An economic and social impact assessment evaluating the effects of the COVID-19 crisis on economies and populations of OECS Member States – A Product of the Economic Affairs and Regional Division of the OECS Secretariat
When the Ebola virus first emerged and appeared to constitute a grave threat to Africa and beyond, the OECS Ministers of Health, supported by the OECS Commission, acted speedily to take the necessary precautionary measures.
The OECS Pharmaceutical Procurement Service (PPS) arranged to source personal protective gear and supplies, a cohort of fifty (50) medical workers from all Member States of the OECS was trained in the treatment of Ebola and other infectious diseases at the Pedro Kouri National Institute of Tropical Medicine in Havana, and a SWOT Team of experienced medical doctors was on call in Havana to assist in any part of the OECS in which an outbreak was to appear.
Fortunately for us, Ebola did not reach the Caribbean and we were spared its ravages.
This experience, however, should have awoken us to the reality that pandemics are an ever present possibility in our time and that we should never let our guard down.
The preparations made yesterday, however adequate to the dangers of the moment, are no guarantee of prevention in the future. And the most dangerous perspective is the mindset that believes that precautions taken for a danger that never materialised were ultimately unnecessary.
David Deutsch posited that “No precautions, and no precautionary principle, can avoid problems that we do not yet foresee. We need a stance of problem-fixing, not just problem-avoidance.”
The emergence of COVID-19 (while foreseen by some like Bill Gates) and its impact were unimaginable in the minds of many public officials. The savage rapidity of its spread, the utter finality of its shutdown of the entire global economy, and the abrupt disruption of all dimensions of modern life were truly beyond the scope of policy planning and conceivable only in the macabre works of the imagination.
In the case of COVID-19, what was required was a stance of both problem-avoidance and problem fixing (except that the problem-fix is still a feverish work of scientific research). At the problem avoidance level, the governments of the OECS acted quickly and decisively – close monitoring of the spread on the global level, measures for early detection, early isolation, and early treatment with an escalating compendium of restrictions and precautions as the dynamic unfolded.
Although not described in the public domain, the governments of the Caribbean, and the OECS in particular, took bold and firm stances against the insistence of powerful economic actors, in cruise tourism for example, that sought to maintain business as usual in the face of threats unusual.
The results of this speak for themselves – as of the cut-off date of this report, the infection curve in the OECS was comparatively flat compared to international trends; there has been relative containment of imported cases (except for Martinique and Guadeloupe which, as part of France, experience a great volume of unrestricted travel between themselves and an open-borders Europe.
The vast majority of COVID-19-related deaths in the OECS have occurred in these two Member States). It is encouraging to note that, as of the cut-off date of this report, six (6) of the eleven (11) Member States of the OECS had zero deaths.
Problem-fixing, however, remains a much bigger and insurmountable problem because our economic and social landscape is now scorched earth in what we fervently hope is the imminent waning phase of the pandemic.
While we appear to have avoided the worst possibilities of the medical carnage, COVID-19 has been a perfect storm brewed from the sum of all our vulnerabilities.
While we are still hobbled with the residual impact of the last spate of hurricanes and the consequences of climate change, other structural vulnerabilities of size and disadvantage in an unsentimental world reduce our efforts to the labours of Sisyphus.
Progress on debt reduction is cut down by every climatic event, whether its onslaught is rapid or slow. COVID-19 brought it all to a surreal halt – it was Nature giving an existential exhale and the world entering a prolonged moment of stillness – no planes, no cars, no human movement; all enclosed in the entombment of our homes.
The world believes and waits for a cure or a vaccine that would “solve” this problem. Among the leaders of the OECS, while we hope for this solution, a practical and pragmatic approach to problem fixing for us means the distinct possibility of what Prime Minister Chastanet of Saint Lucia posited as “living with COVID”. Until (or if at all) that indeterminate moment when a definitive cure arrives, we must learn to live with this contagion and life must find its balance in a “New Normal”.
This study is the concerted effort by a dedicated transdisciplinary team of specialists at the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States Commission to contribute to that adjustment of life by documenting the impact of COVID-19. We expect that this analysis will illuminate the adjustments to the New Normal that we must implement if we are to survive or even thrive.
The report also recognises that the post-COVID-19 future for the OECS involves taking full advantage of the opportunity of its disruptions and the putting in place of nothing less than a different development paradigm characterised by the following elemental features:
- A far more diversified economy, with strong inter-sectoral linkages, that guarantees the capacity of the OECS as a region to be self-sustainable in its essential needs;
- Food security as a pillar of economic sustainability and a foundation for healthy lifestyles;
- Economic justice built on a foundation of greater productivity, entrepreneurial possibility, and wider economic participation;
- A more inclusive social safety net that guarantees against indigence and high levels of poverty;
- The reinvention of tourism in ways which enhance the visitor experience but with safeguards for health of both visitor and tourism workers;
- The reconfiguration of our healthcare systems around preventive rather than curative approaches at a primary level;
- A reimagined education system seamlessly incorporating different modalities of learning with a more comprehensive inter-disciplinary approach;
- Financial systems that are more inclusive with digital transactions, providing equitable access to capital at all levels;
- An acceleration of regional integration with stronger economies of scale, support to comparative advantages, rationalisation of resource constraints, and an inclusive dynamic that ensures shared benefits to all.
It is our hope and expectation that this document will stimulate intelligent and informed debate and collective brainstorming on the future that we all want.
Dr. Didacus Jules is the St. Lucian-born Director General of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States