Elizabeth Morgan | CARICOM dealing with COVID-19 repercussions
Since March 11, when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, member states of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) moved from preparation to response in association with the Caribbean Regional Public Health Agency (CARPHA) supported by the WHO and its regional office, the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), headquartered in Washington, DC.
A May 5 article from the Caribbean Tourism Organization states that the Caribbean has been able to contain the COVID-19 spread, meaning that the region can move into surveillance and a strategy for reopening economies. It is clear that everyone wants to move to a more normal situation, but this will have to be a balance between health and economics, with everyone cooperating. It will also depend on what is happening in our primary economic and development partner countries.
As elsewhere, to contain the virus, critical economic activities in CARICOM countries were drastically scaled down. Tourism, the mainstay of most economies, came to a halt. In addition, for those dependent on the oil industry, prices were declining due to oversupply in the market, compounded by the reduction in demand triggered by COVID-19 restrictions. This should have been beneficial for importers. Alumina, in countries like Jamaica, was already facing challenges. Seasonal workers going to the USA and Canada have been affected. We now know that large numbers of CARICOM nationals work on cruise ships, which are currently docked. With workers in the USA, Canada, and UK impacted, remittances are likely to be reduced. All major events, including international meetings, have been postponed or cancelled. Bear in mind that our major trading partners for imports and exports include the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and China, which are all under COVID restrictions. Thus, the GDP growth rate will be reduced, and let’s not forget that the hurricane season begins on June 1. Caribbean economic resilience is under pressure.
Since the start of this health and economic crisis, CARICOM heads have held 10 emergency virtual meetings. The most recent was on May 5. Heads have been working with experts to coordinate the region’s COVID-19 response and assess the economic fallout. They are now grappling with the question of easing the restrictions to revive economic activities. Along with meetings of the Council for Human and Social Development, the Council for Trade and Economic Development (COTED) agriculture ministers met, focusing on food security. The 50th meeting of COTED ministers was held on May 6, focusing on the strategy for reopening regional economies. The Council for Foreign and Community Relations also met virtually on May 7 to address coordinating vital foreign-policy issues. This is a time when CARICOM unity on social, trade, economic, and other foreign-policy issues is essential.
Whatever is said about COVID-19 containment, the region is not out of the woods. Given public-sensitisation campaigns, it is alarming at this point to hear of persons being unaware of COVID-19 precautions and indicating that their communities are still not prepared. Successful reopening at the national and regional levels requires citizens to be aware that COVID-19 will be here for a while, and it has to be managed effectively to enable economic activity. A vaccine could be more than a year away.
In addition, the reopening of the region depends on what happens in the major partner countries. Regardless of our interest in strengthening relations with countries of the South, our main economic partners are in North America and Europe. Our opening has to take account of theirs and their management of COVID-19. They are cautiously reopening, but strategies are controversial. Travel is also a concern – will the air and shipping lines be able to recover and travel revert to pre-COVID volumes? Will outsourcing and investment policies be revised to increase domestic production? Will more protectionist policies be implemented? CARICOM cannot yet be completely self-sufficient.
I will support Sir Ronald Sanders’ point that this is not the time for CARICOM members to reduce their presence in the world – if they could be considering such a move. The crisis in the world is not only driven by COVID-19, but by a crisis of leadership. With COVID-19, some are assessing that there is a leadership vacuum and seeking the opportunity to increase their profile. CARICOM, as a group, has to be vigilant and cannot depend on others to support or present their positions. They must be prepared and act jointly to promote their own interests.
Elizabeth Morgan is a specialist in international trade policy and international politics.