This blog is being written before the full report of a specially convened meeting of CARICOM Heads of Government on April 15 to discuss the Regional response to COVID 19, is available. A CARICOM Secretariat press release (March 16) highlights some of the major proposals that revolve around a common public health policy, food security, inter-regional transportation, threats to security, building a robust digital architecture to facilitate commerce and assist in the fight against the virus.
The Blog is inspired by the view of CARICOM Chair and convener of the special meeting, Barbados Prime Minister, Mia Mottley. It is that "the community is being confronted with a virtual reality beyond the physical boundaries of its sovereign states". Her implicit conceptualization of the solution brings into sharp focus the prospects of the Region's collectively planning to overcome the threat of COVID 19 to lives and livelihoods in the Caribbean. She sees this as a trigger for sharpening the reality of functional cooperation and acting as a spur to an accelerated quest toward a genuine single market and economy. The Special CARICOM conference coincided with a session of the IMF-World Bank Spring Meetings (March 15) on actions to save lives globally and protect livelihoods with targeted fiscal measures. Both conferences conducted virtually, provide an indication of the new normal for governance and decision making.
In her address to the opening press conference of the IMF-World Bank meeting, Kristalina Georgieva, IMF Managing Director reinforced the extraordinary uncertainty about the depth and duration of this crisis. Referring to the World Economic Outlook, she said that it is already clear that global growth will turn sharply negative in 2020, leading to the worst economic fallout since the Great Depression. In the previous quarter, January-March, per capita income growth was expected in over 160 of IMF member countries in 2020. “Today, that number has been turned on its head: we now project that over 170 countries will experience negative per capita income growth this year. The bleak outlook applies to advanced and developing economies alike. This crisis knows no boundaries. Everybody hurts.”
This is no doubt, the virtual reality to which PM Mottley refers. It is a realization that the health crisis will hit vulnerable people hardest and the economic crisis will have severest impact on vulnerable countries. And this means that CARICOM countries will be exposed to massive external pressure, dangerously exposed to the ongoing demand and supply shocks, drastic tightening in financial conditions and the reduction in remittances. Some may face unsustainable debt burdens.
It is the widely accepted view that the response to the coronavirus will be fully resolved only when enough people are immune to the disease to blunt transmission, either from a vaccine or direct exposure. Until then, it is evident that governments that want to restart their economies must have public-health systems that are strong enough to detect and respond to cases. A template by the World Health Organization (WHO) based on empirical observation illustrates the disease progression by phases and responses.
Listening to International Experts without neglecting regional expertise
Taking a different angle, the Brookings Institute (March 2, 2020) reveals the many channels through which an infectious disease outbreak influences the economy. Direct and indirect economic costs of illness are often the subject of the health economic studies on the burden of disease. The conventional approach uses information on deaths (mortality) and illness that prevents work (morbidity) to estimate the loss of future income due to death and disability. Losses of time and income by those infected and direct expenditure on medical care and supporting services are added to obtain the estimate of the economic costs associated with the disease. However, this conventional approach underestimates the true economic costs of infectious diseases like COVID 19 and before, SARS. and HIV. These are all of epidemic proportions which are highly transmissible and for which there is no vaccine.
In the Caribbean, a study by UWI (Trinidad and Tobago) Health Economics Unit in 2000 led by Prof Karl Theodore, sensitized CARICOM Heads of Government to the exceptional costs of HIV as a percentage of GDP that jolted the region into action. This included the establishment of the Pan Caribbean Partnership against HIV (PANCAP) on February 14, 2001.
The seminal Report of the CARICOM Commission on Health and Development 2005 , Chaired by Sir George Alleyne did the same for our understanding the macroeconomic implications of the Non Communicable Diseases (NCDs). It triggered the Port of Spain Declaration (2007), "Unite to Fight the NCDs" and a worldwide movement on the wellness revolution through advocacy at the levels of the Commonwealth Heads of Government and the United Nations General Assembly. Both HIV and NCDs reflect the principles of Test, Treat and Defeat a response actually coined by Professor Clive Landis one of the current researchers on the UWI COVID 19 Task Force. An emerging slogan in this contemporary fight is: Test, Trace and Treat.
The experience from the response to previous disease outbreaks includes success through collective action. The Caribbean region was the first in the Americas to eliminate poliomyelitis and the first to eliminate indigenous measles and rubella. This among others, must have provided useful lessons about mitigating and containing the coronavirus. It is heartening to note that CARICOM Heads from what we have so far learned, have placed emphasis on:
Equally important is the recommendation for a collective approach to the international institutions for addressing the financial challenges, placing emphasis on vulnerability over GDP. The allocation of an initial package of US$140 million by the Caribbean Development Bank which follows this principle is invaluable. It is intended to provide assistance to its borrowing member states coping with COVID-19. According to CDB President, Dr. Warren Smith, "this assistance is directed mainly towards the most vulnerable within our societies and giving the highest priority to strengthening social safety nets”.
Good practices and innovations within the region — Jamaica an Outlier
Most Caribbean countries have been responding with varying formulae to mitigate the economic fallout from the coronavirus. However, the most comprehensive that we have come across is the Jamaica government’s J$25-billion fiscal stimulus package announced by the Minister of Finance to cushion the impact on businesses, creative industries, workers and the vulnerable groups including the elderly. Heralded both nationally and internationally is Jamaica's robust health programme for prevention and mitigation; its sharing information and public awareness; strict enforcement of physical distance and protection for frontline workers; and making provision for quarantine facilities.
Innovations are also to be highlighted. University of Technology (UTech) student in Jamaica, Rayvon Stewart has produced XERMOSOL , an ultraviolet technology which field and laboratory tests have found to be efficient in killing about 99.9 per cent of deadly pathogens found on doorknobs, thereby reducing the spread of bacteria. This invention may prove to be as a possible key weapon in the fight against COVID-19. It is also worth noting the gumption of two Jamaica young inventors. With the assistance of UWI Engineering faculty and UWI Hospital in Jamaica, they have used their creative talents to build ventilators and develop 3D face shields https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q9Au4TY8yG4
On Easter Sunday night, Jamaica again demonstrated to the world its creative talents. Undaunted by the challenges, and supported by the Government in partnership with the Private Sector, its producers master minded and its artists delivered a spectacular virtual mega concert. It was dubbed “Jamaica together we stand” and connected Diasporans in Europe, North America and throughout the Caribbean raising over US$10 million to support frontline workers in Jamaica.
It is increasingly clear that this new decade will be defined by an unprecedented new reality. We are enveloped by a new normal. It is most likely to usher forms of engagements that diverge from those which previously shaped our lives. Hopefully the contours of the regional discourse on COVID -19 convened by Prime Minister Mottley, will inspire CARICOM Leaders and citizens to let virtual reality trump national sovereignty.