Sandy's debt relief opportunity
Heart to Heart
As damaging as hurricane Sandy was to the physical and social infrastructure of the country, there may very well be benefits to be accrued from the disaster.
From the various media reports, it appears as if Sandy did more damage than was previously considered. The category 1 hurricane lashed parts of the island in a fashion that made it seem like a category 2 or 3. The eastern parishes received the brunt of the battering, leaving countless persons homeless and crops completely destroyed. The decimation of the banana crop in St Mary and Portland is particularly detrimental especially at the time of the year when Jamaicans strive to accrue a little extra for the Christmas season. The breadfruit season, just picking up, and an important source of income for peasant farmers and vendors, has also been badly affected. I noticed last weekend that in an attempt to earn some money, vendors had roasted large quantities of breadfruit and had them on sale on the streets. There is no doubt that the damage to agricultural production will have a profound impact on both small and large farmers.
The tragedy of hurricane Sandy is that it has adversely affected the poorest parishes in Jamaica, which to my mind strengthens the case for debt relief.
Member of Parliament for West Portland, Daryl Vaz, was quick in declaring Portland a disaster zone and his pronouncement was self-evident. He called for the necessary support systems and donor funding to be allocated to the parish. I support that call.
What I am a little curious about, however, is why the other members of Parliament for the parishes of St Mary and St Thomas have not made the same request? It seems more sensible to me that the three hardest hit parishes would coalesce and work as a "bloc" in seeking to attract as much aid and assistance as possible.
I am of the view that there is definitely a case to be made for international debt relief for Jamaica at this time, and I would urge the government to quickly tabulate the complete damage caused by Sandy. Already, it is being reported that the damage is well over $1 billion. This is even before the full impact of the hurricane is rigorously assessed.
The reports indicate that the Ministry of Education alone needs an additional $120m to repair structural damage inflicted by Sandy. I'm actually surprised that the figure isn't higher. I visited one school in Kingston where a part of the building lost its roof and water was pouring in unabated, and there are many other schools across the island in the same condition.
The damage to the physical infrastructure, particularly roads and bridges, is staggering. Every road I traverse in Kingston is punctuated with potholes, some of them as deep as ravines and many of them appearing since the hurricane.
I can only imagine the condition of the rural roadways, especially those deep inside the interior of the affected parishes. But the biggest tragedy of all has to do with those people who have been made homeless or otherwise displaced as a result of hurricane Sandy.
The photograph that appeared on the front pages of the two major newspapers last Friday told the full story of the human tragedy associated with the hurricane. The Gleaner showed the picture of a child sitting in the midst of the rubble left after her house was ravaged by Sandy. The Jamaica Observer carried the photo of an elderly woman with her hands over her head in obvious bewilderment with the devastation around her. The house in the backdrop was destroyed.
As of last Wednesday when the hurricane hit, many more Jamaicans have been added to the poverty roll; some I suspect, moving on to the list of those living below the poverty line.
The just-concluded census of homeless people already needs modification to reflect the post-Sandy statistics. Of course, the issue of squatting is squarely back on the table.
For those who don't quite understand or appreciate the perennial problem of squatting, the question must again be asked, "Where must people go when they have been made homeless as a result of natural or man-made disasters? "Instead of threatening the poor and homeless with imprisonment, the government should set aside portions of its vast land holdings for people such as those affected by the recent hurricane.
As I see it, the cumulative social and infrastructural damage caused by hurricane Sandy should trigger a reclassification and reassessment of Jamaica's financial standing and our ability to meet our debt obligations. I urge our government to move swiftly in seeking whatever opportunities there are for debt relief.