UPDATE: Several Caribbean countries have now reported cases of COVID-19.

Alicia Nicholls

Let me preface this brief article by stating that to date there has as yet been no confirmed case of COVID-19 – the official name given to the novel coronavirus – in any English-speaking Caribbean country. This, nonetheless, does not deny the region’s vulnerability to the shockwaves of the virus’ increasing global spread and concomitant potential impact on global trade, travel and the global economy, on a whole. Besides the possible human impact, Caribbean small open economies – reliant on tourism and trade for our ‘bread and butter’- could be severely impacted by the current outbreak.  

Global impact to date

The COVID-19 virus, which is suspected to have originated with bats, was first reported in Wuhan Province, China in December 2019. At the end of January 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) – the United Nations (UN) specialised agency in charge of public health matters – declared the outbreak of COVID-19 to be a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’ and issued a set of Temporary Recommendations. According to the latest press briefing of February 28, 2020 by Director General of the WHO, “outside of China, there are now 4351 cases in 49 countries, and 67 deaths”. Further, the WHO has increased its assessment of the risk of spread and the risk of impact of COVID-19 to “very high at a global level”.

Last week, coronavirus fears caused stock markets to suffer their worst crash since the financial crisis, while the International Energy Agency (IEA) has predicted that reduced Chinese demand for crude oil will lead to the first quarterly decline in global oil demand in over a decade. China – the worst affected country to date by the virus – is expected to see a slowing in its GDP growth to 5.6%, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Potential Impact on the Caribbean

While there has not yet been any confirmed case of COVID-19 in the Caribbean, the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) has upgraded the risk of COVID-19 transmission from low to “moderate to high”.

Of major concern to the majority tourism-dependent countries of the Caribbean is that cases of the disease have appeared in our major tourist markets – the United States, United Kingdom, and parts of Continental Europe which have direct flights to the region.  Naturally, the biggest concern is the possible loss of life, particularly for those persons with impaired immune systems, if the virus outbreak reaches the region. The virus’ estimated 1% fatality rate makes it deadlier than the flu, which is known to kill hundreds of thousands each year. Aside from the very real human impact, there is also the economic impact that could arise from loss of productivity, businesses’ loss of revenue and reduced output.

It should be noted, however, that even if the virus outbreak does not directly reach the region, we could possibly still be impacted negatively. For example, even though the Caribbean is currently COVID-19 free, the spread of ‘fake news’ may deter persons from travelling to the region, robbing these countries of potential tourist arrivals and needed foreign exchange. This has implications for countries like Barbados, for example, which in January this year launched a year-long home-coming called “WeGathering” which encourages its diaspora to come back to the island.

Another potential channel of impact for import-dependent Caribbean countries is from the interruption of global supply chains and impact on commodities prices. The outbreak is already having an impact on global shipping. One possible ‘benefit’ for oil-importing Caribbean countries is the slump in oil demand and reduction in oil prices, but this may negatively impact oil exporting countries like Trinidad & Tobago and now Guyana.

This, of course, is not the first nor will it be the last public health threat the Caribbean has faced. Readers would recall SARS (another type of coronavirus) outbreak, as well as the mosquito-borne diseases of Chikungunya and Zika several years ago. However, Caribbean leaders have rightly taken the COVID-19 threat seriously. Regional governments have so far adopted different responses to the threat, with policy responses ranging from quarantining to banning of travelers originating from outbreak countries, and in some cases, denying entry to cruise ships with cases of persons exhibiting symptoms of respiratory illness. CARICOM Heads of Government have called an emergency meeting in Barbados on March 1, to discuss the latest developments.

Both regionally and globally, cooperation among governments and with international agencies will be key to mitigating the virus’ spread and its economic impact.  In a joint statement by the WHO and UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), the two agencies called for cooperation and argued that tourism’s response “needs to be measured and consistent, proportionate to the public health threat”.

Similar sentiments were made by IMF Managing Director, Kristalina Georgieva to the G20 on the economic impact of COVID-19. The Managing Director noted while various scenarios could occur, under the IMF’s current baseline scenario “global growth for 2020 would be about 0.1 percentage points lower” than the 3.3 percent global growth the IMF forecast in January. She further advised that “global cooperation is essential to the containment of the COVID-19 and its economic impact, particularly if the outbreak turns out to be more persistent and widespread.”

Caribbean officials will be forced to play the delicate balancing act between not overreacting and exacerbating the situation, but also seeking to do their utmost best to protect public safety within the limits of their public health infrastructure and capacity.  Timely communication with the public on, for example, their pandemic preparedness, will be necessary.

We as citizens also have our part to play by observing hygiene best practices to prevent or mitigate the virus’ spread should it reach our region. Moreover, in light of the potential for “fake news”, it is incumbent that citizens be discerning about our information sources and rely only on official sources such as the WHO and associated regional bodies like CARPHA and PAHO.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed herein are her personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of any institution or entity with which she may be affiliated from time to time.