Rosalea Hamilton | Don’t reopen the economy, restructure it
AFTER TWO months since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Jamaica, there are increasing calls for the Government to ‘reopen the Jamaican economy’. This means different things to different people. For those who were of the view that our pre-COVID-19 economy was doing well and on the right track, especially those who benefited from it, they want the reopening process to take us back to where we were … or as close to it as possible.
For many who suffered from the inequities of the pre-COVID-19 economy and were living hand to mouth, they want the reopening process to not only give them a fighting chance to survive and thrive, but also a leg up for inevitable losses during the COVID-19 pandemic that will put them at a distinctive disadvantage.
These perspectives are shaped by the realities of the haves and the have-nots. I suggest that we ought not to focus on ‘reopening’ to restore and perpetuate the pre-COVID-19 economy, but rather on ‘restructuring’ the economy to improve what we had by addressing the underlying, inherited, structural inequalities and related social atrocities that have plagued Jamaica for far too long.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR STRUCTURAL CHANGES
There is no doubt that the economic fallout of this global pandemic will be severe and unprecedented. Available data suggest that we will never reopen to a pre-COVID-19 economy, largely due to health concerns and the need for social distancing, as well as the rapid technological shifts taking place. However, it creates opportunities for us to address some difficult issues that we have been unable (or unwilling) to address for decades. For example, we have perpetuated an apartheid system of education that has undereducated and miseducated the majority of Jamaicans for decades.
Our recent experience with virtual education has created the opportunity to transform our education system, providing students with access to the best available knowledge across the world, and using the global knowledge pool to jump-start the necessary national effort to innovate and create solutions out of this COVID-19 crisis and beyond. This vital restructuring process, the backbone to a strong economy, can start right now. We don’t have to wait to ‘reopen’.
With 80-90 per cent of imported food consumed in the Caribbean, Jamaica and our Caribbean neighbours are now bracing for a looming food insecurity crisis due to disruptions in the food supply chain. We have a collective interest to invest in agricultural technologies that address our limited arable land constraint as well as our climate-related challenges, and to create a sustainable basis for regional intra-Caribbean agricultural trade. We must unleash this potential and create a green industry revolution by tackling land reform to ensure that the most innovative small farmers have access to underutilised, fertile lands.
We can put our farmers, technologists and scientists to work to feed our nation. Recently, Pakistan demonstrated how to use this opportunity to create a green revolution by providing thousands of unemployed agricultural workers with jobs to plant 10 billion trees and to ramp up their efforts against climate change. Trinidad & Tobago also gave 50,000 households seeds to plant in kitchen/home gardens.
As we continue to import food and other necessities, we must strengthen our capacity, especially among micro, small and medium- sized entrepreneurs, to earn sufficient foreign currency and avoid worsening our debt problem. Here, we must use this opportunity to diversify the export base of our economy with a keen eye on the newly emerging industries rapidly evolving out of this pandemic. For example, virtual reality technology is now rapidly being used to simulate and create surreal scenes for a 3-D virtual tourism environment that can transform the tourism industry, opening new opportunities for creatives. As the world shifts to more reliance on robotics, artificial intelligence and decision intelligence, we must take advantage of the opportunities to create new and diversified, exportable goods and services that can resolve our persistent balance of payments problems.
RESTRUCTURE SOCIAL RELATIONS
But we cannot restructure our economy without restructuring our social relations and forging a broad-based social consensus. Social re-engineering, guided by an ‘Ubuntu’ philosophy, is required to ensure that persistent social ills (e.g., high murder rate; poor, overcrowded housing; intergenerational poverty; weak parenting, etc) that are likely to be exacerbated during this pandemic, do not undermine the economic restructuring effort. Will the newly created Economic Recovery Task Force (ERTF) tackle these issues, or will their work seek to recreate pre-COVID-19 social and economic norms?
According to Finance Minister Nigel Clarke, the job of the ERTF “… is going to be to do all that we can, working with other sectors in the society to ensure that we have the best chance for a recovery of all the jobs that have been temporarily laid off or terminated; that we can have a restoration of economic activity to allow persons to resume the lives they have lived”. Clearly, the haves want to “resume the lives that they lived”. But the have-nots – the landless, the homeless, the impoverished – yearn for a better, more equitable Jamaica, where they have a real opportunity to live like the haves. I agree with the Gleaner editorial’s (April 30, 2020) call for broad participation on these weighty national decisions that will touch the lives of all of us, as well as the call for a terms of reference with a broader scope. The purview should include economic restructuring and social re-engineering to give most Jamaicans a fighting chance to survive and flourish in a post-COVID-19 economy. Simply reopening to restore past economy activity is not good enough!