Post 417.

HOW ARE Caribbean people coping in the pandemic? This is important to ask, for it connects those discussing diversification with those examining social protection, bringing the social together with the economic in ways we must consider.

If Caribbean households are becoming poorer, have exhausted their savings or increased their debt, and are raising tens of thousands of children whose educational performance (and future earnings) are set back, to what extent must our economic plans address the familial and generational shock that more greatly defines our future labour force, consumer demand, and psychosocial health?

The Caribbean Policy Research Institute (Capri) in Jamaica just published its report, “Insult to Injury: The Impact of Covid19 on Vulnerable Persons and Businesses.” It reviews Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago, and helps us know the state of insecurity across our sister isles.

There is a lot to say in response to my opening questions.

As we already know, nearly all households across the region are experiencing decreased income. However, more “women are becoming permanently unemployed than men, exacerbating their existing situation of having lower incomes, precarious work, and higher unemployment.” Capri’s survey showed that 18 per cent of respondents were no longer able to work due to care roles in Jamaica compared with 17 per cent in TT, six per cent in Antigua and Barbuda, and seven per cent in Barbados.

Both women and men equally reported care work affecting their ability to earn an income and, thus, reduced earnings. However, in terms of not being able to work at all, the impact on women was more than double, affecting 13 per cent of them versus five per cent of males. In a region with a high number of woman-headed households, this implies a significant increase in daily familial stress and insecurity.

As we also know, there is increased demand for social assistance to meet basic household needs, particularly for those below the poverty line. It’s also been well established that inequalities in student access to online learning are a crisis in the making. There’s great regional variation, however, with 34 per cent of students in Jamaica versus only 11 in TT reporting difficulty focusing on schoolwork.

Up to January 2021, 30,000 of our children were still without devices. Capri offers comparisons of those surveyed, showing that 44 per cent in Jamaica, 14 per cent in TT, five per cent in Antigua and Barbuda, and two per cent in Barbados reported no access to the internet.

I want to highlight the report’s focus on access to food, particularly in terms of the poorest households in our region. The impact on the poor is significant and unequal, pointing to a widening gap even among those at the bottom.

For example, Capri reports that 60 per cent of respondents from poor households below the poverty line were unable to buy food because of high prices, compared to 34 per cent of non-poor households which were just above the poverty line, and 47 per cent of respondents from households with children were unable to buy food because the price was too high. More specifically, “poor households reported having to reduce the number or portion of meals they eat each day, almost twice as much (29 per cent) as non-poor households (17 per cent).”

Only ten per cent of respondents in TT reported this compared to 49 per cent of respondents in Jamaica, but the recession is deepening in TT and deficit- and debt-financing can only float us for so long. We should also note the particular precarity of Venezuelan migrants, who exist in the no man’s land of our state policy, which offers no clear position on asylum or refugee possibilities. This affects their access to income and ultimately food.

We are here already. San Fernando Business Association president Daphne Bartlett has been quoted assaying, “Half a pound of flour is being sold. Also, a half-pound of rice. People are cutting a margarine in half and selling it. That tells you that consumers’ purchasing power is really bad.”

Across the region, economic contraction means increasing hunger, greater dependence on the State, higher crime, riskier forms of livelihood, and social unrest; further undermining our collective vulnerability. Concern for unequal and increasing financial, nutritional, and psychological depletion among the most poor has to be woven through our aspirations to generate wealth that includes and uplifts, rather than just distributes subsistence welfare.

The alternative is expansion of those unable to cope, and small societies with appalling wealth inequality. Let’s consider recovery options that don’t add “insult to injury.”

Entry 356.

Christmas is such an important cultural ritual. Daniel Miller, my old PhD supervisor, describes Christmas as the most global and local of festivals at the same time. It’s materialistic, but also unapologetically about family and kinship. It enables us to keep up with the newest and latest in modern products on the internet and TV and, yet, is celebrated for its distinctly historical customs.

Christmas in Trinidad and Tobago is also an unapologetically nationalistic moment for affirming that, despite corruption, inefficiency and inequality, “Trini Christmas is the best”.

If you’ve had a hard year, struggle to figure out your next step each morning and sometimes wonder at the point of life, there’s a sense of belonging that this season can provide across ethnicity, religion and geography. But, can we also see the effects of economic tightening on changing social practices of tradition, home and family?

There were probably 15 000 workers retrenched in the last four years, and it doesn’t seem possible that they have been fully reabsorbed into the legal labour market. Many were factory and refinery workers. Others were public servants and even tertiary educators.

In addition, there’s an entire tier in the public service on short-term contracts of a month or three months, with no wage security. There is also a broad informal economy affected by these lay-offs, such as those in catering or hair dressing. Only so many of these could be surviving as small-scale entrepreneurs.

Yet, the malls and grocery stores were full of shoppers. Where is all the money coming from? How are so women and men managing a time of year that relies on having money to spend?

Would these under-employed or unemployed women and men be looked after by family with more stable income, and invited to their homes this Christmas as costs for food and drink are absorbed by those with more, as part of the spirit of giving?

Would those with more time and less money help out more with preparations such as cooking and cleaning of the house, putting in greater labour as their contribution to collective sharing? Do neighbours still expect to be able to drop by for drink, and has this become more important as human connection bridges hardship at these times?

Giving toys to poor children has long been an act of generosity by a wide range of organisations and individuals. Have the numbers of these children increased? What are the shifts felt by our youngest, whose parents may be working more jobs or longer hours to earn the same income, and for whom this has become a time of anxiety and management of their self-presentation for when they return to school in January?

As social as Christmas is, it’s also deeply economic, and can tell us much about families’ adjustment to new realities. Still, keep in mind that these realities are cyclical, and another generation will remember us being here before.

Miller’s research on Christmas was conducted in the 1980s, and presents a curious mirror to now, given the downturn that characterized the early part of that decade. The Trinidad Mirror of December 13, 1988 begins, “Do you remember the time when you couldn’t get that Christmas feeling unless your home was well stocked with Europe’s best whisky, cognac, brandy and wines, not forgetting the apples and grapes that lent some colour to the joyous occasion?” The Christmas Day Sunday Guardian supplement contrasted the year to an earlier boom period when, ““It was a straight case of who could outdo who . . . who could have the bigger staff party; who could buy the more expensive gifts.”

As nostalgic as Christmas is, we are unlikely to return to our elders’ coping strategies with greater poverty.  Miller quotes Angela Pidduck,  in the Trinidad Express, 19 Dec. 1990, describing how her “grandmother pulled out the old hand sewing-machine, she cut the curtains and Morris chair cushion covers, we the children (boys and girls) took turns turning the handle . …But there was warmth, sharing and love.

Warmth, sharing and love will carry us through the day and its demands, just as it has carried the country through the financial struggles of our energy-dependent economy.

As you eat, drink, unwrap gifts and admire new curtains, painted walls and polished floors, know that many had to make difficult and creative decisions to connect to a tradition that excludes as much as it creates belonging, and is expressed by care as much as by money in a recession year.

 

Post 270.

Last year’s politically-astute megahit touched a deep chord in people’s spinal cord. Ultimate Rejects-MX Prime’s ‘Full Extreme‘ brilliantly called out the disaster that is Port of Spain’s governance of the nation’s treasury and economy. It also celebrated the popular necessity of taking jammin, giving jammin, and jammin still, which is the only way to endure hardship, hold on to an ideal of fulfillment, and experience enough bodily exuberance, however fleeting, to lift the spirit.

What to do in the midst of a recession that, as Terrence Farrell tells us, the government refuses to fix? Doh business; a piece of advice as complex as any proverb or framed verse of Desiderata, rephrased in the grammar of soca.

One year, thousands of lay-offs and hundreds of dead bodies later, we need another refrain to carry us collectively through this season. 2018 Carnival’s expected Road March, ‘Soca Kingdom’, brings the success of Machel’s signature hard pong and invokes the obeah of Super Blue, but provides few of the political layers of last year.

The Boy King offers bare description of ‘wining all in front of the people business place’. There will be wining and it will occur in front of locked and shuttered business places, but there’s no comparable ‘kaiso, kaiso!’ in this line’s lyrical imagining of the dream and dread of sovereignty over our twin-island domain.

Lloyd Best is in my head as I think about this, with his view that none of us yet consider ourselves the owners in this place. Rather, we all understand ourselves as workers and second-class citizens; mere proletarians without capital to be in charge. You only “party like a VIP” if you are not partying as a VIP. If, indeed, you not a VIP. You only wining in front of “the people” business place if those people are others and not you.

I suppose, on reflection, rather than normalizing classist barricades which have invaded fete spaces over the past decade with VVIP sections promising champagne in mauby times, Machel’s instruction actually names the paltry and narrowed terms of our social contract, and distribution of wealth and power in our political-economy.

An elite some get to be “the people”, an aspiring some get near enough to act “like”, and the rest must make the most of wining over countless road pothole, the most obvious and common symbol of how smartmen in a contractocracy become VVIP.

A major problem, any economist will tell you, is that business in Trinidad and Tobago is often dependent on state funds or on imports, and with oil and gas production and prices low, neither does the state have funds nor are we earning enough to sustain a model premised on imports, not even a Carnival model masquerading as local when premised on imports.

Back to champagne and mauby. The Trinidad and Tobago Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (TTEITI) released a report on our “new normal” in January, showing that we are spending more than we are earning, and it’s clear that the management of our resources, investments, and plans for sustainable revenue generation have been and continue to be poor.

So, unfortunately, when the wining is done, somebody is going to have to business about the people business place, which is the government and nation, and start business places that create rather than lay off jobs, bringing in rather than spending foreign exchange.

Otherwise, the biggest business in the place will be crime, and the gangs will run communities like they own them, murdering whomever they choose, which is how de facto sovereign power works when the social contract meant to protect the People’s business fails.

In this Soca Kingdom, we have to rule from inside, rather than being in front and locked out. To quote Growling Tiger, money is King, and we are set to find out if it’s really true, that when you are broken, a dog is better off than you.

Post 219.

We are stewards of our nation.

Each morning, waking to a fresh opportunity to refuse a dark time for now or the future.  The alternative to boom and bust cycles may not feed our glittering fantasy of El Dorado, but it can fire hope amidst an oncoming bruising and battering for self-preservation.

The question of where to cut and to invest are ours, not the government or the Prime Minister, but we citizen’s own. We must look around our communities, at ourselves and with our representatives, and insist on our own budgetary priorities. For this reason, I appreciated the Prime Minister’s address, particularly the presentation of numbers and his direct challenge to the business community to share profits. All of us have to find more ways to go local and spend wisely. In the last decade when even workers were only drinking Johnny Walker, we were clearly living beyond our means.

My first choice for investment is the environment and renewable energy. Our natural resources will sustain wealth for generations, even centuries. And, when it comes to our air, seas and rivers, we will not get a second chance. Trinidad is full of permaculture and environmental management specialists who can tell us how our environment produces food, community and profit. Planning should anticipate how cost saving, health and wealth generation could look in seven generations. For such sustainability, now is the time to invest.

Culture is also on my priority list. Not the millions won in a night by soca stars, but investment in the yards of pan and mas making. Over years of doctoral ethnographic research with mas camps, I came to understand the incredible way that they sustain traditions to land, language, life lessons, and making a living. Going for wide dispersion of available funds to create community around the families and schools of jab jab, or blue devil, moko jumbies or Indian mas can also help with tackling issues of boys and masculinities.

On the supply side, the governments’ plan to stimulate jobs through the construction sector, e.g. plumbers, masons and joiners, will disproportionately benefit men. This has social costs, and reproduces women’s economic dependence, and their clustering in low waged sectors. Such explicitly gendered effects have to be empirically understood if this is pursued, along with strategies to equalize access of qualified individuals of both sexes to a construction boom. The location of a Gender Division under the Office of the PM should provide exactly such cross-sectoral policy analysis and direction. Also keep in mind that while taxes, particularly on land, are necessary, sales tax always affects women more because of their greater responsibility for food provision and making groceries.

Beyond economic policy, the government’s primary focus should be on containing corruption through measured change in effective public service monitoring and evaluation, passage of whistleblower legislation, and successful prosecution of cases. Sheer waste and mismanagement of money account for billions bled from schools, hospitals and NGOs. Governments like to say that people don’t show up to town hall and regional corporation meetings, but people know the consultation process can also be both insult and joke. Still, even if it is only through a media that powerfully tackles fiscal scandals, we must insist on government for the people, which means suturing waste and corruption in 2016.

Wherever you are when the year begins, may you experience it with safety and joy, and carry a sense of togetherness in your heart in the days ahead. May we remain pensive, grateful and blessed, drawing on our best sources for long term sustainability. Let us be guided by ground up lessons on opportunities for our islands to navigate predicted rough seas.

“Who are the magnificent here? Not I with this torn shirt”, you may say. Even with scars upon our soul, wounds on our bodies, fury in our hands and scorn for ourselves, to quote Martin Carter, it is possible to turn to the world of tomorrow with strength. The sources of such strength are all around us to recognise.

My new-year tune is Nina Simone’s song, ‘Feeling Good’. There is a new dawn. There is always a new day. Tomorrow when you awake, look it up and press play.