As outlined by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2009, drawing on lessons learned from the previous SARS and MERs outbreaks, a pandemic can be severely disruptive to individual societies as well as the global economy and requires a ‘whole-of-society’ response.
A ‘whole-of-society’ approach does not mean mere consultation. It goes well beyond that to providing guidance, communication, and coordination of plans so that key services can continue to be delivered. The stakeholders include business, trade unions, universities, religious and charitable organisations (NGOs). A ‘whole-of-society’ approach also does in no way derogate from a government’s leadership of the management of a crisis.
The alternative approach may be described as ‘command and control’ where the Government attempts to exercise complete control over all stages of crisis management – readiness, response and recovery – without effectively or meaningfully engaging the private business sector and NGOs in these processes.
The rationale for a ‘whole of society’ approach rests on the essential interconnectedness of the various sectors. The WHO has identified nine essential services – health, defence, law and order, finance, transport, telecommunications, energy, food, and water.
The health sector depends on transportation, telecommunications, energy and supplies of food, water, and pharmaceuticals which are provided by others. Similarly, workers in essential services – water, electricity, etc. – are dependent on other sectors and industries to function effectively.
The WHO advised: “Inadequate or uncoordinated preparedness of interdependent public and private organisations will reduce the ability of the health sector to respond during a pandemic.”
Further, the WHO has stated: “The economic and social consequences of the pandemic will be greater if government, businesses, and civil society have not developed plans as to how they can continue to deliver key services in a pandemic. That is why all sectors of society should be involved in pandemic preparedness and response”.
Although the whole-of-society approach to a pandemic might be easily appreciated and endorsed, its implementation may face real difficulties.
First, politicians and government officials may have a predilection for a ‘command and control’ approach as this may be the usual way in which policy implementation is pursued. This default approach then carries over into the pandemic response.
Second, there may be social and cultural barriers to effective cooperation between the Government and the private sector and other stakeholders. Interaction between Government, the private business sector and NGOs may be attended by mutual suspicion and even antagonism, which even crisis conditions may be unable to surmount.
However, many of the countries in the Caribbean have had considerable experience dealing with disasters, notably hurricanes, but also earthquakes and volcano eruptions, and have established national emergency management organisations which have developed good response capabilities, and a public which is aware and has become fairly resilient.
Unlike sudden and short duration events like hurricanes, a pandemic presents unique challenges because of its long duration, social and economic disruption, and high death rates compared to hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions.
The role of the Caribbean private sector in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic is examined in the context of the whole-of-society approach as the standard or benchmark against which its role can be assessed, as well as its practiced, historical role in disaster response. Its role is assessed in respect of the three stages of crisis management as outlined by the WHO – readiness, response, and recovery.
The COVID-19 pandemic arose suddenly between January 2020 with the first identified cases in China, and March 2020 when the WHO declared a global pandemic.
Several Caribbean countries activated their national emergency management response organisations used mostly for dealing with hurricane events. Some of these included private sector and civil society representatives on the committees or task forces, while others were constituted only of government officials with ad hoc consultation with the private sector and other stakeholders.
In Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, St Kitts and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines and Suriname, the coordinating committee comprised only officials of the Health Ministry.
In the Dominican Republic and Guyana, the private sector was represented on the coordinating committees, which included other government ministries besides the health ministry.
In the Bahamas, Dominica, and Saint Lucia, the committees included the private sector, civil society and relevant government ministries which more closely approximated a whole-of-society approach.
Barbados utilised its existing tripartite social partnership mechanism which included the private sector and trade unions but not civil society organisations, while Jamaica employed multiple task forces comprised of representatives of relevant stakeholders including the private sector and civil society.
The private sector’s response to the crisis initially focused on the impact of partial lockdowns and in some countries, states of emergency and curfews, on business activity.
Because Governments have kept whole its employees in the public service, the disruption to the incomes of workers fell on those employed in the private sector and in informal employment which had to stop operating.
The affected private sector businesses then had to determine how they could support their own workers and for how long, given the uncertainties. Some businesses such as banks and insurance companies, continued to operate but scaled back customer-facing operations while continuing to keep all employees whole. The costs borne by the private sector are difficult to quantify but will be reflected in part in lower profits or even losses over the last year.
In order to keep businesses afloat, the private sector organisations across the region sought various forms of relief from governments that would support cash flows in the face of lower revenues.
These requests included: corporation tax rebates, immediate repayment of VAT refunds, waiver of import duties on personal protective equipment (PPE), and loan guarantees.
As disruption to economic and social life took hold from the second quarter of 2020, the private sector’s response shifted to include assisting the governments in acquiring supplies such as PPE, providing support directly to affected families, and later on, the funding of the acquisition of vaccines.
In Barbados, a National Vaccination Fund was established in early 2021 which had reached US$5 million by end-May 2021 with contributions mainly from private sector firms. In Antigua and Barbuda, the private sector has to date generated funding of US$3.4 million, of which $1.7 million was directed to social support and $1.5 million to PPE, equipment and training.
In Jamaica, the private sector (Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica) has to date raised US$1.3 million in social support through the ‘StandforJamaica’ initiative delivered through the Jamaica Constabulary and NGOs (Council of Voluntary Social Services).
In Trinidad and Tobago, the private sector mounted public education and advocacy campaigns (e.g. ‘ttbeatcovid’) focused on following hygiene protocols and countering vaccine hesitancy, and has set up a ‘portal’ to bring together those willing to provide various forms of support to those who need it. Similar initiatives were undertaken by the private sector in other Caribbean territories.
However, in Trinidad and Tobago, action on an offer by certain private sector firms and organisations to source vaccines, was stillborn as the Government was wary of the sourcing and certification of vaccines, assurance that the cold chain requirements would be met, and how the vaccines received would be distributed. The Government of Trinidad and Tobago has authorised the use only of WHO-approved vaccines.
Vaccine importation was one source of friction between government and the private sector in Trinidad and Tobago.
There were other sources of friction in the various countries relating mainly to the duration of lockdowns, a perception of inadequate testing and tracing, and a perception of differential treatment of certain industries.
Supermarkets and pharmacies have been considered essential to remain open during lockdowns, while bars, restaurants and other places of hospitality and social gathering were proscribed.
In Trinidad and Tobago, where there are representative associations for these various industries, the umbrella private sector organisations were unable to drive consensus and present a unified private sector voice to the public in support of the various measures where these had differential impact on businesses.
The media, which is critical to communication in a pandemic, but also maintains its role to challenge and to investigate, was not engaged formally by governments in their communication campaigns.
Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica established recovery committees very early, perhaps anticipating that the pandemic would permit return to some degree of normalcy in the short to medium term.
In both countries the reports were published around June 2020. Those recovery committees, which were focused on post-pandemic recovery and not crisis management, included representatives of the private sector. Trinidad and Tobago set up a second related recovery committee to address specifically recovery in disadvantaged communities in urban areas.
Jamaica’s Recovery Task Force was chaired by Nigel Clarke, the Finance Minister, and included the Governor of the Central Bank, whereas for Trinidad and Tobago, neither the Finance Minister nor the Central Bank Governor were members of the Committee, which was chaired by the Prime Minister.
Jamaica’s Recovery Task Force utilised several sub-committees, each of which had private sector representatives, either organisational or in their personal capacities.
Because of the unevenness of the global vaccine roll-out, the impact of new variants on cases around the world, the challenges in developed countries with re-opening their economies, the recovery of Caribbean economies has been adversely impacted and debt accumulation by governments and the losses incurred by private sector businesses have increased beyond the levels anticipated by the Recovery Committees in June 2020.
The private sector has made and continues to make useful contributions to the management of the COVID-19 pandemic within the Caribbean region.
In some countries, where a whole-of-society approach or something approximating this has been adopted (e.g. Barbados, Jamaica), the private sector has engaged with the government and other stakeholders in plan formulation and implementation in all stages – readiness, response and recovery – and has been fairly effective in doing so.
In other countries which defaulted to ‘command and control’ approaches, (e.g. Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana), the private sector, while not engaged in readiness and response planning, still managed to mount constructive responses to the crisis at significant cost, and was included in the post-pandemic recovery planning process in Trinidad and Tobago.
As in many other countries, those sections of the private sector most adversely affected by lockdowns – leisure and hospitality and travel-related businesses – were the most vociferous in opposition to the imposition of those measures.
The vaccination roll-out now underway across the region has created new opportunities for supporting the management of the crisis as well as new possibilities for conflict around the question of mandatory vaccination for workers in certain occupations.