Expectations in our number one industry, tourism, are the highest they have been since the ships stopped anchoring off Stake Bank and the planes stopped landing at the PGIA back in April last year, but there is some uncertainty because of the appearance of the new strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The latest variant of the virus, the Omicron, has spread rapidly in some other countries, and while first reports suggest that it is less virulent than Delta, the variant that has been wreaking havoc in Belize and across the globe these past two months, it’s inevitable there will be a toll.
Some experts are saying that the level of immunity we have derived from two AstraZeneca shots won’t go far in preventing infections by Omicron, but it should help us battle through it. The Ministry of Health and Wellness (MOHW) is advising all Belizeans who have not yet been vaccinated, to do so, and vaccinated persons, especially those over 60 years old; obese; or suffering from diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, cancer or other chronic diseases; are being advised to roll up their sleeves for a booster shot.
Reports from London three days ago are that the Omicron variant already accounts for 40% of Covid-19 cases in that city. Every week, thousands of screaming, unmasked fans have been attending football games all over England, and it’s no surprise that London, with seven giant clubs in their Premier League, is worst hit in that country. The fans are vaccinated, but as mentioned, the vaccine is far from a hundred percent effective in stopping the spread of Omicron.
At this time, the medical experts at the World Health Organization are still collecting and reviewing data on the new variant, and there won’t be any definite pronouncements on the level of efficacy of vaccines or immunity developed by individuals who survived bouts with the virus until these studies are concluded. There are some things we are sure of, though. We know that Omicron is extremely contagious, and if we are careless we’ll have another medical crisis on top of us, within weeks of Delta cases slowing down in Belize.
Because of the level of contagiousness of the Omicron variant, the government has some big decisions to make. But some decisions are ABC. The MOHW has to impress on those who have no fear of the disease why it’s critical for the public health system and our economy to keep the infection rate down. We need to continue physical distancing, avoid air-conditioned or crowded rooms as much as possible, and wear masks properly when we enter business places. We must stop unmasking when we speak. If you are a public figure who is short of breath and must speak, consider it part of the cost of doing business to purchase an N-95 mask, which is better at preventing the spread of the virus and easier on the breathing.
Thousands of Belizeans weren’t eating right before the Covid-19 pandemic began, and that number has increased substantially. Noodles, ground offal and meat scraps in tins filled with water, cheap cooking oils, sugary Kool-Aid drinks, are some of our unhealthy staples, especially for families in urban areas as they cut food costs so they can pay utility bills, rent, and school fees/cost of books for their children.
Disappointingly, in the past the poor diet of our people was largely ignored by our political leaders, but failing to address the food needs of our people at this time is now criminal, because a healthy diet is vital to people’s ability to fight off the virus. All our people need good food, and as long as we are in the grip of the pandemic, the government will be judged more on how well it delivers on the critical food needs of our people, all our people, than on its macroeconomic performance.
There has been a jump in the cost of almost everything, and all forecasts are that prices will go higher. The government has responded to accusations of price gouging in the shops with the announcement that it will increase monitoring, but has said there is nothing it can do about the rise in the price of imported goods, which it says has been caused by a disruption in the supply chain across the globe.
The rise in prices is attributed to the pandemic causing a decline in demand, which resulted in a massive cut in the production of supplies worldwide. Most countries are now managing the pandemic better, and this has resulted in an increase in demand for goods, but it hasn’t been easy sailing getting things back on stream.
Both the Minister of Agriculture, Food Security and Enterprise , Hon Jose Mai, and Hon. Hugo Patt, the UDP area representative for Corozal North, have spoken about the tremendous increase in the cost of fertilizers and pesticides, and the impact those increases will have on production costs in Belize. The increased cost of fertilizers and pesticides will impact production costs for farmers who produce for the local market, but worst hit will be farmers who produce for the export market, because they are already operating with very small profit margins. The prices of our main export commodities, sugar, citrus, and bananas, are up in the international markets, but not sufficiently to offset the increased cost of essential inputs here.
The government’s response must go beyond addressing price gouging. Businesses just can’t be allowed to extract the same level of profits they were before 2020. At the beginning of the pandemic, former leader of the BPP, Patrick Rogers, said the government must get directly involved with the acquisition and distribution of food. Indeed, the government has to monitor or get directly involved with the acquisition and distribution of all goods in the country.
We are living during a global pandemic, the first generation to do so in one hundred years, and the measure for success and failure is not the same as in “normal” times. The government can’t be concerned about the main opposition party trying to make hay off its failure to deliver on a $5 per hour minimum wage rate; the focus must be on ensuring that sufficient wholesome food is on every table. Via its Marketing Board vehicle, and strategic subsidies, the government can keep costs down.
If it is our preference, after the pandemic is over we can go back to the failed model we have been using that has seen poverty levels growing and growing; we can do that until we exhaust ourselves and realize that our economic model is deficient. We are living in an extraordinary time, and for this period we need to do things differently.