The 12 Caribbean countries and territories with the lowest number of active Covid-19 cases as of Oct. 12 were the Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat, Saba, St. Eustatius, St. Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. This commentary will consider these islands’ success and the challenges in preserving health versus wealth in the new Covid-19 environment.
While many countries are reporting increased cases of Covid-19, especially in the Americas and Europe, these 12 Caribbean countries and territories have demonstrated proven measures and have cause for great optimism. They have acted early and some have tested widely in the fight against the coronavirus disease, thereby successfully controlling or preventing widespread transmission. As of Oct. 12, in fact, six of the 12 had no known active Covid-19 cases: the VI, Anguilla, Grenada, Montserrat, Saba, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
The pandemic has truly tested the leadership and communication skills of government and frontline leaders. It has required them to demonstrate effective planning and compassion to see successful results amid the frustrations that many communities are feeling as the pandemic lingers with uncertainty around the globe.
Something has been done right in containing the coronavirus in each of the 12 Caribbean jurisdictions with the lowest active cases. Whether it was well-timed restrictions and lockdowns, effective contact tracing, widespread testing, or other health responses, one thing is certain: Something was done right to achieve successful results.
Covid-19 is not a matter of luck: It is a matter of decisive action by governments and citizens to save lives. Good health is a necessary condition to strive for wealth. The success of each jurisdiction must include swift decision-making, good management and sound planning. As World Health Organization Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom recently stated, “There are no shortcuts and no silver bullets. The answer is a comprehensive approach, using every tool in the toolbox.”
It is instructive to take a look at the response measures by some of these successful islands. Bermuda and the Cayman Islands have topped the Caribbean with the most testing for Covid-19 per capita. Strict lockdowns, school closures, the mandatory use of masks, and mandatory 14-day quarantines have all contributed to some of these islands’ successes. When fear kicked in, residents were discouraged from hoard shopping, and confidence was reassured by medical experts and government leaders.
The Cayman Islands went from strict lockdown to being able to relax restrictions after successfully managing its health crisis. Currently, Cayman residents are no longer restricted in their hours to shop, bank and leisure. However, there is a 500-person limit for gatherings.
The VI, which had seen a cluster of cases suspected to have originated with illegal entries, is now gradually reducing curfew restrictions and will open to visitors from Dec. 1. Just recently, private schools were allowed to reopen, and businesses were approved to operate with certain health protocols in place.
A great challenge will come when borders are fully opened. Some countries are using or are about to introduce high tech solutions to contain the virus while striking a balance with opening their economy to international travel. For instance, quarantine bracelets are being used in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands for self-quarantining people such as incoming passengers. Manual systems are now being transitioned to digital and contact-less systems when conducting business at the VI’s Department of Trade, Investment Promotion and Consumer Affairs.
The pandemic has certainly not been easy for anyone. While these islands are enjoying a “low-case-to-Covid-free” environment, the dark days of lockdown and hard restrictions are still a threat as cases continue to increase and economic fallouts linger globally. The dark truth is that no one truly knows how and when this virus spread will end.
What is success?
The world does not fully understand the long-term health effects for people who were infected with Covid-19. More advanced research is been done on the disease. The WHO has been advocating for countries to control transmission and save lives as a top priority. “Find, isolate, test and care for cases, and trace and quarantine their contacts,” the WHO director general said in a press conference.
Looking abroad, New Zealand has been widely credited for acting early and effectively against the disease. Likewise, the 12 Caribbean islands with the lowest active cases should also be lauded for managing the spread of the virus and saving lives.
However, saving lives may not be enough. Balancing health and wealth comes with criticism as government leaders juggle between health measures and economic fallout.
Countries are not being judged only by how they control the spread of the virus but also by how they handle the economic fallout that accompanies it. Take the United States, which is a major international trade partner in tourism and manufacturing for many of these Caribbean islands. The world is watching how the US is handling the pandemic as a general election looms next month.
Elections can pose a great opportunity to shift the blame of the economic fallout and loss of lives from Covid-19, while missing an opportunity to purely examine the pandemic for what it truly is. On the other hand, they can also provide an opportunity to present a case for better handling of the virus, which in the Caribbean has infected more than 238,000 people and caused more than 4,000 deaths.
The prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines reported in a radio interview this month that from Jan. 1 to Aug. 31, cumulatively, the government collected more in revenue and grants for this year at EC$402 million, an increase by 3.4 percent from 2019. The figure for 2019 was EC$388 million. However, capital expenditure has gone up by 126 percent, and revenue had increased by 9.5 percent in the first quarter before the pandemic. The economic performance for April was even, slightly down compared to 2019. For the month of May, 20 percent less revenue was collected than in May 2019, while eight percent less than June 2019 was collected in June of this year. July was even, while the month of August saw a big rebound, the interview revealed. There are zero active Covid-19 cases in St. Vincent and the Grenadines amid campaigns for a general election, which will be held on Nov. 5.
Struggles in St. Lucia
St. Lucia has the lowest number of confirmed cases in the Caribbean per capita. However, the country’s financial situation is concerning. Last Sunday, Prime Minister Allen Chastanet revealed in a television broadcast, “It is no secret the government has exhausted all the efforts, all of the resources with the [National Insurance Corporation] and donor agencies to provide a social stabilisation programme for the public and for those persons who have lost their jobs. … We have no money. What we are hoping to do is to gain the strength of our economy so many persons can be re-employed.”
Meanwhile, we have seen other countries go from a flattened curve to a second and third wave. A few months ago, Belize and Trinidad and Tobago were applauded for keeping cases to near zero while infections increased elsewhere in the Caribbean. But now cases are climbing there. The pandemic faith of any country can change swiftly due to a combination of different events.