Combatting COVID-19 in the Caribbean

April 13, 2020
The coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has spread to nearly every country, which is not surprising considering how globalized our international society has become. While the virus began in Wuhan China, Southern Europe, the Middle East, and the United States have quickly become their own epicenters of the exponentially increasing spread of the virus. While few COVID-19 cases have been identified in individuals with no obvious connections to individuals who may have been exposed to epicenters of the virus’s spread, nearly all of the affected individuals have some connection to an area of high exposure, though tracking the virus’s trail has become more and more convoluted as it is highly contagious and the virus is often carried for weeks in a human host before the affected individual recognizes any symptoms. Surely, a deadly, highly contagious disease would wreak havoc on any country— and it has. However, battling this coronavirus in the wake of natural disasters, corruption, and poverty makes the impact of the pandemic incredibly harmful to Caribbean nations.
As climate change increasingly affects the Caribbean with rising sea-levels, increased frequency and severity of storms, and changing agricultural conditions, food shortages are becoming an increasing concern. Haiti is one of the countries that is struggling the most with food shortages in the midst of the pandemic. The recent civil unrest in Haiti has made the crisis even more severe. Haitians have been protesting for the resignation of their President, Jovenel Moïse, with protests often turning violent. Prisons are overpopulated, commercial businesses ransacked, schools, banks, and streets are closed, along with increasing food, oil, and power shortages while the country faces an economic standstill (Ahmed, 2019). President Moïse has taken some of the strictest actions of Caribbean leaders in slowing the spread of the virus, but the country’s infrastructure is already in desperate need of repair. Haiti will be one of the 51 countries that the UN will assist with a $2 billion humanitarian fund (NBC Universal, 2020).
By the nature of the COVID-19, close contact between individuals allows the virus to spread much more rapidly. To combat this contagion, the WHO advises social distancing, and many countries are federally enforcing measures to allow for social distancing, for example shutting down all non-essential services and declaring a state of national emergency. While food production is considered an essential service, the output of food from the United States to anywhere in the world, including the Caribbean is slowing substantially. CARICOM, an international organization that promotes economic integration and cooperation between Caribbean countries, reported that 94% of the food consumed by its 15 country members including Haiti is sourced from the United States (Ewing-Chow, 2020). Not only are food imports slowing into the Caribbean, but Caribbean agricultural exports as well fall to the back burner as consumers around the world are choosing more non-perishable goods compared to fresh produce, a common export in the Caribbean. 
In Caribbean countries, not only has the agricultural industry suffered from the coronavirus pandemic, but tourism, one of the region’s most profitable industries has fallen immensely as governments create strict measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus, including closing borders. In Jamaica, tourism accounts for 58% of all foreign exchange earnings (Ewing-Chow, 2020). According to a Caribbean Economist and Advisor, Marla Dukharan, in a COVID-19 worst-case scenario, the Caribbean region could lose up to 83% of its tourism earnings (Ewing-Chow, 2020). 
While many of these countries have small amounts of patients identified to have COVID-19, the economic and political impacts of the virus could be just as extreme as the illness itself. The small country of Guyana was recently the location of a large oil find that brought hope to many Guyanese citizens that the fortune produced by the oil would help to bring the nation out of poverty. Now, the prices of oil are dropping as the international community reacts to the pandemic, and Guyana has closed its borders. Guyana, which has been debating the results of a controversial presidential election in early March has created mistrust of the administration and could allow those in power to strengthen the administration’s position by exploiting the needs of citizens combatting the coronavirus pandemic. This could be the case in many countries in the Caribbean, including Haiti, where an authoritarian leader is able to control a country’s citizens by offering life-saving protection.
While much of the news regarding the COVID-19 virus is negative, and the Caribbean has much potential to experience devastating outcomes from the pandemic, some Caribbean islands, businesses, and individuals are better equipped to fight the virus and offer support than many larger countries. Cuba, for example, has an exceptional healthcare system compared to what many consider other “first-world” nations, including the U.S. Cuba, also has a history of medical diplomacy, often sending doctors to countries in need to offer disaster relief and healthcare to communities that may not have access to such services. Cuba has sent healthcare workers to Italy, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Suriname, Jamaica, and Grenada to help fight the coronavirus. Cuban medical teams even constructed a field hospital in Lombardy, Italy, one of the areas most affected by the virus (Oppmann, 2020). Caribbean businesses as well are working to support those hurt by the coronavirus pandemic. The Treasure Beach Hydroponic Farmers group in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, for example, donated nearly 95% of its $75,000 tomato harvest to government quarantine facilities following the closure of the hospitality industry (Ewing-Chow, 2020).
The globalized nature of the coronavirus pandemic has created an unprecedented event in politics, economics, medicine, and public health. While the Caribbean is far from any current virus epicenters, these countries must be prepared to combat the worst, which could be a near economic shutdown of these countries. Despite the undeniably devastating impact of the virus, this pandemic has allowed Cuban doctors to be recognized for the international medical work of which they have been pioneers and may potentially force countries to increase domestic agricultural trade in lieu of . This may relieve the dependence of these countries on the U.S., and promote more self-sustaining economies.
 

REFERENCES

  1. Azam Ahmed. (2019 Sept 28). "Haiti Gripped by Violent Protests Amid Calls for President’s Ouster". The New York Times. Retrieved Monday, March 30, 2020.
  2. NBC Universal. (2020 Mar 30). "How COVID-19 Has Affected the Caribbean and Latin America". NBC 6 South Florida. Retrieved Tuesday, March 31, 2020.
  3. Daphne Ewing-Chow. (2020 Mar 31). "Five Ways That COVID-19 Has Changed What Food Insecurity Looks Like In The Caribbean". Forbes. Retrieved Tuesday, March 31, 2020.
  4. Patrick Oppmann,. (2020 Mar 26). "Coronavirus-hit countries are asking Cuba for medical help. Why is the US opposed?". CNN. Retrieved Tuesday, March 31, 2020.

About Author(s)

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Rachel Bierly
Rachel Bierly is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in Linguistics as well as pursuing minors in Spanish, Chinese and a certificate in Latin American Studies. Though her major is Linguistics, her focus lies in Latin American languages, culture, and politics. Rachel spent the summer of 2019 living and conducting research in Manizales, Colombia regarding the process of demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration for ex-guerrilla combatants. When Rachel is not working at Panoramas she enjoys traveling, learning new languages, and rock climbing. She hopes to one day use her experience to defend the rights of minority groups and underrepresented communities in the United States and Latin America.