Adrienne, aged 28, tells Taylor Edgar about life on an Indian Ocean island with rampant Covid-19…plus and erupting vocano and dengue fever

The Indian Ocean island of La Reunion is feeling overwhelmed right now simultaneously dealing with 362 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and an outbreak of deadly dengue fever.

With so much disease to contend with, an eruption of the local volcano is relegated to almost sideshow status as the island finds limited island resources extremely stretched, with only 100 intensive care beds for the 860,000 inhabitants of this French département d'outre-mer (overseas administrative area).

Speaking from her home in La Reunion Island where she is in lockdown, 28-year-old Adrienne is concerned that fear is one of the biggest factors coming into play locally, especially among an island people that love local markets and regular family gatherings. 

“It's because of our insulation that we fear the dreadful consequences of a widespread epidemic in Reunion. We are far away from mainland France, and we can't really get help from other countries in the zone such as Mauritius and Madagascar, etc.. I believe that we are not confident in our ability to respond should there be a large number of Covid19 cases,” she states.

“For instance, we only have 100 beds in intensive care units for the whole island! Health care personnel are lacking masks and protective equipment...and we also have to deal with the dengue fever epidemic and the volcano 'Piton de la Fournaise' just erupted a few days ago. But no worries at all. It isn't a dangerous one, and there are several eruptions each year, which can often be seen from the road! But this time everyone has to stay at home.” Piton de la Fournaise is one of the most active volcanoes in the world.

In some ways, the volcanic eruption has been viewed as a welcome relief from Covid-19 and dengue fever. Explains Adrienne: “It's one of the things that we love about the island. It's an awesome thing to see the lava flowing down the mountains. Just this time, most of us weren't able to witness it, but only on TV.”

The island, which lies east of Madagascar and 175 km southwest of Mauritius off the coast of Africa, has received some assurances of help from France, including a naval ship, “Le Mistral”, the promise of medical face masks from the national reserve, and a variety of economic measures.

Meantime, the islanders are adjusting to medical response measures that are putting daily life on hold. For Adrienne, who returned to La Reunion in 2018 after studying and living abroad for several years, the confinement has meant postponing a house move and having a planned trip to mainland France next month scuppered after their flights were cancelled.

She told welovestornoway.com: “My life is very different now. For starters, I'm always home, as well as my partner who is working from home. I only go for a walk once a day, for one hour, and within 1 km from home, with the compulsory form and ID.

“My partner goes out shopping for groceries once a week alone. I don't see my family and friends anymore. We now talk on the phone.”

Like her fellow Reunion islanders, Adrienne has little choice but to take the Covid-19 response measures seriously when the island is so remote and relatively vulnerable. In addition to the usual measures to stay at home, work from home, hand washing, like mainland France, citizens of Reunion can only leave home for specific purposes and complete a form to do so.

“Measures have been implemented related to travelling and the airport. As one can note that 75% of Covid19 cases in La Reunion are imported, it was decided to restrict travelling and impose quarantine on those travellers arriving in Reunion. In order for them not to infect other people, they are now taken care of in centres and hotels for 14 days,” continues Adrienne.

The testing regime, which previously was limited to incoming people showing symptoms and their close relatives, has now been extended to include health care personnel and anyone with a referral from their GP.

“There are several testing centres now on the island. People stay in the car while getting tested, and the results are known within 24 hours,” remarks Adrienne.

With a population almost 32 times that of the Outer Hebrides, the findings on La Reunion have been that most Covid-19 cases have been ‘imported’ by people arriving from mainland France and elsewhere. Sixty-two people (as of April 8) have been diagnosed with Covid-19 because of a direct link with one of these infected people while only 23 people have tested positive after having no direct or indirect link with the people arriving from outside the island.

At present, 35 people have been hospitalised and four are in intensive care units. Forty people have fully recovered, and no one has died of Covid-19 so far.

Interestingly, 31 Covid-19 cases, 9% of the total, have been aged under 18 and 8% of people testing positive are over 65. Almost half of those affected by coronavirus (49%) are aged 18 to 50. The balance (34%) are in the 51 to 65 years age bracket. Worryingly, 41 of the Covid-19 cases are healthcare workers.

As a result of being contacted by welovestornoway.com, Adrienne did a little of her own research on the Outer Hebrides and any linkages with La Reunion. She was impressed by what she discovered, in particular the travel restrictions being imposed on ferry services.

She notes: “Solidarity between inhabitants is now at its highest. Initiatives have been taken in the Outer Hebrides but also in Reunion when it comes to shopping, for instance. I've read that in Coll, they had to develop an online shopping and delivery door-to-door system, and that to avoid large gatherings at the unique shop!”

It’s clear then that there is a very real affinity between fragile island communities, no matter their size. And a real sense of community and sticking together. 

Thomas Taylor Edgar