The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the most urgent health, economic, and social crises the world has faced in decades. At the beginning of April, more than 870,000 cases and over 43,000 deaths have been reported worldwide. According to the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), the number of cases in the Americas region is steadily rising.
The Caribbean is also staggering in the wake of COVID-19, which has already dealt a devastating blow to the tourism and service sectors across the region, adversely impacting the mainly small and open economies.
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As regional governments move to stem the tide of this pandemic and counter its short- and long-term impact across critical sectors, a multi-sectoral response is needed to meet immediate health emergency care and response needs, while ensuring that a social safety net is created to support people whose income may drastically reduce during this crisis, and to protect the rights of the most vulnerable citizens.
This multi-faceted approach would seek mitigating shocks and support recovery efforts from a crisis that may exacerbate existing inequalities and result in losing past years’ gains towards the achievement Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Over-burdened healthcare systems
Among the most immediate concerns facing Caribbean Governments is the imminent threat to over-burdened healthcare systems and fragile regional economies, which has the capacity to cause widespread unemployment and erode social gains.
As the Caribbean embarks on response and recovery efforts, the principles of leaving no one behind, non-discrimination, and commitment to universal access to essential services would be a useful basis for effective health-related, social and economic stimulus recovery policies.
Protecting the most vulnerable
A targeted human rights-based approach is always essential if we are to safeguard and protect the interests of the elderly, women and girls, children, people with disabilities, migrants, persons in detention, the homeless and other marginalized and displaced groups, who are the most vulnerable.
The elderly are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus as evidenced by the high number of deaths in this population group. For this reason, it is important that health and social services are targeted to address their needs, especially those isolated without family support system.
In the Caribbean, women are the primary caregivers in many households, and comprise approximately 70 per cent of vital roles in the health and social sectors. Consequently, women not only bear a greater social burden, but face an increased risk of exposure as frontline workers in any crisis. Research also indicates that in humanitarian crises, levels of sexual and/or intimate partner violence, based on gender inequality, grow more acute due to displacement, broken social and protective networks and lack of services.
Containment measures intended to suppress the spread of COVID-19, such as self-isolation and physical distancing, may result in victims being confined with their abuser with little access to support services. Gender-sensitive strategies and interventions in support of potential victims are a necessary tool to prevent the exacerbation of gender inequalities.
Previous humanitarian crises have also shown children to be increasingly vulnerable to mistreatment, violence, and exploitation. It is a priority that precautions and the requisite child protection mechanisms are adapted to protect at-risk children across Barbados and the sub-region during this and any crisis.
With temporary school closures occurring across the region, effective distance learning strategies should take into consideration those children in unequal situations. While online learning may be an option for students with home access to computers and the internet, the UN is supporting ministries of education across the region to identify and to develop alternative, accessible distance learning methods, for example via television and radio, to ensure that all children have access to quality education, even in an extended crisis.
Persons with disabilities will also face unique challenges. While there is no current evidence to suggest that a disability puts someone at a higher risk to contract the virus, persons living with disabilities can have underlying conditions that may make them more vulnerable.
This situation can be compounded by existing barriers including limited access to healthcare or existing stigma and discrimination. Establishing additional social protection measures can help to ensure the continuity of support to persons with disabilities, while safeguarding their rights to health, safety, and dignity.