The U.S. Virgin Islands’ (USVI) tourism industry was just beginning to recover from back-to-back hurricanes Irma and Maria, which swept through the island in 2017. Its economy—including schools, hospitals and hotels—was just starting to rebuild and reopen. The aftermath of these hurricanes coupled with the coronavirus leaves the USVI ill-prepared for the financial woes of a lagging travel season. However, additional aid and outside support are alleviating the USVI economy.
Home to roughly 105,000 people, the USVI’s population faces an unknown level of poverty; the most recent data fails to account for the hurricane destruction. It was last reported in the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau that 22% of the USVI population lived below the poverty line. However, it is likely that the estimate has risen since the hurricanes and will continue to rise due to global economic impacts from the pandemic.
A High Price for Paradise
Located off the east coast of Puerto Rico and Miami, Florida, the USVI is dependent on the outside world. The island welcomes cruises and flights filled with tourists to its resorts and imports most of its food and supplies. Only 2% of the USVI’s gross domestic product (GDP) comes from agriculture, compared to 20% of its GDP generating from industries that include tourism.
But for islanders, the imbalance between these two markets further contributes to a high cost of living and financial insecurity in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Importing food is costly for USVI citizens. In order to make repairs from the hurricane destruction to buildings and homes, supplies must also be imported. Despite the high cost of living, incomes in the USVI are lower than in the U.S.—about 25% lower than the U.S.’s median income; workers in tourism industries are paid low wages.
Due to travel restrictions from the coronavirus, the global tourism industry is predicted to lose between 850 million and 1.1 billion tourists this year, placing over a hundred million jobs at risk. The unemployment rate already sits at nearly 11% in the USVI; this event is likely to place greater pressure on an already stretched-thin economy.
In the aftermath of the hurricanes, the USVI’s health care system has also developed a dependency on the mainland. Due to the lack of patient beds, facilities and a dwindling nursing staff, some patients have to fly to the U.S. for surgical procedures. This becomes another factor that increases the cost of living for some residents. Fortunately, USVI hospitals have not had high coronavirus cases. The Virgin Islands Department of Health has reported only 156 active coronavirus cases and six deaths.
Child Development in the U.S. Virgin Islands
According to the U.S. Virgin Island’s 2016 Kids Count Data Book, 37% of children live in families below the poverty level. Examining single-parent households, single mothers are more at risk of falling into poverty, representing 76% of all families in poverty.
Impoverished conditions significantly impact the education of children. Although many children come from poor families, school is no longer an escape from their everyday reality. NPR reported in 2019 that education facilities damaged by the 2017 hurricanes were still unrepaired, inhibiting students from moving forward in their education.
Students are either learning in hazardous building conditions or attending half-day sessions. As a result, teachers have reported that their students have fallen behind academically despite how the USVI education system was already struggling before the hurricanes hit.
According to a 2014 academic assessment test for USVI public schools, upon completing a literacy assessment, 59.4% of USVI students performed below the test standard. As for the Mathematics assessment results, 74.1% of students were below the test standard. Now, the coronavirus is likely to further prolong the pause on its children’s education.
The Good News
Progress in recovery and rebuilding has continued in the USVI, but full economic recovery is still years away. The USVI government estimates it will need $7.5 billion, almost twice the territory’s GDP, to rebuild the U.S. territory.
All Hands and Hearts, a non-government organization that dispatches volunteers to areas ravaged by natural disasters, sent nearly 2,000 volunteers to the USVI to restore homes and schools damaged by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. On the USVI island St. John, the volunteers’ work positively impacted 24% of the island. In July 2019, the U.S. Virgin Islands disaster relief program marked its completion by leaving behind structures built to outlast upcoming storms.
In addition, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which has been providing aid to the U.S. Virgin Islands since the 2017 hurricanes, is continuing to support the USVI. Just this past January, FEMA approved over $2 billion in Public Assistance funds for the USVI. It will be used to restore homes and hospitals damaged by the hurricanes in 2017.
– Grace Mayer