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Silver linings: Risk reduction center stage as Caribbean recovers

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Cruise ships are steaming back to Caribbean ports, airlines are ramping up flights and the vaccine roll-out is underway but it could still be several years before countries recuperate from the pandemic that has rocked the region, say experts.

Despite the deep scars left by the crisis, countries now have a fresh focus on health, resilience and regionalism plus a chance to fully incorporate disaster risk reduction into their recovery to better insulate against future crises, they say.

“Vaccination, vaccination, vaccination and the right balance of public health measures will allow us to return to our main economic activity, which is tourism,” says Joy St. John, executive director of the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA).

“We're not going to re-engineer how our economies are structured. And so, we've got to find the right balance for all the countries.”

While early border closures helped the Caribbean contain the pandemic and avoid crippling health systems, experts say its bruising economic impact still risks jeopardizing recovery and cutting funds available for risk reduction projects.

Omar Bello, focal point for disaster assessment at the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), estimates it will take three to four years for tourism-dependent countries to get back on their feet after the pandemic, which ramped up unemployment.

Heavily indebted even before COVID, many countries have struggled to pay for social protection policies to support people hard hit during the crisis, let alone find funds for disaster risk reduction, says Bello.

“When you’re in this fiscal, economic situation, obviously disaster risk reduction measures will be delayed as well as many expenditures that governments planned before the pandemic,” he says.

The World Bank says that the Caribbean economy contracted by 6.8 percent in 2020 and poverty edged up due to the pandemic which saw GDP in tourism-dependent Barbados fall by 18 percent and by 20 percent in St. Lucia.

While it forecasts a 4.7 percent recovery for 2021, the World Bank cautions that tourism will remain sluggish and growth uneven.

VACCINE INEQUALITY

Insufficient access to affordable vaccines is another major factor that risks stalling recovery, says CARPHA’s St. John, who worries virulent new variants and rising tourist arrivals could push COVID cases higher.

Vaccination rates so far are patchy and sourcing issues could threaten to jeopardize the goal of immunizing 70 percent this year, she says. After the UK sent jabs to its overseas territories, countries including the Cayman Islands and Bermuda have fully vaccinated at least 70 percent.

But other countries are relying on the COVAX Facility vaccine access program that has promised doses for 20 percent of their populations. So far, 5 percent of Jamaicans are fully vaccinated and 31 percent of people in Trinidad and Tobago, according to data provided by CARPHA.

As COVID hotspots continue to emerge, health restrictions also risk complicating the mobilization and deployment of emergency response teams to deal with other crises such as hurricanes, says Elizabeth Riley, executive director of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Agency (CDEMA).

Unlike recovery from acute disasters, countries are grappling with the complex challenges of the pandemic as it plays out while potentially high numbers of long COVID cases could also hamper a rebound, she says.

“COVID has forced us to look at recovery with a difference lens… it’s the social aspect, the economic aspect. Psychosocial support is going to be critical,” says Riley.

ALL FOR ONE

Analyzing the fall-out of the pandemic and integrating lessons learnt into building robust risk reduction strategies will be key to helping the region deal with fresh cascading, systemic crises, say experts.

“We have seen that in order to tackle a pandemic, we need a whole of society approach,” says Evangeline Inniss-Springer, director of the University of the West Indies’ Disaster Risk Reduction Centre in Jamaica.

“All the countries have been trying to balance safety with economics, in some cases they have to make some really tough decisions in order to protect their people. The delicate balance is when you open back up.”

For Raul Salazar, chief of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) – Regional Office for the Americas and the Caribbean, the recovery is a valuable opportunity to increase resilience and bolster disaster risk reduction.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed our vulnerabilities. That is why the recovery process must be informed by risk,” says Salazar.

“It must also be a recovery that is inclusive and paves the way to begin to develop resilient societies. We must build back better.”

Ensuring people in the informal sector – such as street food sellers or construction workers – are better included in social protection programs can help reduce risk down the track. Likewise, integrating the regions’ many migrants into COVID vaccination and health programs could help avoid new outbreaks, says St. John.

She wants countries to harness the increased regionalism that has emerged from the pandemic and make sectors such as tourism safer for both workers and tourists to insulate them from future health crises.

“If we have another pandemic, we don’t want to be reinventing the wheel, we want to make sure people are already doing things that make it safer to continue tourism, in the face of any infection,” she says.