As the delta variant of COVID-19 rips across the globe—driving infection rates to record highs throughout Africa, Latin America and Asia—Caribbean leaders are pleading with the Biden administration for vaccines in order to avert total economic catastrophe.
The pandemic has already shrunk the region’s economy by 7%, with Caribbean island nations among the hardest hit.
Anton E. Edmunds represents St. Lucia, a former British colony in the Eastern Caribbean, as ambassador in Washington. He said his tiny nation’s tourism-dependent economy contracted by 18% last year as cruise-ship visits and direct flights dried up.
“For countries like mine that depend on tourism for 60% or 70% of employment, having the industry essentially shut down has crippled us,” he said. “Tourism is a major source of foreign exchange, so our ability to pay our bills is crimped, and one of the most significant elements of the pandemic has been the investments we’ve had to make in the health system. This forced us to take money away from economic development—smack in the middle of a hurricane season.”
This loss of jobs and diversion of revenues is a “horrendous byproduct” of the current pandemic, said Edmunds, former executive director and CEO of the since-disbanded nonprofit Caribbean-Central American Action before taking up his current post in September 2017.
Report: Sending vaccines to Caribbean ‘of strategic US importance’
Edmunds was one of four experts who appeared June 28 in an online discussion hosted by the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. Moderated by the center’s director, Jason Marczak, the webinar also featured James Walter “Wally” Brewster Jr., former US ambassador to the Dominican Republic, and James Fitzgerald, director of health systems and services at the Washington-based Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).
The event also coincided with the release of an issue brief, “The Strategic Importance of Sending US Vaccines to the Caribbean,” co-authored by Brewster and Wazim Mowla.
In early June, the Biden administration announced it would donate 25 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. Some 19 million of them were to be distributed via COVAX, an initiative backed by the World Health Organization. The vaccines are produced by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, but the program won’t include doses developed by AstraZeneca, which has not yet received US government approval.
PAHO’s Fitzgerald said “the Caribbean has made an enormous effort to secure vaccines” for its people. Even so, he warned, “we’re particularly concerned that health systems are already stressed. As this variant moves through the region, countries will be further stressed, increasing the impact it will have on hospitalizations.”
Earlier this year, Jamaica became the first country in the Caribbean to receive vaccines through COVAX. The March 15 arrival of 14,400 doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine is part of an overall allocation of 2.1 million doses destined for 15 Caribbean nations, according to PAHO.
Warding off an impending health catastrophe
Since the pandemic began early last year, nearly four million people have died, and 183 million have been infected,according to the World Health Organization. Among Caribbean nations, the Dominican Republic leads in total numbers of COVID-19 cases (326,193), followed by Cuba (193,945); Jamaica (50,166); Trinidad & Tobago (33,029); Suriname (21,936); Guyana (20,142); Haiti (18,658); Bahamas (12,735); St. Lucia (5,302) and Barbados (4,802).
The Dominican Republic has also reported the most deaths from coronavirus (3,840), followed by Cuba (1,302); Jamaica (1,080); Trinidad & Tobago (857); Suriname (531); Guyana (473); Haiti (436); Bahamas (246); St. Lucia (84), Barbados (47) St. Vincent (12), St. Kitts-Nevis (3) and Grenada (1). As a percentage of its population, the world’s most badly hit country by far has been Peru, with 593 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants.
Yet Haiti, a desperately poor nation of 11 million people, is seeing a sudden spike in coronavirus infections — even though it has yet to receive a single COVID vaccine. Local health officials are warning of a catastrophic wave of deaths for which the country is woefully unprepared to handle.
“Just as President Biden is doing, the leaders of Caribbean nations are trying to save the lives of their people by providing vaccines,” said Brewster. “As we saw deaths increasing in the United States, we knew how it felt. Well now, deaths are increasing in the Caribbean, so the question is: when are they actually going to get the vaccines? We have to break down bureaucracy and streamline the process. We need to get their orders quickly filled.”
Brewster added that helping Caribbean nations is vital to Washington’s own national interests.
“These countries are willing to pay. They just want access to the major vaccine manufacturers,” he said. “They don’t have the lobbying power or the buying power other nations might have. But as a group, they are critical for our security.”