Our way of life changed dramatically and diametrically in this past year of 2020. Whereas, most of our energies had been directed, where the quest for wealth and higher standards of living for our families in the developed and developing worlds was concerned, towards getting people in the largest possible congregations into hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, stores, cruise ships, airplanes, sporting stadiums, music concerts, churches, and so on, early in 2020 the coronavirus mandated that we humans seek to separate ourselves from each other as much as possible in the quest for personal health.
The quest for personal health then had a sudden, negative effect on how many people were making a living, how they were employed, and so the unprecedented (in our lifetime) pandemic crisis caused a financial crisis for the vast majority of human beings who were not in the wealthy class.
For as long as our generation has been around, and perhaps for centuries going back in time, there has always been this generalized movement of people all over the planet, young people especially, from the spacious but often depressed rural areas to the congested urban centers where opportunities seemed more diverse and immediately available.
In our region of the world, a classic movie example of such a movement at the individual level, ill-fated as it was, involved a young, innocent Jamaican, Ivan Martin, from the countryside to the big city, Kingston, where he is essentially pushed into a life of crime and violence. This was the 1972 movie, THE HARDER THEY COME, starring Jimmy Cliff.
In Belize, a country blessed with abundant natural resources of almost every description, our intellectuals and the so-called smart money had always bemoaned the fact, or at least so it was claimed, that our human population was so small, relative to our 8,867 square miles of land and sea, that rapid, industrial development was impossible for us. No one remarked on the fact that there had to be some kind of benefit in our unique situation of having a small, scattered population, with an excess of fertile land and seas teeming with marine life.
Belize entered self-government in 1964 after waging the post-World War II struggle for self-rule which was taking place all over the so-called Third World, and immediately our politicians and economists subscribed to the W. Arthur Lewis model of post-colonial import substitution as the ideal for economic development. Belize investors would begin to manufacture products like beer, rum, cigarettes, and toilet paper, and Belize would stop importing same.
The benefit would be an increase in job opportunities for Belizeans, and, hopefully, an eventual drop in commodity prices as Belizeans became more proficient in the relevant work skills.
Well, I am not an economist, and the jury may still be out on the overall benefits of import substitution. Certainly, for many years the advantages of the foreign manufacturers where their unit costs of production were concerned (economies of scale) made it so that we locals were paying more for the locally manufactured products than we had been paying for the higher quality imported version. (So then, you understand why our eternally profitable contraband trade goes on and on.)
In any case, by the later 1980s and 1990s, Belizean politicians and economists had begun committing to tourism, trying to get as many foreign citizens, especially Americans, to visit Belize and enjoy our natural bounties. (San Pedro Ambergris Caye was already established in this regard.) It was an easy way out with respect to economic growth and activity. Belize did well insofar as the ready circulation of U.S. dollars. The danger was that we were competing with neighbours, especially in the Caribbean, neighbours who had no alternatives for development, as we in Belize did, neighbours who had been in the business for decades, and neighbours whose experience had given them a head start.
Anyway, tourism in Belize boomed, and then came COVID-19. The bottom fell out of the tourism market, and Belize’s leaders became so desperate that they gambled with our relative national health to go after those very tourists from America where the virus was raging, competing against those same neighbours who had not had any options besides tourism.
I can’t say what the situation is in the Caribbean, but I know that the coronavirus has exploded out of control in Belize, and Belize did not get the resurgence in tourism on which we gambled our national health status. So, we are in a very bad situation, and we are so desperate that we are still relying on some kind of projected resurgence in tourism. We are hoping against hope, it seems to me.
This is, then, how we Belizeans are entering the New Year of 2021. We sacrificed our medical health to salvage our financial health, and now we are sick both medically and economically. There is a lot of suffering in Belize amongst our people, but, as far as I can see, a lot of the suffering has been in silence. It didn’t have to be this bad, but tourism was too much of an easy way out back then.
The American poet Robert Frost once wrote that two roads diverged in a narrow wood, and he “took the one less traveled by.” In Belize’s case, we took the road where everyone was traveling, and COVID-19 just blew our decision making to smithereens.
Power to the people.