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Covid-19: a lesson in leadership from the Caribbean

Written by Emily Wilkinson

Hero image description: Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley speaking at the 16th Raúl Prebisch Lecture in Geneva, 2019. Photo: Timothy Sullivan/UNCTAD (CC BY-SA 2.0) Image credit:Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley speaking at the 16th Raúl Prebisch Lecture in Geneva, 2019. Timothy Sullivan/UNCTAD Image license:CC BY-SA 2.0

The coronavirus crisis has exposed a lack of global leadership and a fractured international community. In amongst the mess, unsung heroes – often women and under-resourced nations – have demonstrated the power of solidarity and moral leadership.

A prime example of this is the Caribbean, which has led a well-orchestrated, regional response to Covid-19 thanks to the tenacity of leaders like Barbados Prime Minster Mia Mottley.

In a recent CNN interview with Christiane Amanpour, she called for ‘all countries to step up’ and support Small Island Developing States (SIDS), which are particularly vulnerable to economic and environmental shocks.

Leadership is tackling Covid-19 beyond your borders

All nations have been affected by Covid-19. The absence of global leadership and a coordinated response is taking its toll everywhere, but particularly on the most vulnerable nations. This crisis has made us all aware of how interconnected our systems are, and how much economic recovery in one nation depends on recovery elsewhere. Nowhere is that more true than in the Caribbean, where economies are very open, highly vulnerable to disease, natural hazards, and other economic stresses, and highly dependent on tourism revenues (which have been totally wiped out).

Ms Mottley has been very vocal on the global stage. At the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit back in September 2019, speaking then on behalf of all SIDS (which represent 20% of nations), she stated: ‘we refuse to be collateral damage to the greed of others’.

But in combating climate change, and as we are now seeing with global responses to the Covid-19 crisis, the international multilateral system is faltering. There is a dearth of moral leadership, a resurgence of nationalism, and competition between nations, all struggling to deal with their own problems.

The Caribbean’s coordinated response to Covid-19

As the first coronavirus cases to reach the Caribbean were confirmed in early March, states introduced selective quarantine measures and took decisions unilaterally to close borders. Yet it soon became apparent that without a coordinated effort, they would all be in trouble. 

When a hurricane hits, countries usually procure equipment from their powerful neighbour to the north, but not this time – the Trump administration blocked distributors from selling PPE overseas. Sourcing from elsewhere also proved a challenge. Individually, islands have such small populations (Dominica has less than 70,000 people) that quantities needed are too low, and prices too high.

Fortunately, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) has a total population of 16 million, so when CARICOM stepped up with a proposal for joint procurement, the region was able to secure vital supplies. Member states have since developed joint policies on logistics and transport, ensuring common standards in intra-regional transportation of people and goods and support to regional carriers. As outgoing Executive Director of the Caribbean Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), Ronald Jackson, was keen to assure me: ‘coming out of the challenges we now have stronger bonds’.

Economic recovery through solidarity

Regional solidarity will be equally critical to ‘building back better’ – to recover from the crisis and build more resilient economies and societies. Caribbean states are keen to open borders; but they remain cautious. There is agreement this needs to be carefully orchestrated: given all the connections between islands, it doesn’t make sense to open airports in one island and not others; or ports but not airports.

Heads of Government have also adopted a collective approach to requesting assistance from International Financial Institutions. Caribbean countries have high levels of debt – collectively owing $8.8bn that needs to be paid back this year and next – so borrowing to deal with the impacts of Covid-19 is simply not an option. They are calling for debt relief, disaster clauses in sovereign debt contracts and changes to the international aid rules. Most Caribbean islands are high-income sovereign states or overseas territories and therefore not eligible for ODA. Instead, Ms Mottley and others propose that a vulnerability index be used to determine need.

Moral leadership for the future

Ms Mottley has called for a new international economic order to address deepening inequality within and between countries, and to tackle the climate emergency. This is the kind of moral leadership the world needs. Ms Mottley is one of several female leaders that have been acknowledged for their superior responses to containing the spread of Covid-19. Hopefully, as a result of this crisis, we will give more space to these great leaders – and most importantly, listen to them.