In spite of the tireless efforts of this community’s usual heroes, we fear that many needy residents are falling through the cracks as the territory struggles to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
With characteristic enthusiasm, the same humanitarians who played a crucial role after Hurricane Irma have leapt back into action in recent weeks. They include non-profit organisations, public officers, newly formed aid groups and other volunteers, and they have been supported by generous donations from here and abroad.
But in spite of such laudable efforts, there are signs that all is not well. Some NPOs have been overwhelmed, and dozens of residents have complained that they don’t have food, medicine or other needed supplies, and can’t get through when they call busy aid hotlines.
Community members, meanwhile, have reported meeting residents who are unable to get food or who have been scrounging through dumpsters.
Unfortunately, such warning signs are hardly surprising. Though government has provided no statistics on unemployment, newly out-of-work residents almost certainly number in the thousands: As soon as the territory’s borders began to close last month, the tourism industry — which is the territory’s largest employer — effectively shut down.
Such widespread personal disasters have come at a time when many workers are still struggling to recover from Irma. Some, who were living paycheque to paycheque, have probably run out of money already. This means that they and their children might now have nothing to eat and no way to earn as they face a long road ahead.
This is to say nothing of the many seniors and other vulnerable residents — many of whom already struggle with health problems — who are suddenly housebound and might be reluctant to ask for help to get the care they need.
Others are effectively marooned. Expatriate work-permit holders might have no family members here and no way to get back home.
The NPOs shouldering much of the burden — including the Family Support Network and the BVI Red Cross — are not necessarily equipped to handle such a large-scale effort. And the fact that the United Kingdom and other countries are simultaneously undergoing their own coronavirus crises means that help from abroad is limited.
The ongoing relief efforts, then, will need to be continually expanded and strengthened with an eye toward the long term. The economic struggles, after all, might not abate for several months.
Government will need to take the lead, building on the relationships it has already been deepening with non-profit organisations and other partners in recent weeks. Our immediate wish-list for the way forward includes the following measures.
- The list of relief phone numbers should be extended so that anyone who calls can be heard straightaway, thus enabling cases to be prioritised efficiently and fairly.
- Deliveries should be expanded so that anyone in immediate need can get food and other supplies within a day.
- Besides the system supplying needy residents, a parallel delivery system should be implemented to efficiently and quickly cater to community members who are able to pay for supplies but don’t wish to leave home.
- Public officers who are unable to work at their regular jobs should continue to be redeployed to help with the relief effort in any way possible, whether it be through running deliveries or assisting in other areas.
- The many other residents who are anxious to help should be given an opportunity to provide labour and monetary donations through an avenue that will give them confidence that their contributions will be put to good use. This could mean establishing an independent pandemic response fund.
- A large-scale food bank should be continually expanded so that after the lockdown needy residents will have recourse.
- District committees should be formed as they were after Irma, with knowledgeable volunteer networks working to ensure that no one is left behind.
- Residents should redouble efforts to look out for neighbours in need.
- More churches should come on board, playing a more visible role in assisting the needy and promoting safe practices.
- The government should start planning how to assist the many unemployed expatriates after the lockdown ends. Given the high cost of living here, many may wish to return home, which they will have to do in any case if they are unable to find a job, but they might be unable even to afford the ticket.
Of course, we hope to see such humanitarian measures included in the comprehensive economic stimulus package that government has been promising for weeks.
Ultimately, however, the whole community must work together to ensure that no one is deprived of basic needs until the borders are back open and the economy regains a solid footing.
The current lockdown is probably only the beginning. The territory is now in the midst of a humanitarian crisis that is likely to get much worse before it gets better.