Not easy for the poor to social distance, study online or work from home

Not easy for the poor to social distance, study online or work from home

Sunday, September 13, 2020

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As the new Administration steps up its management of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to bear in mind the impact of Jamaica's dire poverty on efforts to curtail the spread of the coronavirus disease.

The majority of Jamaicans are so poor that they cannot do effective social distancing because of the densely populated communities in which they live. Nor can they social distance in an overcrowded minibus, the transportation of choice for a great many.

Most cannot afford sanitisers on a consistent basis or do not have the means to wash hands with soap and water every time they should, not to mention that they were not in the habit anyhow.

Far too many schoolchildren do not have the equipment or Internet access to do online learning. Working from home is not always an option if work is manual. Stocking up on groceries is a luxury most cannot afford.

The urgency of now must clearly be to tackle poverty with utmost energy, recognising that Jamaica has always been a society marred by extreme inequality going all the way back to slave society.

After slavery, the poor were deliberately kept so by depriving them of Crown lands to force them to continue to work on the sugar plantations. Similarly, a very small middle class was constrained in their emergence because under colonialism, nearly all the top jobs were held by English expatriates.

This prompted historian Philip Curtin to speak of the 'Two Jamaicas' and sociologist M G Smith to coin the phase 'Plural society'. In the 1930s, there was a major rebellion of the working poor. The situation was so bad even after the halcyon period of economic growth in the 1960s that the concept of the haves and the have-nots emerged.

The crisis of persistent poverty led to a massive programme of social reforms starting in the 1970s. But there has been a slowing down in such programmes, mainly because of economic stagnation.

Mass poverty continues and greater migration and the continuous escalation of crime and murder have become graphic barometers of poverty. Too many Jamaicans are forced to rely on the barrel and remittances for their existence.

Statistical data since the 1950s to the present document an extremely uneven distribution of income. The distribution of wealth is even more extreme as revealed by the ownership of land, housing and means of production.

The wealthiest 20 per cent of Jamaicans controlled 43.9 per cent of the wealth, while the poorest 20 per cent controlled only seven per cent. In fact, the poorest 60 per cent controlled just 34.3 per cent of wealth.

Every society has differences in income and wealth but two aspects make the difference between functional and dysfunctional societies. First, the extent of the differences between the richest and the poorest. Second, where the standard of living of the poor is barely above subsistence level.

In Jamaica, there is too much inequality and it is the role of the Government to tackle this with its greatest vigour. COVID-19 will be a short-term obstacle, but we expect to see more reduction in taxes to help ease the burden off the poor.


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