No use trying to wring water out of a dry clothWednesday, February 24, 2021
This is the second budget exercise that is being crafted in the context of the novel coronavirus pandemic. It is prudent, therefore, that the Government be mindful of what its limitations are, what it can or cannot promise, and what has to be delayed for a time when things get better.
We are still in the midst of an existential crisis, the hopes of vaccines notwithstanding. I believe that the Government, through the minister of finance, Dr Nigel Clarke, has given a reasonable parameter in which this year's budget is to be considered. This will, however, be further fleshed out in details when he gives his budget presentation to the country in March.
He has already sent the signal to the country of what to expect. Among these is support for the small business sector that has been severely affected by the beating the economy has undergone. The emphasis on food security and support for the agricultural sector has not gone unnoticed. Neither has the need for capital spending on infrastructural projects which will spur employment and support the construction sector, which has been one of the brighter spots in the present economic malaise. The roll-out of technology to ensure digital connectivity across the length and breadth of the country is being used by the Government to bridge the divide in digital and Internet literacy in the country. All of these activities will spur aggregate demand and bring a level of buoyancy to the economy that we have not seen since the pandemic struck. The devil, as the saying goes, is in the details, so we will await further particulars during the debate.
Once the vaccination programme becomes operative there will be a greater sense of hope that we are on a firm road to achieving our objectives as a nation. People must be encouraged to take the vaccines as soon as they become available. This is the best way in which we will build herd immunity — the build-up of resistance to the spread of a disease if sufficient people are able to build immunity through vaccination. One cannot stress how important this is and how much we must debunk the myths that abound about vaccinations.
Apart from its capital expenditure programmes, the Government is equally mindful that the country cannot afford any large wage increase to any sector in this financial year. The Government is not arguing for a wage freeze, but for some moderate increases, which seem far removed from the expectations of key sectors in the country, such as the teachers, police and nurses. The soundings that we have heard from the representatives of these bodies so far are not encouraging. They demand more and are sounding combative about these demands.
Let us be clear, no one will deny that teachers, police and nurses are never paid a wage that is commensurate with the hard work and risks that they bear every day in Jamaica. They work long hours and often under harsh conditions at the workplace. Under normal times one would expect that they would be given the attention they deserve. But we are not living in normal times, and certainly will not be for the foreseeable future. The pandemic has upended all our lives, savaged the economy, and cauterised any Government's ability to be as generous as it would want to its people.
The fact that the Government is even talking about any salary increase, however moderate, is itself an act of generosity, given the enormous shock from which the economy is still reeling. In the present circumstances, the Government could have easily — and justifiably — said that no increase is forthcoming. I believe that offering a moderate increase is an attempt by the Government to stave off the frothy response that it would get from these important stakeholders. But it is also a statement of the incapacity to do better, given the economic straitjacket that the country is in.
This column would urge these stakeholders to hold strain and be reasonable. In a time of rising crime and the parlous conditions under which they work, I can understand the concerns of the police. They continue to face violent criminality with a constant threat to their lives. I can equally understand the argument of the teachers. They are being called upon to do more in an environment of digital learning to which many were not before exposed. In normal times, teaching is challenging, but it is particularly so in the context of a raging pandemic. Nurses, doctors and other medical professionals face a present and growing existential threat under COVID-19. Some are hardly coping because of the economic necessities they face and the mental strain of the job they do.
But notwithstanding all these factors, there is only so much that any Government with stretched and overburdened economic resources can do. There is the strong suggestion that the country may have to be placed under a lockdown as the virus surges throughout the country and our hospitals become overwhelmed. What would this mean for our economic prospects?
Political leadership is expected to be benevolent, but there are limits to what a Government can do, especially in times of grave crises. It is never possible to wring water out of a dry cloth. There is no sense promising what you cannot deliver. It is in this light that I can find sympathy with the Government's position of a moderate increase for these sectors. In the present milieu the well-worn statement continues to ring true that half of a loaf is better than no bread.
Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest, social commentator, and author of the book WEEP: Why President Donald J. Trump Does Not Deserve A Second Term . Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or email@example.com.
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