Caribbean bloc calls for more equity in COVID vaccine distribution

Jacqueline Charles
·4 min read

The 15-member Caribbean Community Friday called for fair, transparent and equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, noting that some wealthy countries have an abundance of supply while many poorer nations have not received a single dose.

“So far, all that we have received are 170,000 doses gifted to a couple nations from the government of India,” said Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Keith Rowley, chairman of the regional bloc known as CARICOM. “Barbados and Dominica, who received these gifts, graciously shared them around to many of us. This was done by them even as others with millions of doses that they can’t use immediately are refusing to make way for others at the manufacturers’ shipping line.”

Rowley made the call on behalf of the bloc during a virtual appearance sponsored by the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. His plea comes as most Caribbean and Latin American nations continue to wait on deliveries of COVID-19 vaccines from a slow-moving United Nations-backed facility known as COVAX, and as worldwide vaccine shortages and quickly spreading variants of the coronavirus increase the urgency for relief.

Ensuring that the U.N.-backed facility, which made its first delivery to Ghana this week, works to the benefit of small and middle-income countries, like those in the Caribbean, is one area where the United States could play a leadership role, Rowley said, as he welcomed the Biden administration’s commitment to channel $4 billion in it over the next two years. He urged wealthier countries to ensure part of the vaccine supply goes to COVAX.

“The United States more than any other county can change what’s happening right now,” Rowley said. “Unfortunately, what has happened and is happening is ...the larger more powerful countries with more influential politics and fatter wallets are literally dominating the supply and distribution of what vaccines are available.”

Earlier this week, the director of the Pan American Health Organization, Dr. Carissa Etienne, said that increasing access to COVID-19 in the Americas should be a global top priority. Etienne said it is not acceptable that only 28 countries and territories in the region have received vaccines through bilateral deals or from other countries like India.

“Our region has been hit harder by the pandemic than any other and millions remain vulnerable to infection and death,” Etienne said. “The life-saving power of vaccines should not be a privilege for the few, but a right for all.”

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During his speech to the Atlantic Council, Rowley said some small islands in the tourism-dependent Caribbean have had their economies decimated. The virus has forced the closure of borders, crippled growth and fueled a debt crisis that is erasing economic gains. He made a strong appeal for debt relief and access to low-income loans.

While ensuring that as many Caribbean nationals are vaccinated as early as possible against COVID-19 is the top priority for CARICOM, Rowley said the regional bloc is also concerned about security, prosperity, energy, education and health.

“This juncture in time is an excellent opportunity to reset relations between the United States and our region, on these very issues,” he said.

As part of that new relationship, Rowley said CARICOM wants to see a “dispassionate, early review of the United States’ “scorched earth policy” toward Venezuela and a thawing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

“We know the nature of the issues and the history of the challenges in both areas,” Rowley said. “However, we were very disappointed when the United States recently reversed the very welcome, halting steps toward normalization of the relationship; and most recently the announcement of the unconvincing designation of Cuba as a terrorist-sponsoring state.”

While CARICOM has always been united on its Cuba position, the bloc under the previous Trump administration found its relationship with both the U.S and fellow members tested as they divided on the subject. Rowley said Friday that the U.S.’s “ineffective, harsh policies and sanctions are contributing immensely to widespread additional discriminate suffering in this Caribbean nation.”

With Venezuela, Caribbean leaders want the U.S. to “give the dialogue a chance. Norway has encouraged that and so did Mexico. The United States once again has the stature and the interest to bring the Venezuelan parties to a table.”