From a public health perspective, the Caribbean has fared well in tackling the COVID-19 crisis, said Regis Chapman, head of the World Food Programme in the Caribbean. Deaths have remained low for much of the region and many islands have declared themselves COVID-free.
The economic impact of the crisis is a different story, however.
“There were really strong responses in the very early days by most CARICOM countries; closure of borders, closure of schools, requiring masks, restricting days and time periods when people can go out,” Chapman said.
“But, at the same time, that obviously has a significant impact on the economy.”
The collapse of tourism markets, in particular, has placed stress on individual Caribbean economies, structured largely around hospitality and financial services.
“The strange thing about COVID-19 is, it could pose zero risk for a Caribbean country, but yet the same economic impacts will be seen,” Chapman said.
“We could have no more cases ever again in any of the Caribbean islands, but the economic impacts on the key tourist markets in the UK, the US, Canada and elsewhere are going to have those trickle-down impacts to varying degrees.”
In a World Food Programme survey conducted across 19 Caribbean countries in April, nearly three-quarters of respondents indicated that they had experienced disruptions to their livelihoods in the previous two weeks. About half reported job losses or reduced income, with business owners, workers in petty trades, and casual labourers suffering the greatest impact. Young people also have experienced a disproportionate impact, with 61% of 18-25 year olds reporting job or income loss.
“As people look ahead, the question is not whether their livelihoods will be impacted, but how severe this impact will be,” the WFP survey states.
Unemployed and vulnerable people across the region are already starting to feel the effects, Chapman said.
While most individuals surveyed indicated they were still able to access markets, despite barriers created by lockdown policies, the data points to a troubling trend of increased hunger. In the survey, 17% of females and 15% of males indicated they had eaten less or skipped a meal over the past seven days. Among 18-25 year olds, that number reached 27%.
Data specific to the Cayman Islands is expected to be released by the World Food Programme later this year.
“There are many people who are starting now to fall between the cracks, either because they weren’t on salary jobs or those salary jobs are, for some reason, not linked to social security or other support mechanisms,” Chapman said.
“We’re seeing a much larger segment of populations around the Caribbean that perhaps don’t fit into that more formal economic sector and, at the same time, are not the traditional people benefiting from social welfare or social assistance.”
Across Latin America and the Caribbean, the United Nations predicts a 5.3% decline in gross domestic product, resulting in an estimated 16 million additional people entering ‘extreme poverty’.
In the Cayman Islands, GDP is forecast to contract even further, dropping 15%, according to International Monetary Fund projections.
The impact has already been noted by Cayman’s food pantries and charities, overwhelmed early in the crisis by a surge in demand. In April, the Needs Assessment Unit had recorded a 165% increase in food voucher requests.
To address immediate demands for food and social support, Chapman recommends simply giving money to those in need.
“Food security is a complicated picture and food baskets certainly have their place, particularly if a natural hazard takes place and destroys market infrastructure,” he said. “But in this context, cash allows people to do things that make the most sense for them. The majority of poor people’s disposable income generally goes towards food.”
In Saint Lucia and Dominica, the World Food Programme is working to support local governments to increase cash transfer resources for the most vulnerable. Cash transfer programmes, Chapman explained, can get resources to those in need quickly and allow them to make their own purchasing decisions.