Fri | Jun 5, 2020

Mark Ricketts | A nation with a capacity for caring, but much more is needed

Published:Sunday | March 22, 2020 | 12:25 AM

The global pandemic is real, with almost 8,000 deaths worldwide and nearly 200,000 persons having contracted the virus in 155 affected countries.

What is particularly comforting for this country, amid pain and the not knowing, is the bedside and clearly country-side manner of Dr Christopher Tufton and his highly knowledgeable and informative Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Dr Jacquiline Bisasor-McKenzie.

Their voices of comfort, of calm, of compassion, and of reasoned response to articulated concerns quiet the soul, relax the body, and ease the tension as the Trinidadians would say.

When Dr Tufton, the health and wellness minister, assures the nation in that empathetic tone of his “that there is no issue with our capacity to test as there is enough material (reagents) to carry out the requisite examinations”, then all is as well as it can be.

Equally beneficial to the country in assuring that there will be some peace in the valley today is the CMO, who proclaims with conviction “that quarantining people early and waiting on them to display symptoms has the added benefit of preventing them from transmitting the virus to others unknowingly”.

No wonder Jamaica’s health service, with its emphasis on timely information delivery, on tracing possible carriers, on best-practice hospital quarantine arrangements has received kudos from the World Health Organization (WHO) and from US Ambassador Donald Tapia.

WHO Director General said: “Thank you so much for your leadership and preparedness. Being ready for coronavirus is key to pushing it back fast. Together for a safer world.”

The US ambassador congratulated the Government and the Ministry of Health and Wellness for the timely reporting of COVID-19 cases and an aggressive containment strategy. “Jamaica has shown that one of the best defences is appropriate public sensitisation on preventive methods and the importance of early case recognition.”

While Jamaica is not out of the woods, with Italy having over 400 deaths on Wednesday and many countries struggling with how to cope, for this little island to receive such high praises and recognition is both noteworthy and edifying.

Other achievements on the health side include a new state-of-the art medical facility at The University Hospital of the West Indies, which is an isolation ward fully equipped to isolate the patient while not putting the medical staff at risk. Unfortunately, these gains are offset by recessionary forces on the economic front.

Jamaica, being a small, open, tourism-dependent economy, where the service sector accounts for more than 70 per cent of GDP, means that closed borders overseas and severe compression in the transportation sector, including airlines and cruise ships, have produced a level of economic damage that is severe and unforgiving.

This begs the question, as the American crooner Andy Williams asked in Love Story, “Where do I begin?” We could also ask, “Where do we begin?” with the following lyrics.

Where do we begin?

That lies beyond us.

My lies would fade,

Where is truth?

Does it save me and you?

A piercing question that must be asked as the finance minister has already announced three supplemental budgets while upping the ante in light of the COVID-19 virus is, does it save me and you?

These hurried adjustments by Dr Clarke are in response to a rapidly deteriorating economic situation globally. But will they save you and me?

Not to the extent the country would like, given the severity, the suddenness, and the scope of the underlying economic burdens.

The US dollar, which has been reaching new highs lately, is likely to continue very strong because of the need for liquidity in the market and the increased demand for US treasuries. This is likely to create downward pressure on the value of the Jamaican dollar. For importers, any devaluation is disheartening, especially during a period of contraction in the overall economy.

A major driver for the US economy, which has a significant influence and impact on Jamaica in terms of trade, investment inflows, and tourism arrivals and earnings, has been the level of consumer spending in the US. There, schools are closing, the consumer is being advised against non-essential foreign travel and is being reminded to stay indoors.

This closeting of Americans was reinforced, with the State Department telling America not to travel overseas, and for those overseas, to return home. This move will certainly devastate the Jamaican economy as it dashes any hope of quick recovery and any signs of revival in the tourism industry anytime soon.

Oil prices have nosedived recently. This is a plus for oil-consuming countries like Jamaica. However, it is a drag on commodity prices such as aluminium, and even copper, which is hovering at its 2009 recession lows. For us, sharp declines in aluminium prices take their toll on our export earnings of bauxite and alumina.

The sharp contraction in global demand for oil contrasts with an oversupply at ever-lower prices as Saudi Arabia and Russia seem bent on punishing the tar sands and shale producers in North America. Until a rebalancing occurs through a cutback in drilling for oil in the near term, low prices could remain, reinforcing a global recession.

The significant hit faced by the airline industry, where so many airplanes are not flying, and the no-win situation cruise ships find themselves in, has decimated the hospitality industry, forcing hotels in many parishes to start laying off workers.

Entertainment, sporting events - even those such as Champs with massive flow - through impact, attractions, transportation, retailing and wholesaling - so much of what is Jamaica, and where expenditure and earnings generate economic activity, are now lost.

For Government to pick up the tab to stimulate the economy; to rebuild business confidence, which was already waning before the virus became a pandemic; and to take care of all those who have been laid off, are out of work, underemployed, and destitute, will probably require more like $100 billion than the $10 billion to $25 billion, which includes GCT forgone.

The Government’s recent reduction of that tax makes no sense in terms of the infinitesimal amount each individual gives up as against the cumulatively large amount the Government loses.

The country’s current problem is not just the virus and faltering commodity prices, but the absence of productivity increase for decades; paltry growth of nearly one per cent as against the forecast figure of five per cent; inadequate research and development; poor governance; and the persistence of garrisons which subvert competence; and very little in the way of innovation.

An encouraging note is that commercial banks, some of Jamaica’s major hoteliers, some of the country’s leading corporates in other sectors, and various professional groups have committed themselves to being all hands on deck to help guide the country through this crisis.

Compassion has to be our strength.

Mark Ricketts is an economist, author, and lecturer. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and rckttsmrk@yahoo.com.