Covid-19, the Caribbean and what comes next (Part II)

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By Scott B. MacDonald

There is also a geopolitical element in all of this – China has been active throughout the Caribbean in providing medical equipment and advice to deal with Covid-19. Its major state-owned banks, including the Industrial Commercial Bank of China (the world’s largest bank by assets at $3.5 trillion), China Development Bank, and China EXIM Bank, are opening up branches in Panama to better service the region. China has an opportunity to build on its reputation as a good partner during a time of crisis.

Two countries that are likely to have a harder time riding through the Covid-19 crisis on the political front are Cuba and Haiti. The latter has already received prompt assistance from the World Bank and the government has taken a number of measures to deal with the situation, including the closing of schools, vocational centres and factories and land borders. This represents a tough challenge to a Haitian government that already struggles to maintain daily law and order, and is one of the poorest in Western Hemisphere. To put it mildly, Covid-19 is only one of many problems facing the country, which has been politically explosive during the last two years.

Cuba represents a different challenge. Prior to Covid-19 the economy was struggling under the weight of poorly-run state-owned enterprises, a radical reduction of assistance from Venezuela (itself in a state of economic collapse), and a substantial downturn in medical service revenues, a major foreign exchange earner. The tourist sector, central to the economy and important for employment, was already suffering from the Trump administration’s reduction of access to the island. Covid-19 has only added to the misery. Consequently, many Cubans feel that the island has gone back to the so-called Special Period, a brutal almost decades-long downturn following the end of the Soviet Union and the end of being subsidised by the Russians. Although Cuba is not likely to experience any massive political upheaval, the government’s legitimacy continues to erode due to the country’s economic mismanagement and the impact of the U.S. embargo. Moreover, food security is increasingly an issue as the once world power in the sugar economy now imports a large portion of its food. Does the Cuban communist government further turn to China and Russia for help?

The U.S. policy response for the Caribbean includes providing $3 million from the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to Barbados, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) to boost capacity to support countries in the Eastern Caribbean. The nearly $1 million for CARPHA and the Eastern Caribbean, including $400,000 for Barbados, is earmarked for infection prevention, laboratory systems and supplies including testing kits and swabs, and staffing and data management. While this support and other help is appreciated, in a grander scale, it is meagre.

From a Caribbean viewpoint, what is most disappointing is the lack of U.S. leadership on dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and Washington’s continued geopolitical hardball over the role of China and its “allies” (like Cuba) in the region. While U.S. leadership argued over whether or not facemasks were a good idea, China was sending facemasks and other medical equipment to the Caribbean. At the same time, Cuba found its doctors and medical help being requested by a number of Caribbean countries, including Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago.

The Caribbean faces a radically different world since January 2020. At the beginning of the year, the region was on an upswing, with the tourist sector looking to a strong world economy and commodity prices seemingly lined up for increases. By mid-2020 the entire region faces steep economic contractions, higher unemployment, and pressures on debt management. If nothing else, Covid-19 underlined the risks of small, open economies, dependent on the fortunes of larger economic actors, such as the United States and Europe. With few exceptions, regional leadership has stepped up and there is a greater awareness of the need to better use regional organisations like CARICOM to pool resources and tackle issues such as food security. 2020 has thus far been a horrible year for the Caribbean, but the region has managed itself well thus far. With a little help, it can manage its way to a recovery.

Thoughts and views expressed in guest editorials do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Observer NewsCo, its management or staff.

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