis, and the use of real-time data for decision-making by health and other senior authorities.
From the time of report of the first imported case by a Belizean who returned from travel to the U.S., the epidemiological unit of the Ministry of Health fast-tracked a contact-tracing mode, they used to effectively isolate that first case and quarantined the entire island of Ambergris Caye where she and her mother, the second case, lived while carefully tracing her steps and her contacts since her arrival into Belize.
This exercise was meticulously repeated with the following 17 cases, with a coordinated effort to locate, segregate and trace contacts related to each case.
Behind all this was a secret weapon developed locally, which drove decisions on a day-to-day basis.
Belize was due to commence a national census this month (May), but an early decision to postpone it until 2021 the government’s Statistical Institute of Belize had available resources.
An early decision by the government in late February to dedicate those resources toward combatting Covid19 proved to be a stroke of genius.
A small group of software developers, statisticians and health professionals got together and designed their own in-house tracking, tracing and reporting platform for Covid19, possibly one of the earliest such integrated efforts in the Americas.
This platform started with an application that allowed the field officers tasked with conducting the census into Covid-19 “field detectives” armed with tablets loaded with the institute’s state-of-the-art data gathering and reporting app Open Health.
These first responders and their health counterparts were able to interview “persons of Interest” based on their risk factors, and in real-time upload the data which allowed for a mapping of cases, contact and risk areas.
At the same time, the Ministry of Health’s hotline was armed with their version of the app and were able to convert data gathered from calls pertaining to symptoms and locations of persons of interest or other risks into the same common database.
As a third step, the team developed and launched a self-reporting app that allows citizens to report their own health condition, giving the government a broader view of public health, and the ability to identify risks that may not be captured by the field agent or the hotline.
All data from the self-reporting app goes directly into the common database and gives authorities a universal view of the health of the population, including those citizens that report no symptoms.
In the back-end, several initiatives were developed, including cross mapping among respondents from all sources against tracing data from known cases, a map of all respondents in real time, and an advanced statistical prediction tool that helps to match the Covid-19 risk level against the hospital capacity in each district in real time.
With Belize closing at only 18 cases of the Covid-19, and with no new cases for 28 days as of May 11, the country has been able to begin a gradual return to normalcy, with most businesses and government offices already re-opened — with legislated and enforced physical distancing — and mandatory use of face masks.
Work is already being done by the team to create modules that will allow for mandatory pre- and ongoing screening of returning nationals and visitors once the airport and borders open, and screening of the general population by increased teams of contact tracers once schools and larger gatherings resume.
Win a trip to Belize
Meanwhile the Belize Tourism Board is encouraging Canadians to plan travel post-Covid-19 as they currently stay home through “Dear Belize,” a virtual postcard campaign.
Past visitors and those dreaming to make their first trip to Belize can submit a virtual postcard that shares their love of the Central American destination.
Winners will be selected at random, but submissions will be shared on the Belize social media platforms to inspire creativity and engagement.
The winner will receive a free seven-night trip for two to Belize, including airfare, accommodations and ground transportation.
Belize is a popular vacation destination for Canadians due to its natural beauty and sunny weather — it’s home to the world’s largest Barrier Reef in the Northern Hemisphere and offers opportunities for eco-activities, cultural offerings and lodgings that range from luxury private-island resorts to jungle retreats.
Belize, otherwise known as “A Curious Place” also offers everything from archaeology to birding and caving to lush rainforests, waterfalls, Mayan ruins, dotted islets, incredible scuba-diving and of course, plenty of sea, sun and sand to help the lucky winner re-engage with nature post-Covid-19.
Submission examples and more information on how to enter can be found on the Dear Belize website.