Hurricane season is fast approaching, and natural disasters will complicate Central American and Caribbean states’ efforts to vaccinate their populations. A recent volcanic eruption on the island of Saint Vincent offers a preview of just how disruptive these disasters can be. Further, stalled vaccination efforts as a result of climate-related events will add to the existing structural and economic issues facing an already vulnerable and distraught region that is seeing record numbers of migrants arrive at the U.S. border. Therefore, while U.S. President Joe Biden’s announcement that the United States will share excess vaccines with its allies in a few months is a welcome sign for the region, the president might need to speed up his timeline.
Central American and Caribbean states have struggled to vaccinate their citizens. The region’s governments, similar to many developing states, are falling behind the world’s wealthiest nations in acquiring vaccines. For instance, the New York Times recently reported that of the more than 500 million vaccine doses administered globally, more than 75% have gone to the world’s richest states. For comparison, the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center notes that Central America and the Caribbean has received fewer than 45 million doses, not including those that have arrived via the COVAX mechanism. This is for a region that consists of more than 20 states. For much of 2021, vaccine acquisition has been a high priority for the region as it looks to reach herd immunity. At the current pace, forecasts predict Central America and Caribbean states will have wide access to vaccines only in 2022, and even well into 2023.
The region has had to fight for access to vaccines even while addressing the consequences of the pandemic, which have aggravated many of the region’s stressors. Since 2020, many have warned about another so-called lost decade for Latin America. With collapsed morgues and health systems, backsliding on the educational front with over 97% of students out of the classroom at the end of 2020, and rising levels of poverty, the multidimensional crisis will reverberate across the region for years to come.
For the Caribbean, the pandemic has caused severe economic contraction, wiping away years of economic growth. The region’s tourism-dependent states bore the brunt of the pandemic, as these economies contracted by 9.8% in 2020. And while the region might see upticks in economic growth as tourism slowly resumes, many states are cash-strapped, which means that the already debt-burdened Caribbean countries will have to incur additional debt in order to purchase vaccines, as well as provide support to citizens affected by the pandemic.
If a natural disaster were to hit the region, governments will have to use their already limited capacity to respond to the emergency, rather than prioritize vaccinating their citizens. In recent years, natural disasters such as severe hurricanes have decimated livelihoods in the region. These disasters cost lives, displace thousands of people, damage infrastructure, and drain government resources, which are diverted to respond to the devastation.
This is currently on display in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which is suffering the effects of the La Soufrière volcanic eruption. Food and water shortages have meant that the SVG government has had to prioritize the immediate needs of its people rather than focus on vaccinating citizens. In addition, many of the country’s citizens are scattered due to massive evacuations prior to the volcano’s eruption. And since some scientists have reported that eruptions could last from days to weeks, it is likely that those that were evacuated will remain scattered for the foreseeable future. As a result, it will be difficult for the government to administer vaccines to its citizens, some of which are on different islands of the country, while others are in separate countries altogether. At the same time, even though the government and its citizens remain cautious of COVID-19, it will be difficult to ensure that outbreaks do not occur in densely populated areas such as shelters.
Therefore, what is happening in St. Vincent and the Grenadines should serve as an example of the challenges Central American and Caribbean countries will face if a natural disaster strikes. The volcano’s eruption is an extreme event, but the actions required to prepare for the eruption and the effects it has on a government’s capacity are similar to hurricane response, such as when Tropical Storm Eta and Hurricane Iota battered Central America in late 2020.
Six months later, Central America is still struggling with the aftermath of the storms. Infrastructure vulnerabilities have been exposed, including water sources. More than 1.5 million children are vulnerable to contaminated water and susceptible to life-threatening diseases. The United Nations estimates more than 7.3 million people were directly impacted by the hurricanes. Roads too have been destroyed, cutting off already isolated towns from cities, rendering access to government services ever more evasive, and indirectly affecting more citizens. Unfortunately, in a region where there are many more immediate challenges to address, climate change preparedness can seem like a luxury few can afford to focus on. While the unprecedented levels of migrants at the U.S. border are cyclical in nature and are a consequence of the region’s long-standing challenges, additional destruction of villages, food insecurity, and climate destruction will have a direct impact on the numbers of people who leave Central America. In fact, experts find that climate change is a major explaining factor in the current surge. An estimated 34 people leave the Northern Triangle every hour. The United Nations estimates there are more than 8 million starving people in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador -- up from 2.2 million in 2018. If citizens are unable to put food on their tables, they will likely emigrate. Gita Gopinath, International Monetary Fund Chief Economist, believes that vaccination is the “main weapon” for a faster economic recovery-- and lack of economic opportunities is a top reason cited by migrants who leave Central America.
The United States should prioritize Central America and the Caribbean when it comes to vaccine sharing, and there are immediate action items the Biden-Harris administration can take to support its regional allies. Support on early warning signs - and educating citizens on how to act in the face of a potential natural disaster -- could help mitigate some of the more devastating effects of the upcoming hurricane season. Education and technical assistance in responding to natural disasters will help prepare the region as the intensity of climate disasters appears to increase year after year. In addition, the United States should aim to help Central American and Caribbean countries reach herd immunity as quickly as possible. If a hurricane or tropical storm reaches their shores before this occurs, vaccination efforts will take a backseat to addressing the effects of any storm. And the longer the COVID-19 pandemic lingers in the region, the greater likelihood that new variants can emerge, thus potentially rendering developed vaccines less effective.
Finally, the resources needed to address the effects of a climate-related event will make vaccine purchasing almost impossible, in a region highly susceptible to corruption in public procurement. Therefore, in addressing a region in close proximity to the United States -- and as the Biden administration doubles down on addressing the root causes of migration -- any and all efforts to share and coordinate vaccines for the region need to happen sooner rather than later.
Maria Fernanda Bozmoski is the Deputy Director of Programs at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center and Wazim Mowla is the Program Assistant for the Caribbean Initiative at the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. The views expressed are the authors' own.