Caribbean united in COVID-19 response

Regional experts discuss common approaches at UWI Vice-Chancellor’s Forum

As the COVID-19 virus continues to spread worldwide, creating grave health and economic challenges, the Caribbean is particularly vulnerable to its impact. However, the pandemic has given rise to many areas for collaboration among countries and agencies in the region.

Ambassador Dr. Richard Bernal, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Professor of Practice, Global Affairs of The UWI observed that the unfortunate challenge has actually brought the region closer together, noting that a number of coordinating meetings are taking place among regional institutions. He stated, “The existence and operation of regional institutions have made an important contribution to the fight against COVID-19 and this augers well for a more coordinated Caribbean-wide regional approach.” Ambassador Bernal chaired a Vice-Chancellor’s Forum hosted by The University of the West Indies (The UWI) on Friday, March 20, themed, Caribbean Unity or Plurality—The Regional Response To COVID-19. The virtual event which was the third on COVID-19, and initiated by The UWI Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, featured regional experts in a discussion on various national policies and partnerships in dealing with the virus across the Caribbean.

Dr. Douglas Slater, CARICOM Assistant Secretary-General, Human and Social Development started the discussion with an overview of some of the meetings organised by CARICOM to date. He assured that the organisation has been working as best as possible to have a coordinated approach, while respecting the rights of the member states to take individual action. Commenting on how countries in the region have been responding to the virus pandemic, he said, “We’ve seen very strong unity and the need for it. If it wasn’t there before we need it now.”

The other panelists included Dr. W. Warren Smith, President, Caribbean Development Bank; Dr. Joy St. John, Executive Director, Caribbean Public Health Agency; Professor Clive Landis, Chair, The UWI COVID-19 Task Force and Pro Vice-Chancellor, Undergraduate Studies, The UWI and Ambassador Dr. June Soomer, Secretary General, Association of Caribbean States.

Dr. W. Warren Smith outlined the impact already being felt by the region, stating “COVID-19 is exposing our vulnerability to external shocks.” He added that a critical issue is the extent to which countries’ foreign exchange reserves are resilient to the COVID fallout, noting that many of the region’s economies are small and open, dependent on a very narrow range of goods and services to generate foreign exchange earnings. Economies which rely heavily on the tourism sector and have little diversification in their economic sectors will be severely impacted. “This is not something that’s going to happen only in the future, it’s happening as we speak,” he said.

Echoing the need for partnership, Dr. Smith asserted, “This is a global crisis and as such it requires a global response with strong partnerships.” He advocated a regional approach as the Caribbean seeks to address the negative fallout from this crisis, explaining, “This will help to boost the size of the fiscal multiplier. It is a perfect opportunity to improve regional connectivity chains to help improve supply chain resilience at this time, particularly if our traditional source market capacities become constrained,” noted the CDB President. He divulged that CDB’s financial and technical assistance will be targeted towards the most vulnerable in our societies and highest priority will be given to strengthening social safety nets.

Dr. Joy St. John identified that CARPHA has a governance structure in place to address defense against the virus in the region. She said there has been organisation in not only preventing the importation of cases, but bringing order and coherence to the responses of the health and non-health sectors as the outbreak evolves. Speaking to CARPHA’s response, she noted that it has been providing general information through regular situation reports, guidance, testing and also coordination of communication. She commented that one of the aspects of unity in the region at this time, is demonstrated in a social media group of the Chief Medical Officers across the region, maintained by CARPHA. She says the officers are in touch daily and have been brought together in a way that she has never seen before—even in all her years as a CMO herself in Barbados some years ago.

Ambassador Dr. June Soomer clarified the role of the ACS (Association of Caribbean States), stating that it coordinates very practical issues, but most importantly it is able to manage all the environmental issues surrounding disaster risk reduction and COVID-19 falls into that category. Although it was not set up as a body to look at disaster risk management specifically, because we live in a very vulnerable area, the ACS has accumulated resources around the Caribbean for use in that area. Because of the ACS’ broad and diverse membership, it can draw on resources from a range of partners. She expressed also, that what is unique and unprecedented at this time is that the Chair of CARICOM (Barbados) is also currently the Chair of the ACS. Because of Barbados’ leadership in managing COVID within CARICOM, it is using that leadership around the Caribbean to ensure that the ACS is able to coordinate its programmes. She stated that the unity seen among CARICOM has also translated into the membership of the greater Caribbean, as responses from the greater Caribbean to assist come daily to the Secretariat and ACS serves to coordinate the framework for this assistance.

Professor Clive Landis explained that in the spirt of regional collaboration, the University assembled a UWI COVID-19 Task Force on February 29. In addition to coordinating the management of an internal response for the multi-campus University, it works together with regional players, providing expertise from its multi-discipline specialists. He affirmed that this collaborative approach is not new as The UWI has done it for many years in response to natural disasters in the Caribbean and also in its response to the Zika virus in 2016. Professor Landis concluded that whenever there’s a disaster in the Caribbean, unity prevails. He admitted he wishes to see the Caribbean take a global leadership role in demonstrating how collaboration can be enhanced because of its history of cooperation, when other countries have taken a position of using the tools and language of separation.

The forum, which was livestreamed on UWItv, will be rebroadcast on its cable channel on Flow EVO, on Friday, March 27, 2020 from 9:00 am (AST).

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