The one thing that we know about Covid-19 is that it spared no country its wrath. It bears no respect for creed, race, gender, nor class. All are susceptible to it and nearly every country in the world has suffered to some extent from its devastating effects on public health and its crushing blow to their economies. Small highly open, economies like Antigua and Barbuda are no exception to this rule. In fact, it is more accurate to say we are disproportionately affected by its effects.
According to the United Nations Development Programme report, “The COVID-19 pandemic puts small island developing economies in dire straits” small island economies report a higher number of Covid-19 related deaths per 100,000, than any other developing country in the world. Moreover, amidst the sharp fall in tourism revenues and remittance flows, the Antiguan economy will experience the most protracted contraction to its economy in decades; surpassing even that of the 2008 recession.
Antiguans & Barbudans should be aware of many of the significant vulnerabilities we experience as small island developing states: – highly open, highly indebted, resource constrained and tourism dependent with few sources markets for trade and financial flows. The major challenge undoubtedly faced by our economies is the existential threat of Climate Change. This threat becomes even more stark given that we have officially entered the Hurricane Season. Indeed, a Hurricane coupled with a public health emergency is really a twin disaster no one could have desired. Yet, here we are.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration the Hurricane Season for 2020 is predicted to be above normal and this means that the National Office of Disaster Management will soon be facing the compound pressures of responding to the unfolding pandemic and managing the Hurricane response operations.
We have seen the devastating effects of Irma on Barbuda and know all too well how Hurricanes can destroy in an instant the entire physical capital stock of a country; not to mention the obvious toll on human life. Even more consequential, however, is the fact that when extreme climate conditions interact with stressors to social systems like the Covid-19 pandemic, the consequences are quite severe.
For one thing, the public health implications are even more pressing given that dealing with the aftermath of a Hurricane would obviously place great strain on an already resource constrained health care system. Moreover, we know that based on social distancing guidelines, shelters will be unable to operate at full capacity. Additionally, emergency funds have already been depleted to focus on the challenge of dealing with the pandemic.
Indeed, the similarities between Covid-19 and natural disasters present new challenges that Governments will have to face especially when trying to enforce social distancing rules. How does the Government of Antigua and Barbuda intend to prepare for the potential evacuations, sheltering in place and resource planning which is needed to avert a further crisis?
Technology and Partnerships, it would appear, are crucially needed to drive new efficiencies and boost resilience. Efforts must be made to enhance the resilience of the built environment, the population and the business community while creating new opportunities for applying technology to assist with new needs such as neighboring health monitoring, crisis communications and real-time information sharing. Have the Government begun to approach any of the multilateral donor agencies for response in this regard? How have we engaged our diplomatic efforts to ensure that we are able to meet the quality of the challenge which lays before us?
The public education campaign must begin earnestly; we should not wait until last minute to ensure preparedness for the looming threat of a natural disaster. If we are to be ready, the work must begin from now. Even though it appears disaster officials are working assiduously behind the scenes, the missing public awareness element is a deficiency which must be addressed immediately. If not, the twin catastrophe of Covid-19 and a Hurricane could be too costly to fathom.