While the Caribbean is currently experiencing the lowest covid19 infections and death rates in the entire hemisphere, Caribbean people are the sickest people in the world, said Prof Sir Hilary Beckles, president of Universities Caribbean and of UWI.
Beckles said, “Clearly, the Caribbean has done something well. I wish to express gratitude not only to our political leaders but to the university sector.
“It was the university sector that gave the government's necessary information and guidance to enable early public action.
"Our scientists now say in the Caribbean islands the virus has been contained, and that no doubt is a circumstance that is worth celebrating.
"But," he added, "we have the highest per capita incident of hypertension and diabetes.
“Fifty per cent of the people in the Caribbean over the age of 50 have either hypertension, diabetes, or both.”
Beckles was speaking on May 27, during the Universities Caribbean’s One Caribbean virtual forum: Assessing the Impact of Covid19: Designing the Future of the Caribbean University Sector.
Beckles said the Caribbean is already challenged with climate change and chronic diseases, and is now faced with the covid19 pandemic, creating a “cocktail of disasters” within the Caribbean space.
He said it is expected that 25 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) of the Caribbean will be destroyed by covid19.
“While we have been dealing with the climate-change issue and the constant devastation not only of hurricanes but with chronic diseases, we are now called upon to deal with the devastation of covid19.
“All of this is connected into a series of events that constitute an existential threat to the people of the Caribbean.”
Beckles said this will have an enormous impact on the economic development of the region.
Universities, he said, are always the most vulnerable institutions during economic devastation. Many governments, which fund public universities, have said they must to cut their budgets substantially in anticipation of the decline in public funding, he warned.
"The Caribbean Universities have the lowest enrolment in higher education in the hemisphere. We are less than 25 per cent in the hemisphere, where the average is close to 45 per cent, so we already have an enrolment crisis.”
On top of this, Beckles said, universities are already suffering the consequences of low enrolment in higher education and professional training.
He said the covid19 pandemic has threatened to push universities further down the scale.
“We are likely to be experiencing a further reduction in higher education when we are already in the hemisphere at the bottom of that enrolment chart.
“There is a threat to us. We now have to be very careful not to enable covid19 to create an even greater decline in higher education which will affect the development going forward.”
He said regional heads of universities are now contemplating how best to reopen during the covid19 pandemic.
“All of our universities have effectively transitioned to online teaching and learning," Beckles said.
“They now have to take into consideration if there is a need to change the business model to accommodate a degree of face-to-face teachings and maintain a substantial amount of online education.”