‘Our Economies are Shattered’: Island Countries Cry Out for Help to Fight COVID-19 and Climate Change 
Gaston Browne, Prime Minister and Minister for Finance and Corporate Governance of Antigua and Barbuda, has called on wealthier countries to assist SIDS with a multitude of challenges, including on issues of climate change and COVID-19 vaccine sharing.

Small island states need more help to deal with the effects of climate change as well as the new challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the first World Health Organization (WHO) Small Island Developing States (SIDS) Summit concluded this week.

Following a two day virtual SIDS Summit: For a healthy and resilient future in Small Island Developing States, heads of state, ministers of health, and other stakeholders released an outcome statement prioritising actions that would help them deal with the “acute and existential health and development threats” that they face.

The 25-point statement focuses on needed measures to battle COVID as well as other longstanding health threats, promote sustainable environments, as well as addressing the social and economic impacts of the pandemic – including the critical need to revive island state economies, often built around international tourism as well as trade.

The action plan also calls for more robust emergency preparedness, as well as healthy and sustainable food systems for the island nations beset by more extreme weather, rising sea levels, and related to that, the loss of beaches and mangroves rich in aquatic resources, cultivable land, as well as fresh water resources.

Addressing a WHO briefing on Friday to unpack the outcome statement, Gaston Browne, Prime Minister and Finance Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, said SIDS have been confronting climate challenges with limited resources, now exacerbated by the COVID pandemic.

“While we can list a few accomplishments, the world sometimes turns its back on us. This is happening perhaps a little too often and the pandemic is a typical example as to how the international community has failed to assist SIDS in equal ways…” said Browne.  

This outcome statement requires action by all, and hinges on urgent interventions in addressing the unique vulnerability of SIDS and the inequalities that stand as obstacles to development.”

Vaccine Equity Paramount to Help Defeat the COVID-19 Pandemic

Browne took a swipe at the United States government which was recently asked to clarify whether sanctions against Cuba extend to collaborations on COVID-19 vaccine R&D – as the island nation develops two promising vaccine candidates, Abdala and Soberana 2. 

He applauded Cuba as a “small state that continues as a leader in healthcare and medicines”. Cuba, like many other SIDS, “are promoting the concept of universal health care with significant success despite the fiscal constraints,” he added.  

Browne also raised concerns about COVAX, the global vaccine-sharing facility, saying that small island states can’t get access: “Despite the good efforts of the COVAX facility, development partners are not doing enough,” he said. “Seems like we still have a problem with vaccine nationalization.”

“And that’s compounded by the fact that travel and trade have been curtailed, thereby inflicting red wounds on our economies. So, we now run the risk of disintegrating into what I consider to be economic sclerosis, eroding decades of hard won gains, and that should not be allowed to happen.Our tourism industry is all but at a standstill, said Brown, referring to the tourism trade which has long been a mainstay of many island states. 

“Our economies are shattered and there’s much anxiety among SIDS of the possibility of a protracted pandemic which means that we are left in lockstep with each other in global solidarity in order to effectively defeat this pandemic.”

The outcome statement notes that SIDS are vaccinating at lower rates than the global average and called on the G20 and others to share vaccine doses, testing equipment and other medical tools.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is not over. SIDS must not be left behind in the race to administer vaccines; support to date has been essential, but SIDS need wealthier countries to share more vaccine doses now ideally through COVAX,” reads the statement.

Less Words, More Action Backed by Financial Resources

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus echoed Brown’s sentiments on countries working together on issues of climate change and further highlighted concerns around vaccine equity.

“Their (SIDS) very existence is at risk as (Brown) noted. The same is true for vaccine equity. In many respects many small island developing states have succeeded in preventing widespread transmission of COVID-19 in their communities.”

“We’re in a very dangerous period of this pandemic in those countries with low vaccination coverage, terrible scenes of hospitals overflowing are again becoming the norm, but no country on Earth is out of the woods yet,” said Dr Tedros.

He said the pandemic has “hit you hard in other ways”, in referring to declining revenues from tourism, significantly compounded by more transmissible variants like the Delta variant.

Tedros said “the time for lofty words is over” and called for “concerted action, backed by financial resources to mitigate the consequences of climate change, while we work to keep temperatures down and scale green innovations in terms of the small islands.”

SIDS Challenges to be Advocated at Global Meetings

The SIDS outcome statement also calls for:

  • SIDS health to be  addressed fully in the climate change movement – “One-Point-Five-to-Stay-Alive” – referring to the aspiration to keep average global temperatures below 1.5 C 
  • Healthy, sustainable and resilient food systems that focus on the preservation of biodiversity and deliver healthy diets are essential in SIDS;
  • Better access to COVID vaccines and others pandemic tools; and beyond the pandemic, support for fighting deepseated issues in maternal and child health, communicable and non-communicable diseases (NCDs);
  • More access to digital health technology and other tools for rapid data collection and analytic capacity; and
  • Access to development finance, including finance for the prevention and control of NCDs and climate change action.

Brown  however stressed the need for bolder action to achieve those objectives: 

“Recognizing the interconnectedness of human health and sustainable development requires tackling the social determinants of health while promoting economic resilience,” he said. 

With regards to COVID-19, the outcome statement also highlighted the impact the pandemic has had on mental health, including increased harmful use of alcohol, substance abuse, and gender-based violence, which increases needs for treatment services, social support and rehabilitation. 

To address these issues, the SIDS recommend the advancement of the updated Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2030 and expanded community-based mental health care.

The statement looks forward to upcoming global gatherings, including the UN Food Systems Summit, planned for September, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Conference of Parties (COP26), in Glasgow 31 October-12 November,  and the Nutrition for Growth Summit, planned for December as venues where their agenda can be taken up more directly. Along with that, there is a planned SIDS high-level and ministerial meetings on NCDS in 2022 is another forum where countries will be able to advocate for more awareness and action. 

Image Credits: WHO.

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