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Caribbean island states and COVID-19: re-building resilience

Posted on 30/04/2020
By Marlene Attzs

Caribbean Island States are characterised by, among many other things, small but growing populations, limited resources, remoteness, susceptibility to natural disasters, vulnerability to external shocks, excessive dependence on international trade, and fragile natural environments. For many Caribbean countries, a new year signals the start of a series of established annual events—from the respective country carnivals of exceptional revelry to the end of a flourishing tourist season that coincides with the winter season in North America and Europe. Such is the Caribbean reality to which many have grown accustomed.

The year 2020 beckons a different Caribbean truth. The entire region is grappling with COVID-19 and some unique challenges loom. Commodity-dependent islands such as Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana are reeling from the shock of oil prices that have plummeted beyond their wildest imagination. Given that the pandemic began to shut down global travel as early as December 2019, tourism-dependent islands did not have the kind of winter tourist season and revenue to which they’ve grown accustomed. Add to these novel challenges those that are not new: the imminent hurricane season that starts in June (the devastation of earlier years from which some Caribbean countries are still trying to recover), and the perennial social and economic challenges in the region—high levels of debt, poverty, unemployment, and crime.

‘It is well known that the poor suffer the most in times of disaster due to fewer—if any—safety nets.’

As seen around the world, local outbreaks of the coronavirus result in illness, quarantine, and in many cases, government-imposed ‘stay at home’ measures; these all affect hours worked and productivity. Public health services are at the forefront of the COVID-19 response but most countries in the region have little fiscal space to increase spending to the health sector and simultaneously support households. Islands that have weak public health infrastructure and large elderly populations are particularly at risk. The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean has predicted that ‘The effects of COVID-19 will cause the biggest recession that the region has suffered since 1914 and 1930.’

Caribbean countries need to begin contemplating what their development trajectory with COVID-19 looks like. It is well known that the poor suffer the most in times of disaster due to fewer—if any—safety nets. Women and children are also more at risk, especially in developing countries since they comprise a larger proportion of those living in poverty. Building multidimensional resilience should be a priority at this time; resilience, in this sense, is understood as a country’s (or individual’s) capacity to adapt and maintain an acceptable level of functioning when exposed to hazards.

‘This challenge should not be left solely to Governments, though they have a pivotal role to play’

COVID-19 is exposing many of the fault lines that could compromise sustainable development in this part of the world. Loss of jobs and slower economic activity could push more people into poverty; health care systems, which are under unimaginable strain at this time, may not be able to support the general health and wellness of the population, particularly the most vulnerable; and, while many schools have closed and lessons have moved online, inequities and inequalities in education might be exacerbated due to unequal digital access.

The road ahead in rebuilding Caribbean island states will be challenging. I see it as a marathon as opposed to a sprint—it will be achieved over the medium to long-term.  This challenge should not be left solely to Governments, though they have a pivotal role to play in terms of ensuring the availability of, and access to, public goods and services. Caribbean community-based and non-governmental organisations are vital allies in the process of recovery and resilience-building since they are closer to the pulse on the ground and can identify where interventions might be most effective. To ensure we do not rebuild our vulnerabilities and that we embed resilience—now, more than ever—Caribbean civil society should be integral to policy-making and planning.

Dr Marlene Attzs is an economist and a Civil Society Advisory Governor on the Foundation’s Board.