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At his fortnightly COVID-19 briefing yesterday, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley and the other officials who addressed the media all emphasised the importance of maintaining public health protocols to prevent the coronavirus from overwhelming our population.

To the frustration of many, apart from extended opening hours for groceries and supermarkets for a stipulated period, no further loosening of restrictions was announced and the country’s borders are still closed.

But the sternest test of the systems implemented to keep COVID-19 at bay will occur in the days and weeks ahead. Traditionally a festive time of large gatherings and a range of communal activities focused on togetherness and sharing, Christmas will be different this year.

The reality is that 269 days after COVID-19 first entered this country, with 122 citizens lost to this disease so far and 722 active cases as of Saturday, even with the promise of a vaccine, the pandemic is not over. There is the ever-present danger of spread that could increase well beyond the capacity of T&T’s health system.

The prospects of resuming normal lives sooner rather than later require responsible behaviour now. Otherwise, a fresh wave of COVID-19 could sneak up on us just as it did on a completely oblivious world just over a year ago.

It was around this time last year when most of us were gearing up for the excitement and revelry of Christmas into Carnival, that the first human cases of COVID-19, were being reported by officials in Wuhan City, China, in December 2019.

More than 15,000 kilometres away from our shores in a wholesale food market, cases of pneumonia with an unknown cause, posed a medical mystery that has thrown all our lives into uncertainty.

SARS-CoV-2 was identified in early January and since then researchers have been able to look at its genomic features and come up with clues that have led, over many long months, to therapies and vaccines that may, in the not-too-distant future, bring an end to the pandemic.

However, the world has not yet arrived at that place and here in T&T, where the first case of COVID-19 was a 52-year-old national who returned home from Switzerland in mid-March, super spreader events could come masked as lavish Christmas celebrations. If that happens, plans for a careful, phased return to in-person classes in primary and secondary schools will have to be cancelled.

As it now stands, this country is just two or three irresponsible and illegal mass gatherings away from a public health crisis.

Pandemic fatigue may be setting in, there might be that strong yearning to get together with extended family and friends, to forget all the hard and bad times that have been piling up throughout this difficult year.

Unfortunately, those are the unguarded moments in which COVID-19 thrives and the T&T economy cannot survive a third wave of this coronavirus.

The bright and prosperous 2021 we are all praying for will be possible only if we plan a merry but physically distanced Christmas.

And don’t forget to wear your mask.