Fortunately for the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), U.S. President Joe Biden has committed to re-engaging with multilateral organizations. Equally fortunate for the United States, CARICOM members have laid the groundwork on how a state or states should engage in multilateralism. CARICOM members have had to do so out of necessity since the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change continue to batter their economies and the livelihoods of their citizens. In the spirit of finding consensus-driven solutions, multilateralism has been CARICOM’s tool of choice to address global challenges.
CARICOM is strategically using its collective weight in multilateral organizations to advance and highlight the challenges faced by Caribbean nations and propose solutions for a response based on international solidarity and cooperation. This has been particularly notable in the resolution championed by the 14 CARICOM members of the Organization of American States (OAS).
In response to vaccine hoarding by a select few nations, mostly richer Western countries, CARICOM nations drafted and successfully negotiated an OAS resolution that was adopted by acclamation. The “Resolution on the Equitable Distribution of COVID-19 Vaccines” was co-sponsored by all CARICOM states as well as eight other OAS members, and it argued that “the world will not survive if 15 percent of the world holds for itself 60 percent of vaccines, and 85 percent of the people must struggle for an equitable share.”
While this resolution was adopted at the hemispheric level, CARICOM leaders also highlighted their cause via global organizations. In February, the Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago and current CARICOM Chair, Dr. Keith Rowley, called on the World Health Organization (WHO) to immediately convene an international convention on vaccine distribution to “explain, assist, and commit to a fair sharing of the available vaccine resources for the benefit of all humankind and not just a privilege[ed] few.”
Caribbean states have continued to advocate for international collaboration as their economies and their citizens’ livelihoods suffer from the effects of the global pandemic. When looking at the impacts of COVID-19 on the Caribbean, the Caribbean Development Bank reported that its 19 members’ economies contracted by 12.8 percent on average. In addition to economic contraction, the lives of Caribbean people have been severely affected in other ways. The Inter-American Development Bank noted that the pandemic has disproportionately affected women more than men, including severe increases in domestic violence and worsening gender equalities in the Caribbean’s labor market.
As Caribbean states wait for support from their allies, governments throughout the region have begun sharing vaccines with their neighbors, an action that has encouraged reciprocal behavior from other nations. For instance, when India donated 100,000 vaccines to Barbados and 70,000 to Dominica, both countries’ Prime Ministers subsequently gave vaccines to other CARICOM members. Similarly, in Antigua and Barbuda, after receiving a donation of vaccines from India, the Prime Minister of Antigua stated that 5,000 of those vaccines would be given to Grenada.
However, even as CARICOM members use all available mechanisms to draw attention to the challenges they and other developing states face during the pandemic, their efforts are not enough. They need the support of their allies, in particular wealthier nations, such as the United States.
The region’s governments have achieved a fair amount with limited resources. Still, the United States—with its political and economic clout—can support CARICOM and build upon the existing progress achieved by the regional body. To do so would help the U.S. win additional favor with allies in the Caribbean, especially as the United States competes with China’s growing presence in the region. China has already begun to donate vaccines and provide additional aid to Caribbean countries.
For the U.S. to act as an effective ally in the region, President Biden must engage with an action-oriented, consensus-driven approach to multilateralism, especially with nations closest to its borders, particularly nations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Re-engaging with the WHO and committing USD $4 billion to the COVAX initiative are insufficient, as these actions fall short of having an immediate impact on the region’s needs. Countries set to receive vaccines via the COVAX mechanism will not get enough to vaccinate their citizens in 2021, meaning Caribbean economies are unlikely to completely re-open by year’s end, which would further stagnate growth and exacerbate pre-existing systemic and structural problems.
Therefore, the Biden Administration should first begin by sharing vaccines with its allies in CARICOM and, more broadly, Latin America. Doing so would move past symbolic announcements of engaging with multilateral institutions and instead progress toward action-oriented approaches. As an added bonus, this would help rebuild Washington’s credibility and legitimacy as a partner in the region after the former administration’s disengagement with its southern neighbors.
Further, the United States should be more active on the global stage. CARICOM, with its collective might, has already called for an international summit on vaccine distribution. CARICOM alone might not have the political weight to ensure that this occurs, but momentum is growing in the developing world, thus creating a perfect opportunity for the U.S. to garner favor and support this call.
It is understandable that most of President Biden’s efforts have targeted vaccinating U.S. citizens, but how he manages the distribution of vaccines at a regional and global level will set the tone for subsequent multilateral efforts. The small states of CARICOM have already proven the effectiveness of using multilateral systems to advance hemispheric solutions. Perhaps President Biden, the leader of the world’s largest economy, should follow the example set by the small nations of CARICOM.
Wazim Mowla is a Guyanese American Program Assistant for the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center’s Caribbean Initiative and is an MA candidate at American University’s School of International Service.