Wed | Dec 8, 2021

Elizabeth Morgan | CARICOM’s urgent need to contain COVID-19

Published:Wednesday | March 10, 2021 | 12:10 AM
A staffer removes the five boxes of AstraZeneca vaccines, gifted to Jamaica from the Indian government, at the National Health Fund’s warehouse on Marcus Garvey Drive, Kingston, on Monday.
A staffer removes the five boxes of AstraZeneca vaccines, gifted to Jamaica from the Indian government, at the National Health Fund’s warehouse on Marcus Garvey Drive, Kingston, on Monday.

At the 32nd Intersessional Meeting of CARICOM Heads of Government chaired by Prime Minister Keith Rowley of Trinidad and Tobago, emphasis was on containing COVID-19 and on access to vaccines in order to begin the process of economic recovery. CARICOM heads issued a strong statement expressing their dissatisfaction and deep concern about the inequitable access to vaccines for small developing countries.

The spread of the virus, as we all know, remains a critical issue in this region. In fact, given the population sizes, the case numbers, over the year, are quite high, with Barbados having an estimated 3,300, Bahamas – 8,600, Belize – 12,335, Guyana – 8,900, Jamaica – 26,026, St Lucia – 3,803, Suriname – 9,000, and Trinidad and Tobago – 7,729.

The figures escalated over the last few months. The IMF, in February, considering this resurgence and its economic, social and human impact, revised its Caribbean growth projections downward for 2021. Most CARICOM countries do not have strong social security nets and the ability to provide additional stimulus packages.

Indiscipline has also contributed to this surge, failing to abide by the protocols requiring the wearing of masks, avoiding large crowds, and practising the required hygiene (washing/sanitising hands regularly). As Jamaica’s Minister of Health and Wellness Dr Christopher Tufton said in a recent video statement, there has to be personal responsibility for limiting the spread of this virus.

Barbados’ Chief Medical Officer Dr Kenneth George is reported expressing a similar sentiment. The responsibility does not belong to governments alone. The public’s contribution is necessary to stem the virus’ spread.

As the region awaits vaccines from the World Health Organization (WHO) COVAX Facility and the African Medical Supplies Platform, more gifts are now being received. It is reported that India has sent further supplies to Guyana, Jamaica, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Suriname. Guyana has also received the Sino-Pharm vaccine from China. It appears that Guyana has approved both the Chinese and Russian vaccines for use there, and Suriname is planning to take the vaccine developed in Cuba.

With the gifts already received from India, Barbados has now given vaccines to about 50,000 persons and other countries. Dominica, St Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago have started their vaccination programmes. Jamaica starts its vaccination drive.

The immediate concerns for every CARICOM country have to be acquiring enough vaccines from various sources and containing the spread of the virus until a significant portion of their population can be vaccinated to create herd immunity.

COUNTRY’S MAJOR CHALLENGE

A major challenge in every country, it seems, is having their residents understand the critical importance to them and to their economies of abiding by the protocols. This includes visiting members of the Caribbean diaspora, foreign workers, and tourists. It cannot be flouting rules, gathering for funerals, sporting events, and ‘lyming’ as usual. The choice, as already inadequate public health systems are further strained, could be your own demise and that of the economy.

As stated already by several institutions, the Caribbean has become the most tourism-dependent region in the world. The majority of visitors come from the USA and Canada. I noted that both countries, in addition to their requirements for re-entry, have included CARICOM members on the list of countries which their residents should avoid visiting.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists the following CARICOM countries as ‘very high risk’ for COVID-19 – Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Belize, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Suriname. Listed as ‘high’ risk are The Bahamas, Montserrat and Trinidad and Tobago. ‘Moderate’ risk are Dominica and Grenada. St Kitts-Nevis has only recorded 41 cases with 41 recoveries and no new cases.

Canada has advised its residents against all non-essential travel to the majority of CARICOM countries.

The USA and Canada have both acquired or ordered large quantities of vaccines and are progressing quite rapidly to fully vaccinate all their residents who want it. What happens if they are able to inoculate the majority of their population and CARICOM is not able to provide the vaccines at the similar pace?

What can be expected is that their travel advisories will remain in place and their residents will not be visiting the region in any significant numbers by air or sea. Projections are already for tourism not to recover until 2023. Let’s hope they do donate their excess vaccines within this region.

Jamaica’s Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett, in his article on Sunday, March 7, titled ‘Tourism, COVID-19 and the future’, which appeared in both The Gleaner and the Observer, while looking at the travel restrictions in the principal source markets and their implications for the region, was more concerned with the availability of vaccines. Though vaccines are important, I will quote from another article which also appeared in Sunday’s Observer by Dr Leon Wright, titled ‘Some right moves to tame COVID-19 in Jamaica’. Referring to the quarantine requirements in Canada for persons returning from Latin America and the Caribbean, Dr Wright states: “… Containing the spread of COVID-19 in Jamaica has become even more urgent and consequential. Those having an interest in the Jamaican tourism sector as investors, employees or as well-wishers, for the good and overall interest in the Jamaican economy, must now mobilise to galvanise the society around COVID-19 reduction strategies.”

I agree with Dr Wright, and this applies not only to Jamaica and the tourism sector, but to the CARICOM member states and their economies in general. Wear a mask or two, be physically distant, avoid crowds, and sanitise! Persevere with this reduction strategy in your own interest.

Elizabeth Morgan is a specialist in international trade policy and international politics. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.