Lessons from Barbados

Published 11/07/2022 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Hanah Jun | 11/07/2022

This paper explores the intersection of public health, regional economics, and international finance as it relates to Barbados. More specifically, this paper will investigate the intersection of Barbados’ regional economy and the impact of COVID, within the context of Barbados’ history of colonialism.

The COVID-19 pandemic was the first of its kind to have such a ravaging and unavoidable impact on all parts of the world, creating an unparalleled opportunity to confront the nature and burdens of globalization in the 21st century. Even as the virus held the entirety of the world within its grasp, we have observed that the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated varying magnitudes of impact in different communities, from a micro to national level.

On the highest level, multinational groups have dealt with the pandemic more effectively than others. The European Union rose and fell in large swoops through the 2020 calendar year. Travel bubbles such as New Zealand and Australia were largely successful from an early stage at controlling the virus. Countries not part of such migratory alliances found themselves sinking and rising on their own, bringing into question the efficacy of various government structures. We watched as some authoritarian states, such as Singapore, succeeded in the early stages of the virus, while previously lauded democracies such as the United States crashed and burned with its infection levels—although many counterexamples exist as well.

Within countries, COVID has rampaged through mostly low-income communities of color, brutalized further by droves of job losses and increased hostility between racial, ethnic and gender groups. Higher income communities recovered relatively quickly, and many wealthy patrons fled the cities in which they had previously laid their roots—leaving urban centers drained of capital in the process. Students and professionals found themselves in vastly different circumstances from their peers, remote work stations ranging from private suites within vacation homes to miniature desks in corners of cramped apartments.

I found myself in one of these unlucky educational situations, glued to a twin bed in a small apartment, within one of the largest epicenters of the pandemic (New York City), in turn nested inside a country that could not seem to keep the virus under control under any stakes (the gruesomely divided, “United” States of America). There were, and still are, many other reasons why my home situation was not suitable as an academic environment, which is what initially brought me to search for a new place to remain for the semester, once Yale decided against letting sophomores return to campus for Fall 2020. After weeks of research and risk mitigation planning to prevent the spread of COVID, three other Yalies and I found that it made the most sense to reside in and learn about Barbados.

Barbados’ long history is critical to understanding the current state of its economy and national affairs. Most of its history is told beginning from 1627, when 80 Englishmen first settled on the island, bringing with them 10 slaves captured from Africa (Fraser 2018). This eurocentric start date, however, minimizes the significance of Barbados’ earlier history of colonization. According to BBC, “In the first decade, when settlement was tenuous, the first Barbadian settlers encountered no opposition from Spanish or French rivals, nor was there a native Amerindian presence to overcome. In fact, the opposite occurred” (Watson 2011). However, there is a marked reason why there was no native Amerindian presence when the British began settling on the island. This is because the earliest inhabitants of the island, the Taino (Arawak) and Kalinago (Carib) indigenous groups who began settling on the island starting around 350 CE, were driven out starting in the 1530s by Spanish raiders. The raiders frequently abducted members of these indigeous tribes to enslave them to work on plantations, so many fled the island to escape this dehumanizing fate. Others left due to inter-tribe violence as well. (Fraser 2018).

Since its earliest days, Barbados’ economy was tied to forced labor. The first group of English settlers were farmers who attempted to grow alternate crops such as indigo and tobacco on this small island. These settlers were also investors from England who wanted to elevate their economic situation through the use of racism and dehumanization (Beckles 2017). Barbados was in many ways the beginning of Britain’s first “black slave society” and one of the most inhumane societies recorded in human history (Beckles 2017). And beginning in the 1640s, the rise of the sugar industry, later often referred to as the Sugar Revolution, took over the economy in droves, causing many hundreds of thousands of slaves to be forced into labor to grow this extremely difficult to cultivate, lucrative crop (Watson 2011). Later, Irishmen and Scots defeated by the British in the 1650s would join these ranks of labor as slaves or indentured servants. And within 30 years, Barbados became what was perhaps at one point the wealthiest country in the world due to its sugar economy, although that wealth was mostly concentrated in the hands of those in the highest classes. (Fraser 2018).

During the Sugar Revolution, the population of Barbados began to slowly switch from majority white British to majority black African. Tensions between slaves and owners continued to grow over the 18th century, and in 1807, the slave trade was abolished by the British. In 1815, the British Parliament decided to reject a bill proposed by the African Institution to abolish slavery in the British colonies, and this was one of the most direct forces leading to Bussa’s Slave Rebellion, the largest Barbadian slave revolution in its history. Although the rebellion failed, pressure on the local and national government grew, and slaves were completely freed by 1838. Barbados itself remained a colony of Britain until 1966. (Callaghan 2020).

The state of Barbados’ economy today is heavily tied to its history. Beginning after emancipation, Barbados’ economy slowly began to transform from a low-income economy based almost exclusively on its sugar production to a middle-income economy now based mostly on tourism and international business (Heritage 2020). Towards the latter part of the Sugar Revolution, Barbados found its next large import in the form of rum, which in part resulted from the exorbitant sugar industry already in place on the island (Wilson 2011). Although Barbados has a higher per capita income than most other countries in the Caribbean, parts of its economy are still burdened by the historical weight of slavery. A small, elite class referred to as the plantocracy still retains significant wealth and economic influence derived directly from these families’ ties to sugar plantations of the past. On the other hand, some low-income citizens still live in run-down chattel houses from the days of slavery and emancipation, once-movable properties designed to help tenants in a society where landlords held all of the power (Nations Encyclopedia).

Social and racial divisions are clear throughout the island, with pothole-ridden, low-income neighborhoods just one corner away from an ocean-view strip of empty summer mansions and villas. Places of entertainment are indiscreetly separated as well; for example, clubs such as Harbour Lights—intimately referred to as “Harbour Whites” by some locals—attract a younger, concentrated crowd of wealthier, light-skinned locals, quite starkly noticeable in a country with a majority black (over 92%) population. These distinctions were particularly noticeable during a time when visitors from other countries were far and few apart (VisitBarbados.org 2021).

As a whole, the Bajan economy has faced waves of positive and contracting growth between -6% to 8% in the past decades as it continues to shed the legacy of its single-crop economy. As the Milken Institute’s economic development program emphasizes, “regions succeed or fail based on the resilience and flexibility with which their industries, institutions, and workers anticipate and respond to change” (Milken Institute 2020). It is crucial for Barbados to be able to bear these constant changes as its economy stabilizes, although it has been hit extremely hard through the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly half of its GDP comes from tourism, and about a third of its workforce is employed in the tourism industry. And this sector has all but stopped entirely (Coley-Graham 2020). Its international financing is also severely at risk, as foreign direct investments and remittances drop from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, which are all facing their own economic problems (Coley-Graham 2020). These effects are extremely visible even on the streets, as taxi drivers wait in hordes on what would’ve normally been busy corners, and construction projects funded by international dollars grind to a halt mid-work.

On the public health front, though, Barbados has done a relatively great job managing its COVID-19 situation, particularly until mid-December. Strict entry requirements and community transmission regulations were put into place; all of the new cases were derived from Bajans returning to the island from abroad, and they would be tested immediately and put straight into quarantine, essentially removing any community transmission for many months. Although the shrinkage in the tourism sector hit its economy hard, it proved to have a positive impact on the public health of Barbados, as the population density decreased to a third in popular areas of what it would normally be, and international travel was strictly monitored.

Part of the reason Barbados’ COVID-19 response was so effective was due to a different global health issue: the “‘haunting refrain of inequality’” (Montevago 2020). Barbados and other small economies were, and are, a miniscule part of the global supply chain, as Montevago explains. Their manufacturing capacity was limited, too underdeveloped to significantly produce its own medicine and ventilators. They lacked the economic significance in the global supply chain to get these vital materials in the early months of the pandemic, which is as most things, tied to Barbados’ history of slave-upheld, single-crop labor and its very recent independence.

Although Barbados’ economy has faced many difficulties throughout the entirety of its long history, there is still much potential in its growth past COVID. It will likely see a large economic recovery, as travel spikes higher post-COVID than previous years due to a higher projected demand for vacation. In addition, its online sector is still largely underdeveloped, although mobile-phone penetration has been very high in the area. This means there is still a large area of growth potential in the internet segment here, which has shown revolutionary effects in most of the developed world. Data is still largely limited, and many of these mobile devices are not necessarily smartphones, which pose challenges to this growth, but this is likely to change soon, as COVID has placed immense pressure for development of stable online infrastructure.

This potential is enormous and visible throughout the island. A mobile ride-sharing application being developed on the island shows great potential in increasing accessibility of taxi services across the island. This is a crucial implementation for an island based primarily on tourism, as this opens up potential for attraction development across the entire island and makes finding rides easier for both drivers and riders alike. Cash is still king on the island, but more and more businesses are starting to implement digital transaction and card reader systems, which makes facilitating transactions easier on a vacation island where visitors want to focus on experiences rather than payment logistics. A positive change in the leadership of the island with the election of Prime Minister Mottley in 2018 has helped facilitate development as well, minimizing money laundering and corruption. Although infrastructure has been lowered as a priority due to the pandemic and resulting economic shocks, with a growing economy and influx of international capital, soon the potholes and desolate buildings will be refreshed again.

Of course, this potential is still limited by the narrow scope of economic diversity in its exports. The average income, as in the States, is skewed upwards by the wealthy residents who are still often profiting off the backs of those once enslaved. Lower-income workers often finish off their year with just over $10,000 USD in their pockets on an island with a very high cost of living in comparison to the rest of the Caribbean. Although there is much room for development on the technological front, countries such as the U.S. have shown that the wealth generated by technology is often almost entirely given to its profiteers and little to the masses. On the other hand, the pandemic has played a large role in pushing the tech sector to a more humanistic direction. As discussed during the Milken Institute’s 2020 Future of Health Summit, the pandemic has enabled older adults to access easy ways to connect with others, expedited vital biomedical advancements, and improved processes for human-centric science, advances that Barbados is no stranger to. Although many challenges exist in limited economic diversity and the risks of many industries, there are lessons learned from countries that have already faced these problems, and Barbados must take these into account in designing fair policies with regards to the economy and technology moving forward.

Ultimately, even with these risks and doubts, history has shown us that the path forward is bright. Beyond the disturbing headlines and growing global pessimism, humanity continues to advance at an unparalleled rate, and Barbados will be in line with this trend as well. Creating a sustainable economy and increasing living standards can only effectively occur with sufficient capital and technological advances. Although COVID has caused a step backwards, Barbados will soon be back on track towards economic advancement—and perhaps the Milken Institute will be a vital source of information and guidance in reviving its post-COVID economy in a just and sustainable way.


Works Cited

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Montevago, Jessica. “Barbados Looks to Life After COVID-19.” Travel Market Report: The Voice of The Travel Advisor, 19 Apr. 2020, www.travelmarketreport.com/articles/Barbados-Looks-to-Life-After-COVID-19.

Watson, Dr Karl. “History - British History in Depth: Slavery and Economy in Barbados.” BBC, BBC, 17 Feb. 2011, www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/barbados_01.shtml.