One disaster and then a next
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A CATASTROPHIC volcanic eruption amid a pandemic that has crippled the world for more than a year seems to be a bit of fiction straight out of a dystopian novel — except that it is not. It is the real situation being faced by the people in St. Vincent, and it is a real situation that highlights the need to revisit how we are building resilience in the Caribbean.

During one of the earlier Economics tutorials I had in my first year at university, my microeconomics lecturer told us that some studies have found that a country could experience some amount of economic growth in the year following a major (natural) disaster. The simple, condensed reasoning for this was that the increased inflow of foreign aid would not only help recovery, but could sometimes spur economic growth. She, however, noted that there was a high possibility of some decline in the long run. I remember being completely taken aback by that conversation, completely amazed that this was a possibility, but was also overwhelmed by my introduction to the study of Economics.

A semester later, after I passed that class and began learning about macroeconomics, I met the lecturer again. She was not lecturing or tutoring me. Instead, she was presenting at a forum centred on building a resilient Caribbean, in the face of the Region’s susceptibility to natural disasters.

She reminded us all that the Caribbean Region is dependent upon its natural resources — whether it is marketing the white sandy beaches or growing crops for export — the major sources of income in the Region are natural-source based. Juxtaposing that fact with the vulnerability of the Region to natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanoes, means that any damage to the natural environment would result in complications for the countries in the Region. Furthermore, there are overarching climate change considerations that exacerbate this precarious situation.

Now, the “economics” of it all would dictate that Caribbean countries find ways of being less dependent on their natural resources and become more diversified. Emphasis should be placed on environmental conservation rather than exploitation. But, as my lecturer begged us to consider: how do you encourage people to think about the long-term benefits that can be garnered, when their immediate needs would suffer? The answer is, you can’t. At least not successfully.

So then, what can be done? Well, fortunately, some bit of hope exists in the case of Dominica. Through the establishment of the Climate Resilience Executing Agency of Dominica (CREAD), the country has strived towards focusing on coordinating a single climate-resilient recovery plan for Dominica. One of the initiatives, out of a suite of measures that has already been rolled out, is the construction of climate-resilient infrastructure. This helped the country to build back stronger from Hurricane Maria, which ravaged the island in 2017, and prepare for similar disasters.

But that is just a hurricane consideration. There are other unavoidable disasters — including pandemics — to think about. Last year, as the tourism-dependent economies in the Caribbean Region were just about obliterated by the travel restrictions, Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley called for a revival of a ‘Vulnerability Index’ that could validate the claims of small states — like us here in the Caribbean — for special treatment in international relations.

Subsequently, Jan Yves Remy and Alicia Nicholls from the University of the West Indies’ Shridath Ramphal Centre (SRC), and J. Jason Cotton, an Economist at the Caribbean Development Bank, emphasised that COVID-19 validates the belief that inherent vulnerabilities predispose countries in the Caribbean to less favourable outcomes in times of crises. As such, they posited that a vulnerability index “can help provide a sound and evidential basis for decisions taken by international institutions to allocate limited resources to the most vulnerable.”

We often celebrate that resilience is a characteristic of Caribbean countries and it is characteristic of Caribbean people. There is no doubt in my mind that St. Vincent will rebuild and recover following this disaster, though I am not sure to what extent the COVID-19 + Volcano eruption dynamic will lengthen the time for recovery. I wish to contend, however, that this eruption — amid a pandemic — presents us with yet another opportunity to think about how we are systemically building resilience in the Caribbean and how we are protecting our economies from being crippled.

We don’t necessarily know when the next disaster will be, but we can certainly take steps to ensure that we are prepared to withstand, or at least mitigate, the effects of what happens to us.

If you would like to discuss this column or any of my previous writings, please feel free to contact me via email: vish14ragobeer@gmail.com

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