OECS urges region to pay heed to virus-related social issues

3D illustration of Coronavirus, virus which causes SARS and MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome
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By Orville Williams

The Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) is urging its members to adjust several socio-economic measures following the impact of Covid-19.

Head of the OECS’ Social Development Unit, Dr Grace Cornwall, says much emphasis has been placed on the economic impact, while there are several important social issues that also need to be addressed.

“With the effects of Covid, there are not just economic, but there are also social transformations which have taken place. Female-headed households, which are more vulnerable and poorer, are at risk of indeed becoming increasingly poorer, not having the necessary goods [and] access to the necessary services to sustain livelihoods.

“Then there is further poverty among rural families and our young people. The economic situations, as well as their social displacements, will cause and are beginning to have an adverse effect,” she said.

In the early days of the pandemic, there had been several reports of ineffective protocols that resulted in social displacements across the sub-region. These included restrictions on remittance services and senior citizens struggling to gain access, amid the public frenzy, to financial and other similar institutions.

Though these may sometimes be viewed as “small problems” in the bigger picture, Dr Cornwall says solutions to these and other issues are necessary in achieving a balanced societal approach.

“In the short term, we have to continue to reduce barriers to applying for and receiving social protection grants. We need to scale up supportive networks for vulnerable populations, such as psycho-social support, for our young people who may be contemplating suicide, for our elderly who need companionship at this time – and to promote messages that mitigate all forms of violence.

“Over a long term, our recovery process must look at developing and maintaining a national, central beneficiary list, using appropriate technology to facilitate quick responses and ease of expansion in times of emergency, without duplication of efforts.

“We need to be in a position to harmonise the registration of health professionals, beginning with specialised and scarce human resources. This will allow for ease of surge capacity for most-affected member states, should we be adversely affected in a thought-about second wave of the Covid,” she encouraged.

According to Dr Cornwall, the importance of reform in the education sector is another issue that requires significant attention.

As she reminded, “like other Caribbean countries, the countries in the OECS too closed their schools in mid-March and though we have included the online learning platforms, we are also seeing the real digital divide in the education experience – between those who have the technological devices and the associated [connectivity] in making learning an ongoing experience.” 

She says the solution to this conundrum is improving the capabilities of the participating groups and increasing access to the necessary technologies.

“The education or teaching profession – teachers and teachers who train – must focus on retooling and upskilling participants on special pedagogical skills; the use of e-platforms and resilience in education for transitioning to online [learning].

“Now is an opportunity for us to look critically at the strategy and reduce that divide, bearing in mind the various vulnerabilities that exist in our society,” Dr Cornwall explained.

Though her focus was primarily on the social impact of the pandemic, the economic impact and subsequent needs are not lost on Dr Cornwall.

 As she explained, “the regulation of social life and the closure of the tourism industry…has adversely affected the economy, at all levels. In fact, across the OECS, tourism-related industries account for nearly 46 percent of total employment.

“So, I want us now to have a real look at how the closure caused by Covid has literally transformed the economy. Not just for hoteliers, but also for the craft persons, for the persons involved in fisheries [and] for others involved in the creative industries; what this has done to real economic life.” Dr Cornwall was speaking during a recent webinar on regional Covid-19 social impact, recovery and resilience.

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