On a good day, Belize struggles with institutional development and good governance. It is not that the institutions are not present—they are—but that they tend to frustrate, alienate and disappoint. Generally, it does not feel as if they work for “us”, but rather, for the few at the expense of the many (since every single person in Belize pays taxes in some form). It’s a daily grind for most.
Still, Belize has grown economically, albeit unevenly. We have development socially and culturally in some spheres, conjoined with degradation of law and order, mainly driven by economic disparities. The percentage of people living below the poverty level1 increased from 13.9 percent in 1999 (Index Mundi 2019) to 41 percent at the end of 2018 (The World Bank 2019). The political, judicial and bureaucratic institutions have been slow to meet the challenges during the 39 years since independence.
Since Hurricane Hattie in 1961, which caused widespread devastation in Belize (then known as British Honduras), no single event had similarly shocked the country and touched every Belizean. It was not just the death toll (ý319 total) and material/infrastructure damage, but also the population loss due to migration to the US and beyond, the creation of Hattieville, and the transfer of the capital 10 years later to a brand new city in the middle of the country, Belmopan. Since then no single event has shocked the country and touched every Belizean like the COVID-19 pandemic.
And then came COVID-19 2020!
COVID-19 (or Novel Coronavirus) was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 12, 2020. At that time, Belize was yet to have a confirmed case. On March 17, 2020, the first joint press conference between the Prime Minister Dean Barrow and the Leader of the Opposition, John Briceño, following the first meeting of the COVID-19 National Oversight Committee, was broadcasted and streamed live.
Watching that event today seems surreal —no social distancing, some unknown number of people present (by design for effect), no hand sanitizer in sight, no Dr. Manzanero (if yu seh yu noah bifo dih pandemic, yu di abstrak mih!) and, the horror of horrors, no masks! What were they thinking back then!!? It certainly did not do justice to the seismic changes about to hit the country. I watched as the two leaders jocularly presented the first salvo in the fight again the dreaded Covid-19 virus stalking the globe.
It feels like years ago now. We all still remember, though — we are still living it. The state of emergency and numerous Statutory Instruments (or SI’s, which is a fancy way of saying laws signed by a minister with power previously delegated by the National Assembly) altered the landscape. Our individual and social lives have changed and even our vocabulary. Terms like coronavirus, social distancing, patient #x, self-isolation, quarantine and “one Peyrefitte” roll off our tongues with ease, and everyone knows what we are talking about.
We track the curfew, engage in mandatory social distancing (“X”s marked everywhere) and mandatory mask wearing in public (we look like a cross between an outpatient clinic and bandidoville), limit the number of persons to gather at church and elsewhere to ten (but 50 on a bus), stay within closed borders, and track the times to exercise in public spaces (no basiflapping), who qualifies for SS stipends and who can access social assistance programs, and which businesses can open and when but, most importantly for Belizeans, who can sell food when, where and how! (Plos, plenti shush, tara ah wara!)
But, by and large, Belizeans have been cooperative and patient (in the skin-melting sun and heat). As of this writing, with 18 confirmed cases and two deaths, we have not had a confirmed case for 42 days and the country is officially COVID-19 free (fiingaas craas)!
The pandemic invites me to discuss three broad issues: (1) Technology, (2) Human Resources and (3) Economic and Fiscal Health.
(1) Public and private sectors must optimize the advantages of technology. There are numerous areas where this leap can be made, but I focus on three areas that were exposed by COVID-19.
(a) The first area is education. The closing of schools led to a scramble to start up or expand online learning. Three things are important here – internet access (availability, cost, reliability); devices (desktop computer, laptop computer, tablets); user capabilities (students, teachers, administrators). Parallel and complementary, on ground and online, education must be a priority.
(b) The second area is consumer services. Citizens should be able to access government and business services online. In my experience, existing websites are generally underpopulated, dated, not user friendly and unresponsive (i.e. you use contact landing page, but no one seems to monitor and respond to incoming communications).
(c) Finally, we all watched or experienced the confusing and embarrassingly inefficient process for distributing of emergency unemployment stipends. No need to rehash the details here, but what did we learn? It’s obvious that systems of citizen data are not effectively networked. The technology exists that can store and link the name, birthday and a social security number that each person carries from cradle to grave. So, when a birth is registered, those three data points are forever in the system and used for school, employment, voting, and licensing of any activity (driving, fishing, firearms, business) etc.
(2) While “brain drain” to larger and more lucrative economies is nothing new to Belize, there is still significant and underutilized populations of worldly, experienced, educated, creative and energetic people in all sectors and areas of the country. In professional and personal interactions, I learn something new every single day. For example, I gathered from Mr. Tony Choc, a skilled cabinet/furniture maker/refurbisher, that the heart of pine gives him heartburn to work with, but the results are magnificent.
On the other hand, I learned that the major weakness in our economy is the gap between projection and the market. In other words, we lack storage and packaging facilities. At one point a few weeks ago, there were thoughts of throwing away chickens. Collapsed demand from the tourist industry triggered the oversupply, and there was nothing to do with the food.
(3) In a matter of a few days, the tourist industry screeched to a halt and with it 40% of the economy. We rightly closed our borders, and the economic collapse ripped open the underbelly of a country in a fragile economic and fiscal condition. No jab, no moni nuh deh! A cya hussle wah lee chaynj self. The public health prevention SIs dug in.
(4) So, two things to consider. First, how about the creation of a ‘rainy day fund” (my description) where 5% of government’s revenues go into this emergency fund. It’s not unheard of. Norway only spends about 2% of the North Sea oil revenue, with the rest going into a trust for the country. That trust now contains unknown trillions of US dollars. Now, how great would it have been to have had domestic emergency funds during this economic crash caused by the pandemic? Plus, hurricane season is upon us and the threat of devastation looms every year.
(5) Second, let’s really focus on diversifying the economy with sustainable production and exploiting niche markets (e.g., cacao, rum, hot sauces). We have experienced the benefits of having strong chicken, beef, eggs, rice, beans, vegetables, fruit etc. production. Let’s build on these advantages.
Enough of the self-defeating handwringing! It is time to start building public and private, individual and institutional strengths. That, in turn, can improve governance to stem the drain of human resources, capital and the flow of our youth to the prison or early graves. The lines of people in the blazing sun waiting patiently for food, services and even to pay a light bill proves we can shoulder a lot. Of course, there were complainers and rule-breakers, but these people complain and break rules under any circumstances — we can deal with it. Let’s go, vamos, cungo, k’osh, kaymu, ©‹bìN»S/Ràng wÒmen qù, – 9 . 2 G /aao ham chalen, ÏÚäÇ äÐåÈ/daena nadhhab, lass uns gehen! (different languages)
Are you ready?
Is the road ahead easy? No! If we say we love Belize, do we have any choice but to try? The challenge for us is to manage the direction of the changes at this unique junction in history. Not only do we need a cadre of leaders with political will, but also a public steeled for the battle for the future. It starts with voting and holding ourselves AND elected officials accountable between elections.
About the Author: Belizean Harold Young is an Associate Professor at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. He holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy (Political Science) from Georgia State University and a J.D. (LL.B/C.L.E.) from the University of the West Indies/Norman Manley School of Law. His primary research areas are Public Law, gangs, and comparative perspectives on judicial institutional changes and decision-making. Dr. Young has published in the Journal of International and Global Studies, Journal of Race and Politics, International Social Studies Review, Economics, Journal of Global South Studies and Politics and Regional Development. Contact: [email protected]
Poverty headcount ratio at US1.90 a day (2011 Purchasing Power Parity)