In Belize’s best case scenario, we contain COVID-19, tourism reopens on October 1 without a hitch, and after some months our people return to a way of life that somewhat resembles how they lived before April 2020. There is no hope that things can be the same, because every day since the pandemic began, our already heavily indebted country falls deeper into debt.
Our indebtedness is massive, a frightening hole we will have to dig ourselves out of. It would be less deep if the Prime Minister’s wish regarding our creditors would be fulfilled — that the people and institutions we owe, accepting that the pandemic has affected everyone, decided to have some sympathy on us.
Even if the world showed us a little kindness, and eased some of our debt pain, we would not be able to escape seeing our taxes increase, because this debt burden we carry, it isn’t small. The monthly and quarterly reports from the Statistical Institute of Belize show that the cost of locally produced food is reasonable and relatively stable, but the cost of every new shipment of imported food, which is not reported on, has been rising.
In the Belize in which we lived prior to the pandemic, there were some people, maybe five percent, who were living the dreams of two worlds: one, the world where a person has a lot of money in the bank and material trappings, and two, the world where one enjoys the unspoiled natural beauty and the freedom of movement that can only be found in a country like ours. This group would return to a somewhat similar lifestyle, because they had the reserves to weather the COVID-19 storm.
The twenty percent of us whose earnings covered the cost of a nice secondhand vehicle, the cost of a mortgage on a tidy house, and cash to spend on the weekends at the clubs and sometimes at the popular spots enjoyed by visitors to our country, would find that we had less cash to spend on entertainment. The next twenty percent of us who had a little savings and enough earnings to cover the costs of a cheap vehicle, a mortgage for a two-bedroom house, and the utility bills, would be living a lot closer to the edge.
The other twenty percent of us who lived “hand to mouth”, that is, never having enough to pay our rent and utility bills, and buy anything but the cheapest food, would be living on the rung where thirty-five percent of Belizeans lived prior to the pandemic — no vehicle, substandard house, never having enough money to cover the basic needs. That twenty percent and the thirty-five percent would not have a loose dollar to spend.
This is not a pretty picture. The stress level is great in a country where many have to expend all their energy just for daily survival. A country like ours could be fertile ground for any savior or demagogue who had the desire and the charisma to light a fire under an effort to promise or make wholesale change.
If this pandemic continues stifling our economy and way of life much longer, things could become ripe for such change, but for the moment, and if we get back to a semblance of what was, the status quo needn’t tremble with fear that their little cocoons will get busted. There is relative calm in Belize. The reason that we aren’t too agitated in the face of financial deprivation and a pandemic might lie in location — where most Belizeans who aren’t getting a proper share of the pie live.
There are small pockets of Belizeans on the financial margins in the major towns, a growing number of Belizeans in this group in Belmopan, and a rather large number of persons in this demographic who live in Belize City, mostly on the south side of the Haulover Creek. Far and away, the greatest number of financially deprived Belizeans live in rural settings.
Most Belizeans who live away from urban areas appreciate their freedom and the natural beauty of their surroundings. They want their living conditions to improve, they want more opportunities for their children so that they reach their full potential, but they have enough to eat, they have roofs over their heads, and being close to nature soothes the mind and the soul. Generally, the mindset in these areas is to leave the crooks to God.
The fact that Belizeans don’t seek wholesale change at this time is no recommendation for our political leaders. It is a result of our natural endowment, not their leadership. The Belizean people have been patient, but they can turn. We don’t see any political party rocking the boat too hard at this time, but there could be a real revolution, and this could happen if the effects of the pandemic linger. It could also happen if a hurricane increased the economic pressure. If such an upheaval takes place, we would survive until a more equitable system is in place because we have the capacity to feed ourselves, and we do possess some able minds whom the people trust.
Our leaders have been more lucky than good; it is time they end their corruption, be more transparent in their handling of the nation’s wealth, and start delivering for the people. Far too many Belizeans have not been getting a fair share of the pie. Our farmers need more support so that they become more competitive, and investments must be made in developing our agro-processing sector so that most of the food we consume in this country has a label that says, “Made/Processed in Belize”.
Reopening the tourism industry is essential; the truth for us is that worse things are in store for us in the short term if we don’t get that industry going again, but in the long term the focus must be that our people get a greater share. Our entrepreneurs must own or have shares in more destinations, and the products of our artists and artisans must get more support from our government. We must encourage the type of tourism that respects our people and doesn’t put too much stress on our environment.
Belizeans are not demanding wholesale change, but they could run out patience if their leaders don’t address their needs. Since self-government and independence, it has been all about the political leaders and their close affiliates. It’s about time for the people.