Are some among us desperately trying to have one of the worst economic and social periods in our history repeat itself?
Early last month I wrote in this space, among other things: “We are not in the position of Sri Lanka and Peru today because of the work started by former finance ministers Audley Shaw and Dr Peter Phillips.” (Jamaica Observer, April 10, 2022) I alerted that we could easily squander the critical economic and social gains that we have made in the last 20 years if we returned to the debilitating habits which got us into trouble in the first place.
It seems I spoke too soon.
Some among us don’t seem to understand why Sri Lanka is teetering on the edge of total social and economic chaos today. In the mentioned article, I noted that credible media, like Reuters and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), had reported that ships docked in Sri Lankan harbours refused to offload their cargo because the Sri Lankan Government had no money to pay them. Things are worse. Last Tuesday, Reuters reported that Sri Lanka was down to her last day of petrol.
Twenty years ago, not for the first time, Jamaica’s economy was drowning under the weight of high inflation, unemployment, absence of meaningful economic growth, and mounting debt.
Jamaica, not for the first time, became the butt of jokes in the region and internationally. We were written off as a basket case — a pariah economy that was nearly irredeemable. I recall many of the supremely negative stories that were written about the state of Jamaica’s economy in leading international publications. Dr Peter Phillips recounted several severely embarrassing instances when he and his team had to bite their lips, as we say in local parlance, while Jamaica negotiated desperately needed balance of payment support for our economy.
Some among us seem to have forgot the wage freezes that public sector workers had to endure. This pointed declaration by Dr Phillips, “It nuh mek sense yuh bruk empty shop,” tells a story. The shop has a few items now. We must resolve, never again! And seek to repudiate those who clamour for a return of the bad ole days.
SO MUCH TROUBLE …
Bob Marley, in one of his seminal tunes, So Much Trouble in the World, sang: “The way earthly things are going, anything can happen.”
The reality is, the world economy is at a frightful crossroads. The novel coronavirus pandemic has dealt a particularly cruel blow to the productive capacity of small island developing states (SIS) like Jamaica. Our tourism industry has just started to recover. Mining in general is still on its face, if not on its knees. Agriculture has just started to regain some promise, while construction, the services sector, and non-traditional areas are just regaining strength.
One does not need to have a PhD in economics to recognise that Jamaica’s economy is delicately perched. Those who believe the pandemic is over might be oblivious to what’s happening in China, for example, with the recent massive rise in COVID-19 infections. What does this mean for Jamaica? As China’s novel coronavirus infections mount, its economy skids. This translates into lockdowns of key industries and worsens the disruptions in the global supply chain, which means greater troubles in Jamaica.
Our biggest trading partner, the USA, is currently under the weight of its fifth novel coronavirus wave. Some credible media report that, on average, the USA now has 90,000 cases per day.
We in Jamaica are also experiencing our fifth wave of the novel coronavirus. Hospitalisations, like in the USA, are climbing in Jamaica. Some among us pretend that they are totally oblivious to these realities.
They pretend, too, that they are oblivious to the fact that a recent United Nations report says that 107 countries face one of these risks: tougher financial conditions and rising energy and food prices. A recent World Bank statement said a severe global debt crisis is looming.
These stifling realities are taking place in a context in which global debt has reached US$226 trillion. Severe famine is already ripping the heart out of some countries in Africa and drought and heatwaves are aplenty across the globe.
As if those troubles were not enough, the unprovoked attack on the Ukraine by Russia has exacerbated existing turmoil in the global economy.
Jamaica is feeling the full bite of Russia’s attack on one of the breadbaskets of the world. And the weekly increases at the gas pump coupled with spiralling inflation are causing the working poor and the middle classes to see peeny-walley.
But things could get ‘wussarah’ if we allow some to pull wool over our eyes.
They are interested only in saving their own skin at the expense of an entire nation.
Again, we should interpret what is happening in Sri Lanka as a harbinger. Sri Lanka is straining under an avalanche of debt. Few countries are prepared to lend them any money. Bilateral support from India, a great friend of Sri Lanka, is shrinking, according to recent reports in The Wall Street Journal and The Economist. Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves are at an all time low, and its cupboard is near empty. Reports on the BBC say the Rajapaksa Brothers spent more than the national income and implemented ‘generous’ tax cuts which toppled Sri Lanka’s economy.
No matter the Anancy strategies of some, those who genuinely care about safeguarding this country must walk wide of the dreadful mistakes which are causing the Sri Lankan economy to capsize.
We must protect the recovery legacy started by former prime ministers Bruce Golding and Portia Simpson Miller with Audley Shaw and Dr Peter Phillips, then ministers of the national purse. Those who trumpet that the best way to get attention is to create national dislocation are stroking economic and social fallout, which they will be totally protected from, were we to buy their moonshine.
After years of national sacrifice, the country, by all objective indicators, is approaching the point at which we can credibly say she has moved past the worst. Our net international reserves (NIR) was at $3.73 billion in April 2022 and unemployment at 6.2 per cent is the lowest since we started to keep such records. The major international rating agencies have given Jamaica the thumbs up as our debt decreases and the economy recovers, achieving real growth, notwithstanding the ravages of the pandemic.
PIECE OF THE PIE
The workers of this country whose blood, sweat, and tears have helped to secure Jamaica’s economic recovery deserve to get a bigger/better piece of the pie. But that cannot mean that we throw down our marbles and take to the streets and, in effect, end up being penny-wise and pound-foolish.
Unions must engage the Government in tough and smart negotiations as they do not earn their keep, in my view, by effectively boxing bread out of the mouths of their dues-paying members and, by extension, other workers.
Our Government, of course, needs to broaden its communication with the unions. Democratic governments have not just a responsibility, but a duty to listen. I believe that whatever accommodation that is needed on all sides must be pursued to prevent costly lockdowns, outages, and stoppages.
I heard the Minister of Toursim Edmund Bartlett say on radio last Wednesday that the action of the air traffic controllers could have cost the country as much as $3 billion in lost revenue. All Jamaicans lose here.
On the matter of losing, our children have suffered perhaps more than any other group since the onset of the pandemic just over two years ago. In previous articles I presented copious data on learning loss and the like.
Some, because of blatant ignorance, and others, because of sinister motivations, are making the lives of our children and law-abiding adults that much harder. Consider this: ‘Students unable to sit exams as Darliston road remains blocked.’
Last Tuesday’s Jamaica Observer noted, among other things: “For a second day, the road remains blocked rendering it impassable to vehicular and passenger traffic. A student of Manning’s School who lives in the community and who did not want to be identified by name told Observer Online that she missed an exam yesterday.
“I haven’t been able to go to school, it is still impassable down by Whithorn and all other entrances and exits,” she explained.
“I missed an exam yesterday — physical education CAPE [Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination] — that was scheduled for 8:00 am.”
I am not for one moment saying residents ought not to demonstrate their disgust with bad roads and related poor amenities, however, cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face does not make any sense. The demonstrators could have registered their disgust without causing serious injury to others.
I saw a video that showed several demonstrators in Darliston, equipped with power saws, cutting down trees that were used to block roads. This suggests to me that the intent was to create the greatest dislocation and disruption possible.
In recent weeks, I have seen demonstrations in which people have blocked roads with debris and large implements. Students who need to go to school, old people who need to access medical services, and scores of other law-abiding citizens, as a consequence, are trapped in their communities. This is wrong, dangerous, and as I understand, illegal. This madness must be stopped before it cannot be controlled and people are injured and/or killed.
Students in every nook and cranny of Jamaica need our help, especially at this time. They are under unprecedented pressures.
More pressure was placed on them, indeed all of Jamaica, when last Wednesday Minister of Health and Wellness Dr Christopher Tufton confirmed that Jamaica was experiencing a fifth wave of the novel coronavirus infection.
Those who thought the novel coronavirus had become fatigued, by now might have recognised their error.
The social and economic fallout because of worker absences, production slowdown, and losses are already having a biting impact on hundreds of Jamaicans.
Some schools have had to revert to online teaching for some students, just when education stakeholders were getting back into the rhythm of face-to-face learning. Notwithstanding the challenges that a fifth wave will throw in our direction, we must not take refuge in a state of panic. Instead, I believe we must apply the knowledge of the novel coronavirus garnered over the last two years. The fact is, only a handful can afford to become economic and/or social hermits.
Last Thursday, the Ministry Education and Youth reintroduced the mask mandate in schools. This makes sense. We must do everything possible to prevent a repeat of the near wholesale shutdown of schools that took place during the last two years. Why? Consider this: According to a recent report published by the World Bank, UNICEF, and UNESCO, up to US$17 trillion in lifetime earnings could be lost by the current generation of students because of the pandemic.
And last week, a World Bank study told us that Jamaican students are at serious risk of losing 12 per cent of their earning potential if the learning loss of the last two years is not successfully reversed.
We should all be very irritated when we see some among us piling more obstacles in the way of our students as happened in Darliston.
A regular reader sent me a rather long e-mail last Thursday complaining that I had stopped highlighting suggestions from them. I plead guilty.
I am making the adjustment now and will continue in the coming weeks.
Here is a suggestion from one of my readers, which I believe has merit.
“Saw the above picture and the supporting article in today’s edition (January 23, 2022) of The Gleaner and wondered if the building could be converted to become an extension to KPH [Kingston Public Hospital] or converted to become a midtown condo housing (retirement home) with on-site medical staff, gym, recreation room, communal dining, all for retired civil servants who have fallen on hard times?” KS, England
I appreciate the views of all my readers.
Garfield Higgins is an educator and journalist. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.