COVID-19 in the Caribbean: So Open, so Vulnerable

By Bert Hoffmann*

rows of empty beach chairs in Jamaica

Beach in Jamaica/ Marc Veraart/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

In the Caribbean, the COVID-19 crisis hits some of the world’s most open, specialized economies, forcing the region to rethink its development model. Eleven of the world’s 20 most tourism-dependent nations are in the Caribbean. The collapse of this sector leaves the import-dependent island states extremely vulnerable beyond the immediate health crisis and beyond the social and economic fallout from the current “shelter in place” rules and lock-down measures.

  • For most Caribbean nations, tourism is by far the most important economic activity. In small states like Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua and Barbuda, and the Bahamas, tourism makes up more than 40 percent of GDP. In bigger countries like Jamaica, it accounts for more than half of exports and employs almost a third of the workforce. Many in the tourism industry cling to hopes of a speedy recovery, but this is not likely. Travelers’ confidence in cruise ships and exotic flight destinations will not fully rebound before vaccinations against the virus become readily available. Not only the low season this summer is lost, but also much of the crucial winter season.
  • The pandemic is also going to slash remittances from Caribbean emigrants. Most states have sizeable diaspora communities, and money transfers from abroad are a vital part of their economies. Unlike in the aftermath of hurricanes, migrants in the United States, Europe, or neighboring islands are affected by the same crisis. Many will also cancel visits “home.”

Current social policy measures may be able to mitigate some of the hardship, but foreign exchange buffers are hardly sufficient to maintain these on such a scale over a long time. Largely agricultural countries decades ago, most of the region today imports more than half the food they consume – seven CARICOM countries even more than 80 percent. With global supply chains and food production in the United States disrupted, imported food prices will rise. Reviving local farm tradition passes from a “romantic” niche concern to being a key issue of social policy.

  • In the Caribbean’s non-sovereign territories, the crisis underscores their population’s dependence on the welfare systems of the United States, France, the UK, and the Netherlands. At the same time, it casts a spotlight on persisting inequalities. Puerto Rico, for instance, has only one-fourth of intensive care unit beds per capita than the U.S. mainland, despite its much higher share of elderly residents.

The coronavirus crisis is bringing to the fore a number of long-term challenges for the Caribbean. If left solely to the logic of comparative advantages, the region’s world market integration tends to be one of specialization, not diversification. The downside is a high vulnerability to external shocks. In recent years, “resilience” became part of the vocabulary of Caribbean policymakers in the context of climate change, not to face global economic or health shocks. The current crisis demands thinking of “resilience” as a development goal in an even broader sense.

  • The pandemic also highlights the extent to which the Trump Administration takes the United States out of the game of soft policy approaches, and China finds a field left wide open. Beijing’s shipments of medical supplies and protective wear are a small investment, but they have a big impact in countries of some 100,000 inhabitants. Taiwan is also providing face masks and soft loans to those that still recognize it diplomatically. In contrast, what Washington seems to care about more than anything else is that the Caribbean nations should not accept Cuban doctors in to fight the disease.

April 20, 2020

* Bert Hoffmann is a Lead Researcher at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA) and professor of political science at the Free University of Berlin’s Latin American Institute.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: