By David Jessop
No case of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) has been reported in the Caribbean. Despite this, misinformation continues to swirl. Amplified by social media and the willingness of some to ignore the facts provided by public health experts and medical professionals, the immediate danger is that unwarranted concern is being spread within the region and externally.
In reality, governments, the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) and other institutions are working in close co-ordination to try to ensure that every country is prepared to protect citizens, address issues as they arise, and to devise communications strategies.
To this end, PAHO’s virology specialists have been ensuring that Caribbean laboratory technicians are trained and equipped to identify and respond to any imported cases; Health Ministers and Tourism Ministers have been engaged in near daily conversations about the need for closer regional co-ordination; CARPHA is brokering information and sharing intelligence between global and local health authorities; and key industry bodies like the Caribbean Hotels and Tourism Association (CHTA) are working with their members to ensure that they are well informed.
In addition, at the time of writing, Caribbean countries including Antigua, Belize, The Bahamas, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Suriname, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Trinidad have imposed travel restrictions in the case of China – where the infection is now easing – while other nations in the region are conducting screening at all ports of entry and preparing their healthcare systems. In addition, some US cruise lines have been turned away from Caribbean ports when flu-like symptoms have been detected on board.
But as CARICOM and the region’s health agencies have observed, more needs to be done if there is to be a joined-up, commonly agreed pan-Caribbean co-ordinated response involving all governments.
The current emphasis is on stopping transmission, but PAHO stress that a multisectoral response is required to ensure strong surveillance, health service readiness, preventing the spread of the virus, and to maintain essential services.
Health and social implications apart, what is becoming apparent is that the economic impact on the Caribbean could be longer lasting than any direct effect of the virus.
If as the World Health Organisation (WHO) experts now predict, it cannot be contained, it is likely that COVID-19 will cause a shock to global economic growth. Because tourism benefits from the confidence that a vibrant world economy creates, even if the virus does not touch the region, it will have negative economic implications on the Caribbean because of its high dependence on its visitors’ willingness to travel.
The indications are that cruise and air travel are already being hit globally as new centres of infection emerge in Europe, North and South America, the far east and elsewhere. There is also evidence that business travel is being postponed and hotel cancellations are surging in infected areas of Europe.
Jamaica’s Minister of Tourism, Edmund Bartlett, says that responding will require leadership, timely and accurate information, close co-ordination at a national, regional and international level, and collaboration, if the region is to protect both its citizens and the tourism economy. He also notes the importance of the sector having a well prepared and measured response, and the need for multisectoral co-ordination between the health and tourism authorities.
Frank Comito, the CEO and Director General of CHTA, stresses the importance of a joined-up approach.
The private sector body is, he says, working to increase participation by the region’s hoteliers and tourism industry stakeholders in CARPHA’s Tourism Health Information System, which brings together health and tourism industry stakeholders to quickly identify and manage potential threats. “Recognising that COVID-19 may very well accelerate and touch every part of the world, we are hoping for the best, while planning for its potential emergence,” he observes.
Away from tourism, there are already indications that global supply chains are being disrupted, industries are having to temporarily lay off staff, and companies are warning stockholders that profitability may be affected. More generally, the IMF has cautioned that a slowing of global growth is now likely in 2020.
Reflecting this, the Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ) said recently that it expects COVID-19 to result in reduced export earnings, weakened production performance, and a falloff in investment flows given Jamaica’s and the region’s close economic ties to China. PIOJ’s Director General, Dr. Wayne Henry, said that he expected industries importing intermediate goods from China for construction, manufacturing, and mining, as well as exports including bauxite and alumina and consumer-related imports, all to suffer.
The Caribbean is open to the outside world, its citizens travel widely, it is more dependent on tourism than any other region, it hosts workers from around the world delivering a multitude of projects, and it continues to experience flows of economic migrants. Although this makes the region potentially vulnerable, islands and the absence of contiguous borders should mean that much of the region is better placed to be vigilant if every port of arrival is carefully monitored and the region as a whole can agree on joined-up health protocols.
Recent experience suggests that the Caribbean has an extraordinary resilience and ability to bounce back from a variety of crises. In recent years, the region has demonstrated its ability to recover from economic downturns, hurricanes, climate change-related phenomena such as sargassum and beach erosion, and for example reputational damage on social media caused by crime and visitor-related incidents.
While it is too early to fully grasp the impact of the virus, the challenge will be to return in the shortest possible time to normality, growth and development. In this respect, for tourism at least, the Caribbean response to a pandemic can be added to the issues that the Jamaica-based Global Centre for Tourism Resilience is seeking to address.
The threat of a COVID-19 global pandemic is immediate and must be taken seriously. It may be disruptive for citizens and visitors in the short term, but as with all similar events it will pass. Unfortunately, more telling may be the longer-term economic impact of a global slowdown on what had promised to be an economically positive year for the Caribbean.
David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at email@example.com.