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COVID-19's Impact on Trinidad and Tobago
COVID-19’s impact on Trinidad and Tobago, a tropical twin-island nation in the Caribbean, has been particularly harsh. As other countries return to normalcy, Trinidad and Tobago is facing its highest numbers of COVID-19 cases yet. In fact, it has seen a total of 33,920 cases and 918 deaths. Of its 1.3 million population, 7,162 currently have COVID-19. Government response consisted of closing the country’s borders, implementing stay-at-home orders and declaring a subsequent state of emergency. These measures have taken a toll on the country’s economy. The unprecedented loss of revenue has trickled down and affected various other sectors, disproportionately affecting the poorest Trinbagonians.

Economic Impact

Trinidad and Tobago is heavily dependent on revenue from crude oil and natural gas exportation. Global travel bans and local restrictions of movement resulted in decreasing fuel demands and worldwide devaluation.

The average price of crude oil, $60/barrel, began falling in January 2020. It reached an all-time low of $21.04/barrel in April 2020, a 65% decrease. Fortunately, since mass vaccination began, restrictions have eased, and prices began normalizing to around $60/barrel again by February 2021.

Tourism and Businesses

Tourism, the country’s second-largest income source, employs almost 10,000 persons and has halted following the country’s border closure. This resulted in up to 7% in job loss. Tobago in particular needs tourism to create jobs and supplement its economy, and both islands gain a large boost in foreign revenue during Carnival. The government closed beaches and canceled Carnival to save lives and with the hope of holding COVID-free Carnivals in future years as the country rebuilds its economy.

Poorer communities benefited from tourism with people working as boat-tour guides, street vendors and fishermen but lost out on those opportunities. Meanwhile, other non-essential and small businesses closed in April 2020. The later-imposed state of emergency saw several go bankrupt, further adding to the mass increase in unemployment and the potential loss of at least 10% of its GDP.

Economist Dr. Indera Sagewan said that while it is too early to confirm the exact number of businesses that closed due to COVID-19, she expects that more businesses will close permanently. She also expects that permanent employment will increase in the private sector.

“The social impact will be severe such as entertainment, tourism, the retail sectors as these sectors employ unskilled and semi-skilled individuals. They also operate in the lower-income bracket of society. This is the sector that has felt the brunt of COVID closures,” she said.

Helping Out

Local media outlets have been covering farmers, vendors and bus drivers fighting to make a living, spreading awareness of their plight and prompting community members to help each other. The government has offered Salary Relief Grants to affected persons in certain sectors, receiving over 15,000 applications, mainly from the retail, entertainment and food and restaurant sector.

Lengthy processing times of these applications have encouraged other entities to address immediate needs. Communities have hosted food drives, and the Digicel Foundation, partnering with 10 NGOs, offered $500,000 in food vouchers to 1,000 families that COVID-19 affected. The Trinidad and Tobago Association of Psychologists has also been offering free calls to help those who have experienced poor mental health as a result of job loss and quarantine during the pandemic.

An Overwhelmed Healthcare System

Early in the pandemic, the government created a parallel healthcare system, designating certain medical facilities to treat COVID-19 patients. However, the government did not fully enforce border closure, leading to a Venezuelan immigrant introducing the P1 Brazilian variant into the country.

Cases surged, with hospitals reaching over 95% occupation. The government’s inability to offer a steady supply of PPE, overtime or childcare pushed healthcare workers, who the pandemic had already spread thin, out of the profession. Despite the one nurse to 30 patient ratio, the Joint Trade Union Movement revealed that medical facilities were still only hiring healthcare workers temporarily.

Dr. Maryam Abdool-Richards, Principal Medical Officer, announced that hospitals were filling faster than emptying and they are “basically out of hospital beds.” This resulted in only 10 patients being admitted to the hospital per 100 cases. Meanwhile, those who were not able to afford private healthcare had to treat themselves at home. The U.S. government donated two field hospitals to mitigate COVID-19’s impact on Trinidad and Tobago, each with a 40-bed capacity.

Education Cutback

COVID-19’s impact on Trinidad and Tobago extends to education as well. Online learning has taken place since schools closed in March 2020. However, The Ministry of Education estimates that the resources needed to participate in school online are inaccessible to 60,000 students. The Ministry has provided most teachers with laptops but has not resolved the accessibility issue for poorer students. The Catholic Board of Education stepped in during 2020, partnering with the Telecommunications Services of Trinidad and Tobago (TSTT) to bring internet connectivity to almost 2,000 students in need.

Trinbagonians, mainly students who were studying abroad when the borders closed, have spent over a year stranded in foreign countries. Many have been running low on foreign currency for food and shelter. Local media outlets have been covering the plight of these nationals and encouraging locals to utilize various money-transfer platforms to help them. The government recently launched an Exemption Program to slowly repatriate locals through the regional airline.

Thirdly, the Ministry reduced academic scholarships for tertiary education from 400 to 100 and cut postgraduate funding due to the pandemic. However, the Hindu religious group Maha Sabher is fighting for the affected students’ right to education. It has filed a lawsuit against the government’s new policy which they describe as “unlawful, unfair, deprived students of a legitimate expectation to be assessed for scholarships on academic performance.”

One student who qualified for a scholarship under the previous policy has resorted to funding her medical degree via Gofundme. “It’s unfair how our government handled education during COVID, but people online have been so generous,” she told The Borgen Project.

Vaccinations

Willing Trinbagonians aged 60+ are gradually receiving vaccinations, in addition to public officials, some essential workers and some high-risk cases. Trinidad and Tobago’s government found vaccines difficult to secure so it has been depending on gifted doses. Luckily, other countries stepped up as Barbados,  Grenada, St. Vincent, Bermuda, the Grenadines and India donated a total of 64,500 AstraZeneca vaccines, China donated 200,000 Sinopharm vaccines and the U.S. donated 400 Pfizer vaccines.

In the words of ECLAC’s Executive Secretary Alicia Bárcena, “No country will be able to fight this pandemic without global and regional cooperation. At the end of the day, what we really need to consider is what will happen to multilateralism. There must be more integration. Without a doubt, we must move towards greater coordination.”

The aid of global partners has certainly helped alleviate COVID-19’s impact on Trinidad and Tobago. However, while the country’s vaccination efforts continue, its citizens are doing what they can to help each other.

– Serah-Marie Maharaj
Photo: Flickr

10 Facts About Poverty in Central America
Recent news has increasingly mentioned the Northern Triangle, which includes Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and its migration crisis. Each of these countries have economic systems that have similar financial agreements with outside countries. These 10 facts about poverty in Central America will identify issues, solutions and trends that lead back to Central America’s poverty crisis.

10 Facts About Poverty in Central America

  1. The Economy: The political economy of Central America has parallelled that of the world for the past five decades. A combination of factors such as a vulnerable bureaucratic system, a shifting population and aggressive globalization are causing Central America to experience gentrification on a national level, creating more significant gaps between economic classes.
  2. Climate Change: Changes in nature such as unusually warm temperatures, nutrient-poor water and the comeback of the southern pine beetle are occurring throughout the region of Central America. This insect is a result of a change in climate where the ocean temperature rises significantly, placing additional demand on presently strained water reserves.
  3. Population: In the past five decades, Central America’s population has continued to increase with the most considerable change occurring up to the mid-1970s, after which the difference in community numbers became highly sporadic. As the population continues to increase, resources like infrastructure and the economy struggle to match demand. As a result, the levels of poverty and extreme poverty have increased by approximately one percent between 2014 and 2017 and extreme poverty increased two percent between 2014 and 2016. Congresswoman Alicia Barcena mentioned the need for public services such as social security and labor inclusion, and how pairing these resources with increased wages could lessen the amount of poverty.
  4. Legislation: Central American countries are making efforts through previous legislation to alleviate their economic hardships. Since 2004, the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement has promoted stronger trade and stability throughout these regions. FTA reduces the barriers that countries previously had to access U.S. exports. As a result, traded goods all originate between Mexico and Canada with the exceptions of agricultural commodities. These areas give considerable attention to the conditions and the rights of workers in their countries. Countries are currently updating NAFTA to address additional concerns such as how to verify labor standards and eliminate the time restraint on labor violations.
  5. Clean Water Accessibility: Nicaragua is the only country in the region that has substantial access to waterways but the surrounding countries, like Honduras, Guatemala and Peru, do not due to the steep terrain that can make up significant portions of their countries. These collections of water are rarely safe for consumption even if they are accessible. For many households, accessing water is a timely chore that can take hours traveling back and forth between sources of water and homes, and limit people’s ability to attend work or school. For example, around 63 percent of Honduras’ population is living below poverty and those who live in rural areas work as farmers; as a result, their earnings rarely go to education, but rather daily tasks like water collection. To help with water accessibility, Doc Hendley started Wine to Water. Wine to Water is a nonprofit organization that works to bring clean water to underserved communities. It has served over half a million people in over 300 communities, across five continents. To date, it has worked in Honduras within eight communities and aided over 11,000 people.
  6. Literacy: Many regions have limited water supplies that are safe or close in the distance, meaning that in a single day, a trip for a container of water takes several hours. As a region, Central America has lower literacy rates with an average of 79.4, compared to the global average of 83.7. The countries in Central America with the highest literacy rates are Costa Rica and Panama, while the country with the lowest is Guatemala.
  7. The Northern Triangle: The Northern Triangle is a subregion in Central America between El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. These countries have a secure connection with each other economically due to legislation that passed during the 1980s and 1990s. The majority of those changes, however, have had macroeconomic effects on the region leaving large portions of the population enduring unequal access to resources and encouraging many to migrate elsewhere, working against stimulating its economy. The House Committee of Foreign Affairs introduced legislation to address the causes of migration and authorized $577 million in foreign assistance for the years 2020.
  8. Women in Central America: Central American women are facing challenges to raise their economic status while being met with social obstacles. For example, some women in El Salvador meet with sexism, fragile protection and few rights. These challenges, along with limited assets, the possibility of extortion and insufficient education about business management and finances make some businesswomen wary of growing or succeeding with their activities.
  9. Migration: Many people have made efforts to migrate to other countries due to the rising concern of survival. Droughts, economic instability, increased violence between gang members and civilians, corrupt legal systems and a weak government have made daily life challenging.
  10. Violence: The violence in Central America has been on the rise for decades, causing hundreds of thousands of migrants out of the region. Of those who remain in the area, the violence, extortion and corruption are frequent. Legislation such as the Global Fragility Act of 2019 prevents and addresses the primary causes of violence in various countries.

These 10 facts about poverty in Central America emphasize the point that poverty is a broad issue with a number of solutions. While situations in Central America may seem dire, the efforts by nonprofits like Wine to Water and legislation like the Global Fragility Act of 2019 should aid in improving the area’s conditions.

– Kimberly Debnam
Photo: Flickr

Latin_America
According to the U.N., poverty-reduction in Latin America has hit a snag.

The U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, or ECLAC, recently put out an annual report, showing that 28 percent of the region’s population was living in poverty in 2014. Of those 167 million people, 12 percent were living in extreme poverty.

Economic growth in Latin America has slowed recently. The region registered 1.1 percent growth in 2014—its smallest growth rate since 2009. Alicia Barcena, head of the ECLAC, blamed ineffective policy for much of the region’s woes.

“It seems the recovery from the international financial crisis was not taken advantage of sufficiently to strengthen social protection policies that reduce vulnerability from economic cycles,” said Barcena.

ECLAC has called on regional governments to put mechanisms in place that would improve the region’s resilience in the face of global economic downturns.

“Now, in a scenario of a possible reduction in available fiscal resources, more efforts are needed to fortify these policies, establishing solid foundations with the aim of fulfilling the commitments of the post-2015 development agenda,” said Barcena.

While the regional poverty rate has stagnated, some countries, such as Paraguay (from 49.6 percent in 2011 to 40.7 percent in 2013) and Chile (10.9 percent to 7.8 percent), have made significant progress in reducing their poverty rates. Peru (25.8 percent to 23.9 percent), Colombia (32.9 percent to 30.7 percent) and El Salvador (45.3 percent to 40.9 percent) also made positive progress.

ECLAC’s latest report also showed that while the income-based poverty rate has languished in recent years, multidimensional poverty has indeed fallen significantly since 2005.

According to the report, the percentage of the Latin American population living in multidimensional poverty dropped from 39 percent in 2005 to 28 percent in 2012.

Despite the current state of relative economic stagnation, preliminary ECLAC projections for 2015 suggest that there is cause for optimism, forecasting a 2.2 percent regional increase.

The ECLAC’s Third Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States will be held in Costa Rica, January 28-29.

– Parker Carroll

Sources: Andina, El Universal, Mercopress, Reuters, Telesur 1, Telesur 2,
Photo: Huffington Post