One-Caribbean Unity Against COVID-19: We Got This
As we head into mid-April, many of the states in the U.S. have surging numbers of new cases of COVID-19, with more hospitalizations, more ICU admissions, more ventilated patients, and more deaths. We see the maps daily, with curves based on each state and the nation as a whole, trying to find a glimmer of hope that there will, at some point, be an end to this nightmare. Many eyes are on the Southern Hemisphere, as their imminent cooler weather may lead their populations to enter our northern plague. Little, however, has been discussed when it comes to the United States territories and the islands just to our south, which are currently battling COVID-19 as well. The case load may be much lower, but their resources are close to nil.
The population of all of the islands of the Caribbean is just under 44 million, covering an approximately one million square mile area of land and sea. The United States Virgin Islands, comprised of St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John, has a total population of around 104,000, with just over 50,000 inhabitants on each of the islands of St. Thomas and St. Croix, and just under 4,000 living on St. John. The largest demographic group of inhabitants in the U.S. Virgin Islands is aged 60, and over 75% of the population is African American. On the mainland, Covid-19 has been causing a disproportionate amount of cases and deaths in the African American population and in individuals aged 60 years and older. There is no large data set regarding demographic distribution of illnesses and deaths on the islands, but in the coming months, these case numbers will likely emerge.
The current pandemic will have a somewhat unique toll on the islands. In some ways, these communities are so accustomed to preparedness and resiliency. As the hurricane season is an expected annual burden between June 1 and November 30, islanders are well versed in food storage, disaster kits, and disaster preparedness. That said, many of the islands have not recovered from some of the major hurricanes of the past few years, including Irma and Maria. With the Caribbean economy relying nearly wholly on tourism, many of the hotels and tourist destinations have not even begun to recover from these natural disasters from back in 2017. With hotels and cruise lines currently shut down, this newer type of natural disaster is only worsening the already tenuous situation. Yes, the islands have also dealt with their share of infectious blight, including illnesses such as dengue fever and chikungunya, both caused by mosquito-borne viruses. But the novel coronavirus is an unprecedented foe, and, as is the case in much of the states, testing ability and resultant containment remains sparse.
According to the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Health, as of April 10, 2020, a total 370 Covid-19 tests have been performed. From their provisional data, they are now testing approximately 15-20 individuals per day, and as of that same date, they have reported 51 cases of active coronavirus infection. The islands have instituted social distancing guidelines to stave off the spread of the virus, including closing the beaches, creating curfews in some areas, staggering timing of supermarket closures, and blocking any hotel bookings, especially by those from the states who wished to get a quick island escape, away from the virus. The prime minister of Sint Maarten, Silveria Jacobs, has given one of the strongest speeches of any leader, from the islands or elsewhere. Her unwavering order to ‘Simply. Stop. Moving.’ has gone, well, viral.
While, just as in any community, those who can stay at home will, the economic tenuousness in the islands remains concerning. Pamela Berkowsky, Former Pentagon and U.S. Virgin Islands Official, notes that, while island “communities plan year-round for natural disasters, it is unclear whether the infrastructure can handle this, especially in such fragile economies dependent largely on tourism.” In addition, according to Berkowsky, the islands will be “months behind the economic recovery curve,” and “when other [economies] are back, Caribbean recovery will lag.” When people on the mainland are barely able to pay monthly bills, in an economy where over 17 million Americans have already filed for unemployment, the last thing on most people’s minds will be using non-existent expendable income on an island vacation or a cruise.
The nature of what keeps the U.S. Virgin Islands as well as the others that speckle the Caribbean beautiful is the fact that there is crystal clear turquoise water separating them. And while the prime minister of Sint. Maarten stated that “if you don’t have bread, eat cereal,” food insecurity due to this physical separation is a real issue in many Caribbean communities. This distance from one island to the next can be a problem. For instance, Turks and Caicos alone is comprised of over 100 small islands, nine of which are inhabited by communities and resorts. If individuals become ill on one island, reduction in transport facilities means lack of access to healthcare of any kind, let alone access to coveted COVID-19 testing. All of the islands, including Puerto Rico, rely on global shipping for imports such as foods, medicines, and any necessities. With global shipping slowed worldwide, imports to the islands are also slowed or even halted altogether. The islands are up of 1,300 miles from the closest mainland state of Florida, and with fewer flights between the islands and the states, access to food, healthcare, and supplies is at continued risk of dwindling