COVID in the Caribbean

CIJN writers fanned out across the region–Guyana, Barbados, Jamaica, British Virgin Islands,– to show how people in Caribbean nations were battling the coronavirus, fighting for their lives and economic survival.

No borders can repel COVID-19. When 52-year-old Ratna Baboolall left her home in Queens, N.Y. for a trip to her native Guyana, she unknowingly carried the virus to Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, where she was in transit to her village 15 minutes from Georgetown, the Guyanese capital. Before she died of the virus, she had sickened at least eight relatives, including her 59-year-old husband Ramnauth Baboolall, her two sons, two sisters, one niece, her son-in-law and one of her granddaughters. CIJN reporters tell the story of Guyana’s Patient Zero. In separate reports, they detail how, thanks to the virus, the people of Guyana have had to postpone their hopes that newfound oil riches would improve their standard of living and help Guyana shed its status as one of the poorest countries in South America. Many businesses, which had hoped to boom, are now shuttered temporarily or for good.

Caribbean people are known for their resilience and creativity. Those two traits are on display throughout the islands. If your island is heavily dependent on people from around the world getting on planes to vacation in your tropical paradise, what are your options when airplane traffic has ground to a halt. If you’re Bajan Prime Minister Mia Mottley, you develop a plan to invite tele-commuters, or work-at-home employees, to work from Barbados for the next year. Her pitch: why work in the United States, Europe and Latin America when you can work in the tropical breezes in the birthplace of Rihanna.

The people of the British Virgin Islands owe their survival to their own resilience. As they battle encroachment of the coronavirus, they are also preparing for the hurricane season–with the scars of recent deadly hurricanes fresh in their memories. Their big dilemma: how to practice social distancing if you are stuck in a hurricane shelter with hundreds of huddled hurricane victims.

In the BVI, Filipino expatriate workers have had to rely on bayanihan, their national spirit of kindness, work and cooperation to make the best of job losses and their diminishing options.

The Poverty Mega Shock

There is no country in the world that has been immune from the impact of COVID-19. By the time that COVID-19 was declared a worldwide pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), many countries in the Caribbean were already recording its incidence. 

No section of society has been immune either. As governments have been forced to introduce lockdowns, many households find themselves without any source of income. This sudden pauperisation has sparked discussion in social media and in the regular press across the region. Governments are being scrutinised over their responses to the poverty induced by the pandemic.

Accounting for Pandemic Relief Funding

In 2019, the world experienced its lowest crude death rate ever – at 7.525 deaths per 1,000 persons, according to the World Bank. This figure is estimated to have increased for the first time this century to at least 7.6 in 2020. 

While 1,813,188 COVID-19 deaths were reported in 2020, recent WHO estimates suggest an excess mortality of at least 3 million persons. Globally, as of 11:37am CEST, 19 July 2021, there have been 189,921,964 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 4,088,281 deaths (reported to the World Health Organization). As if the pandemic itself was not enough to be worried about from a survival standpoint, we have seen vibrant manifestations of various perennial ills, such as underreported death and infection rates globally, vaccine inequality, undisclosed vaccine sources and uses, unclear and ever-changing reported vaccine efficacy rates and risks, and vaccine passport discrimination, for example. 

These and other pandemic-related mishaps only add to the simmering sense of confusion and chaos, causing many a (buried) seed of suspicion to spring green shoots of mistrust, and spread its roots. The irony is that in a world that has grown to almost expect fake news, truth, transparency, and their offspring – trust – are probably at once, more priceless but more elusive than ever before. 

And then there is the perennial issue of money.