By Arley Gill
The global coronavirus pandemic is sweeping across Europe and most of North America. As leaders struggle to find solutions to manage this global crisis, those of us living in the Caribbean must applaud the proactive steps taken by our political leaders to curb the spread of this deadly virus in the region.
Fortunately for us, our elected officials did not take lightly the many threats COVID-19 posed to the Caribbean. As the coronavirus continues to spread around the world, we can safely say timely decision-making—difficult as those decisions may have been— slowed down the spread of the virus in the region. The relatively small number of people currently infected with COVID-19 in the Caribbean today can be attributed to both individual and collective leadership actions by our elected officials.
However, as grateful as we are that COVID-19 is not wreaking havoc on our region—we cannot ignore the glaring reality that the threat of the coronavirus has drastically changed the way we live in the Caribbean.
COVID-19 has made life difficult for us. We enjoy being outdoors: we fish and farm and lime. Together, we are adjusting to this “new” normal. Schools are closed, businesses are shut down, and, our once-bustling streets have become ghost towns almost overnight.
It is a small sacrifice each of us can make to protect ourselves, as well as our loved ones from this deadly virus. Hopefully, in the end, we will all agree that the disruption to life as we knew it just weeks ago — the lockdown and around-the-clock curfew were necessary precautionary measures to protect us from the coronavirus.
From afar, we continue to watch the deadly impact that COVID-19 is having on countries such as Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States; countries with the financial and medical capacity to handle almost any crisis natural or man-made. However, the response from major western leaders compared to the response by Caribbean leaders is like day and night.
Unlike major western leaders such as president Donald Trump in the United States and Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom, our leaders took the COVID-19 threat seriously and followed-up with clear and concrete plans to slow the spread of the virus in their respective countries.
I must admit that the lax response to COVID-19, especially by the so-called “leader” of the “free” world, Trump, to me is a reflection of the absence of real-world political leadership. Trump, too, had ample warning to protect Americans from COVID-19 while the virus was creating havoc in Wuhan, China, but he failed to act quickly and decisively on the matter.
Not only did Trump not act, but he also dismissed the seriousness of COVID-19 and its potential to sicken and kill thousands of Americans. Trump and his supporters instead chose to pivot from the seriousness of the issue to that of name-calling and finger-pointing. In failing to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously, Trump squandered precious media moments that could have saved American lives.
Instead, Trump and his supporters used the media to label COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” and for blaming the Chinese government for lack of transparency and even manufacturing and spreading the disease to benefit the Chinese economy. Similarly, British prime minister, Boris Johnson infected with COVID-19 and recently released from the hospital—also failed to act in a timely matter and his citizens are now feeling the brunt of his indecision. A similar case can be made for the leaders of Spain and Germany and the rest of the European Union.
Major leadership failures on the part of Western leaders to the COVID-19 pandemic is its matter. What has become crystal clear to me is that while many of us in the Caribbean admire the healthcare systems in developed countries specifically the United States—COVID-19 has revealed to our region and the world that all that glitters is not gold. Thankfully, regional leaders recognized the limitations within and the fragility of our healthcare systems and responded appropriately by shutting down work and schools and closing ports of entry to commercial traffic.
The United States spends billions on healthcare. This year it is projected that healthcare expenditure is $688 billion for Medicare, $423 billion for Medicaid, $16 billion on its children’s health insurance program and $53 billion on premium tax credits and another related healthcare spending.
The US spends more on healthcare per capita than any other country in the world and it still performs worse in common health metrics like life expectancy, infant mortality, unmanaged diabetes, and unmanaged asthma than most developed countries. The lack of investment in preventative care is even more evident now during COVID-19, where the majority of Americans dying from the virus are Black or poor and had one or more underlying conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure or asthma.
According to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, United States military spending was approximately $700 billion in 2019 and is forecasted to reach approximately $725 billion in 2020. The United States spends 3-4 times more than China and ten times more than Russia on its military. With such a high level of investment in its military, the United States will always have the arms and ammunition it needs to win any war. And this includes its recent military threats and aggression made toward Venezuela.
Despite investing hundreds of billions of dollars in developing its military power—the United States is now losing an invisible war with COVID-19. The soldiers fighting on the frontline—doctors, nurses, and other essential workers are lacking the most basic personal protective equipment in their battle to save lives during COVID-19.
I am saddened by the lack of preparation by leaders of the developed world to take precautionary measures to save more lives from this deadly virus. I was not expecting perfection, I had a “basic” expectation: essential workers in so-called first world economies would have the basic equipment they need to protect themselves on the job.
And, the seemingly inhumane decision by certain western leaders to value capital over human lives represents the worst of capitalism and the worst of humanity. Shutting down countries hardest hit by COVID-19 to reduce the spread of the virus was the right thing to do, regardless of economic impacts. Valuing human lives over profit is always the right decision.
Caribbean leaders’ response to COVID-19 and their quick actions saved lives. In addition, Cuba’s stellar healthcare system should be a model for the rest of the world. I survived four hurricanes in the Caribbean and was not alive during World War II. COVID-19 is the worst experience I have had in my lifetime. I am hopeful that we will weather this invisible storm together and I am confident that we will be better and stronger than before because our leaders valued its citizens’ lives more than the economy and profit.
And, I am convinced, there is a lesson that the rest of the world can learn from the Caribbean region especially Cuba. The Cuban government persists in investing in healthcare and its people, despite years of unjust and inhumane blockades that continue to put its citizens at risk.
The lesson is simple: Capitalism as an economic system has not served us well during this global pandemic.
The Cuban people continue to face many challenges as a result of economic sanctions imposed on the island by the United States; but, despite Cuba’s political and economic isolation, the Cuban government has always responded to calls for help in times of crisis.
Maybe, it will take a global pandemic for the rest of the world to re-evaluate, reconsider and finally appreciate Cuba’s invaluable contribution to humanity.
Specifically, I call on America to find it within its soul as a nation and on Americans to search their conscience as fellow human beings to advocate for an end to the decades-long economic blockade against Cuba. I believe the God they serve will be proud.