Caribbean island states are characterized by limited resources, remoteness, susceptibility to natural disasters, vulnerability to external shocks, excessive dependence on international trade, and fragile natural environments. For many of us, a new year brings a series of established annual events: the revelry of respective country carnivals and the end of a flourishing tourist season. Such is the Caribbean reality to which we have grown accustomed.
For many islands, climate change has increased reliance on imported food supply chains. But COVID-19 is causing many islands to take a second look at their local agricultural industries.
The year 2020 beckons a different Caribbean truth. The entire region is grappling with COVID-19, and some unique challenges loom. Commodity-dependent nations such as Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana are reeling from the shock of plummeting oil prices. Given that the health crisis began to shut down global travel as early as December 2019, tourism-dependent islands did not have the kind of winter tourist season they had planned.
Add to these novel challenges those that are not new: the imminent hurricane season that starts in June — with some Caribbean countries still trying to recover from the devastation of earlier years — and the perennial social and economic challenges of high debt, poverty, unemployment, and crime.
Caribbean nations need to begin contemplating what their development trajectory with the coronavirus looks like. It is well known that the poor suffer the most in times of disaster due to fewer — if any — safety nets. Women and children are also more at risk — especially in developing countries, since they comprise a larger proportion of those living in poverty. Building multidimensional resilience should be a priority at this time.
This challenge should not be left solely to governments, though they have a pivotal role in ensuring the availability of and access to public goods and services. Caribbean civil society organizations, and the community-based organizations among them, are vital allies in the process of recovery and resilience-building since they are closer to the reality on the ground and can identify where interventions might be most effective.
Here is what Caribbean civil society is doing and can do to make a difference:
1. The vital stimulus and support packages being introduced by finance ministers must be scrutinized by civil society so they reach the most vulnerable and do not entrench inequality. Often, those most in need of financial support are either unaware of how to access it or may be unable to provide the paperwork to meet eligibility requirements. CSOs can help vulnerable people navigate access to this support, and the work currently being done by GROOTS Trinidad and Tobago provides an excellent model for this.
2. Many Caribbean countries have seen abrupt disruptions to education since COVID-19 struck. As schools shut, parents were thrust into the role of teacher without necessarily possessing the requisite skills and knowledge. The Homeschool Association of Trinidad and Tobago is an organization committed to sharing information on home schooling and connecting home-schooling families — a valuable resource that is accessible to anyone on Facebook.
Online resources such as this are vital, and so addressing the digital divide is more important now than ever. As a first step, civil society must advocate for the kinds of measures introduced in countries like South Africa and the U.K., where the state, civil society, and private sectors have worked together to provide free access to educational resources, ”#datafree” links, and access to digital devices.
3. Caribbean CSOs have rallied as front-line support groups during this crisis, and continuing to do this will be invaluable. In Jamaica, the Pan American Health Organization, in partnership with UNAIDS, has been training members of 11 CSOs on the proper use of personal protective equipment and on infection prevention and control to better support the communities they work with. In Trinidad and Tobago, the Women’s Institute for Alternative Development has partnered with a large security conglomerate to produce over 1400 masks by distributing sewing machines and material to project participants.
4. Social unrest in Venezuela, coupled with increased economic hardship, has resulted in mass migration from that country to the Caribbean. During the lockdown, many migrants have lost their jobs, adding to the stress of living in a foreign land in which they are often linguistically isolated. Families in Action has provided an excellent model for addressing this problem via its You Are Not Alone project, which is providing a 24-hour help line in English and Spanish for migrants in Trinidad and Tobago.
This is just a sample of the vital difference that Caribbean CSOs are making. The road ahead will be challenging. I see it as a marathon; it will be achieved over the medium-to-long term. But now more than ever, Caribbean civil society is needed to ensure that we do not rebuild our vulnerabilities and that we embed resilience.
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