Issued on: 30/06/2020 – 13:13Modified: 30/06/2020 – 13:13
Military aircraft began evacuating Covid-19 patients from French Guiana on Sunday in the latest sign that health services in the French overseas department are struggling to cope with a soaring number of coronavirus cases.
The patients were taken in a specially-equipped aircraft to other French territories in the Caribbean in order to ease the burden on French Guiana’s own hospitals.
“We absolutely must both strengthen the local health system, which we have done, but also very regularly allow patients to be evacuated outside of French Guiana,” said Clara De Bort, the director general of the territory’s health services.
“This of course allows these patients to be well taken care of, but also allows the health system to hold on,” she said.
Home to around 290,000 people, French Guiana, is located on the northeastern coast of South America, and like other French overseas territories it is an integral part of France.
But while most of France is now enjoying the freedoms that have come with the end of lockdown measures amid a dwindling of Covid-19 cases, in Guiana the number of virus patients is spiraling.
As of Friday, there were 3,270 confirmed cases in the territory, a rise of 237 in 24 hours.
The situation has prompted regional authorities to take drastic action.
Along with the medical evacuation flights, a field hospital has been set up in the capital Cayenne to treat non-Covid patients in order to free up more space in permanent hospitals to treat those with the virus, while volunteer medical staff and supplies have been sent from mainland France.
Meanwhile, the people of French Guiana have been placed back under lockdown. Bars and restaurants have been closed while a strict curfew is being enforced in the hardest-hit regions and local elections, held throughout France on Sunday, were postponed.
The spread of the virus has been put down in part to Guiana’s border with Brazil, which has the second-highest number of Covid-19 cases in the world at more than 1.3 million.
The main crossing between Guiana and Brazil, the Saint-Georges-de-l’Oyapock bridge, has now been closed. But authorities say controlling movement across the entire border is a big challenge.
”French Guiana is in a geographical area very much affected by the Covid-19 virus. We have … borders that are not easy to maintain,” said Annick Girardin, France’s minister for overseas territories, on a visit to Guiana last Tuesday.
“It’s easy to close a bridge, but we can’t do much more when we know the length of our borders with our neighbours. This health situation in Brazil, which has been very difficult and is still very difficult for Brazil, has indeed affected us as well.”
The situation in French Guiana could get worse before getting better, with Covid-19 cases not expected to peak in mid-July.