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Combating Covid-19: Early days yet for the Caribbeanby Wendy C Grenade

The current moment is by far the most defining in modern history. The global community is engulfed in three major crises, which must be confronted simultaneously: the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a health crisis of enormous proportions.

As of 2 am CEST, 17 April 2020, there have been 2,074,529 confirmed cases of Covid-19, including 139,378 deaths reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO). While Covid-19 is claiming lives and wreaking havoc on health systems, its impact transcends the health sector. The virus has invaded the deep crevasses of the world economy, penetrating the bloodstream of economic life. Those two interlocking crises are ongoing against the backdrop of an existential climate crisis. What is at stake are lives, livelihoods and the survival of the natural environment.

There is no one ‘right’ approach to win the battle against this novel coronavirus. Governments worldwide are adopting a combination of measures, in very fluid circumstances, as they seek to do what seems almost impossible: save lives and preserve livelihoods, in a context where a delicate balancing act must be struck between the two. Some countries, such as Israel and New Zealand, opted for early border closures and required all persons entering their countries to self-isolate for 14 days. For New Zealand’s Prime Minister, “We must go hard and we must go early.” According to Newsroom, an independent, New Zealand-based news and current affairs site, when compared to 6 other countries of similar size, population, culture and region, New Zealand acted by far the earliest. The report argues that New Zealand has a chance to eradicate Covid-19, instead of just containing and managing it until a vaccine is developed.

Other countries, such as South Korea, focused on aggressive testing and contact tracing. This approach helped flatten the curve of infections and minimised the mortality rate, relative to the United States (US), for example. As at 17 April, 2020, there were 10,635 confirmed Covid-19 cases in South Korea and 230 deaths. Comparatively, there were 632,781 confirmed cases in the US and 28,221 deaths. Indeed, Covid-19 has exposed the contradictions of capitalism, where healthcare is often viewed, not as a right, but as a privilege for the minority who can afford it. At the federal level, the US’s response didn’t appear sufficiently proactive and seemingly incoherent at best. In keeping with the Trump administration’s ‘America First’, policy, the US President invoked the Korean war-era law, referred to as the Defence Protection Action of 1950. The Act authorises the president to use loans, direct purchases and other incentives to boost the production of critical goods and essential materials. Multiple countries have accused the Trump administration of unfairly acquiring equipment necessary for fighting Covid-19. In a similar vein, even in the midst of the global pandemic, the US president withdrew US contributions to the WHO, consistent with the Trump administration’s disregard for multilateralism.

On the other hand, the Government of Cuba continued its medical diplomacy, solidarity, and internationalist outlook by sending doctors as far away as Italy and nurses to several sister Caribbean countries. The Government of Venezuela too, although facing threats from the US, was able to donate testing kits and other medical supplies to some Caribbean countries.

Based on global trends, it is possible that Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) may become the next epicentre for the pandemic. As at 16 April, 2020, the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) reported that Brazil, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic had 28,320 8,225 and 3,755 confirmed cases and 1,736, 403 and 196 deaths respectively. As at that same date, Jamaica had reported 125 confirmed cases; Trinidad and Tobago 114; Barbados 75; Guyana 55; Bahamas 53; Haiti 43; Belize 18 and Suriname 10. Deaths range from 1 in Suriname, 2 in Belize, 3 in Haiti, 5 in Jamaica and Barbados, 6 in Guyana and 8 in Trinidad and Tobago. Except for Antigua and Barbuda, which reported 23 confirmed cases and 3 deaths, none of the other OECS countries has reported deaths due to Covid-19. To date, Dominica has reported 16 confirmed cases; St Lucia 15; Grenada and St Kitts and Nevis 14 each; St Vincent and the Grenadines 12 and Montserrat 11. On the relatively lower spectrum, to date (17 April 2020) Anguilla and British Virgin Islands have 3 confirmed cases and no deaths (See Miami Herald, 17 April 2020).

Globally, the current debate surrounds the modalities for easing restrictions and ending lock-downs to return to some semblance of ‘normality’. Public health experts are sounding caution as this novel coronavirus continues to baffle even the scientific community. For example, South Korea has reported over 100 cases where people have recovered from Covid-19 but have since tested positive for the disease again. It is uncertain whether the virus is being reactivated or if persons are being re-infected. It is also unclear whether relapse cases lead to secondary infection. The danger of opening-up prematurely can create new waves of the pandemic, which can be even more devasting. However, there could be grave economic fallout from prolonged lockdowns.

Small developing countries, such as those in Caricom, cannot afford any missteps as they manage the transition through various phases of the pandemic. In fact, the Director of PAHO, has warned that “Covid-19 has yet to hit with full force in our region, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean.” She expressed the view that following a period of social distancing, any attempt to transition to more flexible measures should be taken with extreme caution. She warned that such decisions should always be informed by disease transmission patterns, Covid-19 testing and contact tracing capacity, the availability of hospital beds, and other objective criteria (see St Lucia Times, 15 April, 2020). I am of the view that there must be a very gradual approach to easing border controls and physical distancing protocols. Above all else, priority must be containing the virus and saving lives. The dilemma is, on the one hand, the quest to save lives may jeopardise livelihoods. Yet, on the other hand, the imperative to preserve livelihoods may costs human lives. While economies can re-bound, lost lives unfortunately cannot.

For the Caribbean, these are early days yet. There are too many unknowns about Covid-19. We are not quite sure whether we are at the beginning, the middle or nearing the end of this initial phase in the fight against this invisible enemy. There is no place for complacency. In the coming weeks, Caribbean governments should increase testing and contact tracing (they should particularly monitor those who have been reported to have ‘recovered’). They should also reinforce physical distancing measures – not relax them. Those countries that have closed their borders should keep them closed (except for essential cargo or emergencies) until such time as there is some measure of certainty that the pandemic is contained globally.

Phases II and III would test the resilience of the small states in the Caribbean. As the world opens up, Caribbean citizens who were trapped overseas would return home (whether from vacation, cruiseship workers or students, etc.). Caribbean countries, particularly those overly-dependent on tourism, may be eager to invite visitors. The region would enter new phases in combating Covid-19. Additionally, in August, for instance, it is quite possible that an active hurricane season can collide with Covid-19 while the pandemic is at its peak in the region. This would be a triple catastrophic blow for already vulnerable Caribbean countries. Given the gravity of the situation and the non-discriminatory nature of the virus (i.e. it does not choose its victims based on race, class, age, gender or political party affiliation) there is urgency to democratise the response. This is no time for partisan politics. We are at our best collective selves when we confront challenges with a collective resolve. Ruling parties should have broad-based strategic teams that include health experts, opposition parties, trade unions, other civil society organisations, academics etc. There must be transparency. Information must be accurate and timely. Citizens must be reassured that decisions are being made in their best interests. At the same time, citizens should be responsible and adhere to the protocols established by the state, even as those stipulations go against entrenched social norms. In fact, freedom, not isolation/’bondage’, is the foundation on which our Caribbean civilisation is grounded. However, these are not normal times. To combat Covid-19, we need to suspend how we know how to live (enjoying our beaches, attending funerals, gatherings in rum shops and churches etc.) to ensure that, in as far as is possible, we collectively survive this deadly virus. And we will! The Caribbean has been seasoned through crises and we have developed, through time, resilience to withstand.

Finally, there is need for a regional approach. If the current global pandemic intensifies, it will be almost impossible for any Caribbean government to manage the crisis and the transition to ‘normality’ on its own. There is scope for dialogue and cooperation on several fronts: border restrictions, Caribbean transport, regional public health policy, procurement of health supplies and medical equipment, a multi-dimensional regional security policy (securitising health, economy, environment, food, along with national security). These are unprecedented times that require sound, decisive leadership, inclusive governance, civic responsibility and regional cooperation. Above all, hope must triumph over doubt, as we draw on our tradition of overcoming and our instinct to rebound.

Wendy C Grenade is a Grenadian, who is a Senior Lecturer in Political Science and Head, Department of Government, Sociology, Social Work and Psychology, The University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, Barbados.

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