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OECS Commission mobilizes to help fight COVID-19 in the Eastern Caribbean

CASTRIES, St Lucia — With the number of cases around the world increasing daily, the onslaught of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to be a massive threat to the various sectors within the Eastern Caribbean. This pandemic emphasizes the need for greater collaboration and a progressive movement towards sustainable development among its Member States.

Ahead of the first Sustainable Development Summit (SDM2020) scheduled for later this year, the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) Commission said the event is designed to bring heads, hands and hearts together, with a determination to provoke regional harmonization and a paradigm shift.

The director-general of the OECS Commission, Dr Didacus Jules said, “Life as we know it has been drastically changed and as a consequence of this pandemic, we are examining all possibilities; and galvanizing our efforts in the fight against this disease, which will help us ensure that when the time is right, we are safe enough to convene for the SDM Summit.”

Channeling resources through the Commission’s Pharmaceutical Procurement Service (PPS) system – a proven economic strategy used by the Commission for many years is one of several strategies being employed by the OECS Commission in response to the COVID-19 disease.

The OECS was nimble at scaling up these activities under the PPS model to conduct swift mass purchasing of critical medical supplies to be distributed across the region. The system leverages economies of scale for the Member States and ensures equitable availability and affordability of essential drugs for citizens, health organizations and retailers. This mass purchasing helps both citizens and organizations prepare for longer periods of self-isolation and possible worldwide shortage of essential drugs and testing supplies.

Dr Jules explains that while the Commission is still executing plans to strengthen regional support by hosting the SDM 2020 Summit: “The immediate focus is for the OECS to remain at the coordinating centre of the COVID-19 response efforts. Our role is to keep that dialogue going and maintain that convergence of policy and action well beyond September. We also have a WhatsApp group with the heads of government, so these exchanges are happening in real-time.”

He noted that this level of tight-knitted regional cooperation between government heads is one of the primary premises of the Commission and the glue that birthed the concept for the Sustainable Development Movement.

Adding to this sentiment, head of health, human and social cluster for the OECS Commission, Dr Carlene Radix said: “Our joint effort response to COVID-19 is part of the ‘MOVEMENT’ concept. In our role as the health unit within the Commission we work closely with partner health organizations within the region – the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) and the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) to facilitate coordination and synergies. We have collaborated with these organizations to identify gaps and provide solutions to all the Member States at every level.”

In addition to maximizing the power of the PPS system, Dr Radix added that the OECS health unit is embarking on several integrated response approaches, one of which is leveraging the Commission’s convening power to get chief medical officers to work together and take a closer look at situations that may be unique to the smaller islands.

Through this harmonious model of operation, the OECS was able to help the Member States better assess and articulate their needs for medical supplies, human resources and measures that are needed to curb the spread of the virus.

Furthermore, several businesses have provided funding under the OECS partnership against COVID-19: Engaging the Region’s Private Sector initiative – Massy Stores Saint Lucia, Sagicor Life (EC) Inc, Republic Bank, Bank of Saint Lucia and LUCELEC, over USD$450,000 (EC$1.2 million) has been mobilized to date. Resources will be distributed across the Eastern Caribbean including medical supplies, education programmes, purchasing of infrared thermometers, aid with lab testing and the implementation of a COVID-19 awareness campaign across the Member States.

The OECS Commission is sparing no effort to combat the virus and its ramifications. Exploring solutions and mobilizing global resources not just in health, but on all fronts including education, social, environmental and economic sectors. So far, the Republic of Cuba has provided human resource support, where doctors and nurses are being deployed across the Member States; while a mass supply of personal protective equipment from direct relief, including N95 masks, gloves and gowns, were received.

Adding to the COVID-19 defense operations, the OECS Commission has also requested a supply for Real-Time (RT) PCR laboratory equipment produced by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Austria.

Dr Jules noted: “The IAEA will also be providing training for doctors and lab technicians, who will be handling and activating the RT PCR device. He noted that the device would tremendously boost testing capability within the region and provide quick turnaround time for results.”

Head of the OECS Development Cooperation and Resource Mobilization Unit; and chief project coordinator for SDM2020, Lisa Stone-Taylor, reiterated that: “The PPS model and its handling of pandemics will be on full display at SDM2020; giving businesses, Small Island Developing States (SIDS), and other countries an opportunity to learn about the PPS mechanisms and possibly join the partnership.”

She added: “As we explore the opportunities that this pandemic has presented, COVID-19 is forcing us to be agile and is bringing to the forefront the need for all of us to look at sustainability through different focal lens. Once the COVID-19 ordeal has passed and it becomes safe for social gatherings to resume, SDM2020 will create a space for these discoveries and provide a platform for the launch of several pioneering models and programmes for multi-sectoral impact.”

While it is still very early days in analyzing the true impact of the OECS strategy, the OECS director-general noted some key lessons for future crisis planning.

“The first lesson is the importance of having a strategic mind-shift that emphasizes vulnerability to resilience; we define resilience as a multidimensional construct – climatic, environmental, social [including health and well-being], economic, infrastructural and psychological. Ever since the double whammy of hurricanes Irma and Maria which wrought devastation to several OECS Member States, we have been re-defining what resilience should mean for us as Small Island Developing States.

“The second lesson is the vital importance of a deep functional integration among the OECS Member States. This will ensure that there is policy convergence, compliance with vital international protocols (for example the International Health Regulations), sharing of resources and joint procurement of critical needs, harmonization of initiatives,” Dr Jules added. “This is a stark reminder that this pandemic presents some consequences of our failures; we ought to learn from our history to strategically position ourselves for the future. Future-proofing is not a luxury; it is an imperative,  he said.



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