The University of Miami (UM) says Caribbean countries are exploring new ideas and directions in order to recover from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Due to its geographic terrain, the university said the Caribbean has fared “relatively well from a health standpoint in managing the COVID-19 virus.”
“Yet, the region has suffered economic devastation due to its historic dependence on trade and tourism,” said the university, referring to experts from the University of the West Indies (UWI), one of 14 member colleges of the Hemispheric University Consortium, which participated in a webinar hosted by the University of Miami Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas.
Felicia Knaul, director of UM’s Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas, economist and public health expert, moderated a virtual conversation together with three UWI representatives: Sandeep B. Maharaj, associate dean of distance education, projects and planning; Jan Yves Remy, an international trade lawyer and deputy director of the Shridath Ramphal Centre; and Clive Landis, pro-vice-chancellor for undergraduate studies and chair of the UWI COVID-19 Task Force.
Landis noted that the region has been developing its viral laboratories and improving testing systems in recent years and moved quickly to exploit its natural advantage—that many countries and territories are island nations—to limit spread, according to UM.
“Testing, contact tracing and isolation really working, and our testing capacity has been our backbone,” Landis said. “Some countries closed their borders before one death and some closed before one case; we were able to make use of the fact that we’re an island archipelago and get on top of this first wave.”
UM said the improved testing capacity owes in large part to the creation of the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA), which combined five regional health institutes into one entity that has been serving 24 Caribbean countries and territories since January 2013.
Maharaj pointed to data showing that CARPHA countries have fared better in terms of percentages of people infected – 0.3 percent compared with 0.7 percent globally; for those who have recovered – 77.1 compared with 64.7 percent worldwide.
Percentages of those who have died from COVID-19 were also less than global averages, said Maharau, noting that, despite the virus’s devastation, a number of successes have resulted,
He said migrant populations in Trinidad and Tobago and elsewhere are now starting to be served by the health system, the health system mobilized quickly and repurposed its workforce, and technology for telemedicine expanded.
“These shifts offer immense opportunity to change the Caribbean positively, but we must be able to continue to be innovative and creative as we move ahead,” Maharaj said.
Remy said that according to UM, that pre-existing challenges – such as the dependence on trade and foreign investment, particularly with the United States, and the fact that many Caribbean countries are debtor nations – have exacerbated the economic hardship.
She said the implementation of the US Defense Production Act in early April prompted a blockage of needed personal protection equipment and other medical supplies from the United States.
“The pandemic paralyzed the region’s export sectors, the tourism sector is decimated, and 50 percent of the workforce continues to struggle,” said Remy, noting that, unlike the United States, regional governments can offer little or no stimulus support to individuals.
Remy added that there is reason for optimism – “The nascent tech community showed creative solutions, especially for local banks,” said Remy, adding that “lots of companies are moving their brick-and-mortar stores online.”
“These are new opportunities,” she continued, stating also that the local rum industry repurposed alcohol to be used as much needed hand sanitizer.
“We’ve seen some great ideas, but we have to find ways to reclaim our industrial policy, better leverage trade agreements, and develop local capacity for food and medical responses,” Remy said. “We have to think about new economies to take our economies out of chronic debt and create viable new sectors.”
Remy stressed that the government cannot do this alone, stating that she was encouraged by actions from Huawei, the Chinese firm that has invested in the UWI innovation lab.
Both Landis and Knaul recognized the role that Barbados played in serving as an isolation center to help 11 cruise ships repatriate their COVID-19-infected crews, UM said.
“The fact that a small island nation did a global public good is something the world needs to hear about,” said Knaul said, stating that the ships utilized the hospital systems that are part of the UWI.
“So, this is a global debt to the Caribbean and to the UWI,” she said. “It’s another reason why we might think about debt relief for the region.”