A story on the website weforum.org, says some disease experts from Harvard believe that “some form of intermittent social distancing may need to be in place until 2022 … because once the initial wave of COVID-19 infections has passed, further outbreaks could occur.” The Harvard experts said that “if lockdown restrictions are lifted at the same time, instead of in coordinated phases, a surge in new cases could overwhelm healthcare systems.”
That observation was made for the United States situation, but we have to believe that our experts would not be looking at the management of the disease in Belize too differently. Our first brush with Covid-19 hasn’t been a disaster on the health front. To date, April 22, 2020, we have recorded 18 cases, and two very unfortunate deaths. However, if we aren’t careful we could run into serious trouble. This COVID-19 is a new disease, a very bad disease, and after three months of it impacting the globe, no one knows enough to predict how it will affect us in the future.
While the disease has not come anywhere near to overwhelming our health system, as it has done in a number of very wealthy countries, its economic impact has been devastating. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) projects that COVID-19 will cause economies in Latin America and the Caribbean to contract to a point where our standard of living will very likely be as poor as it was during the Great Depression in the 1930’s.
There is food in Belize at this time, plenty, but unfortunately our authorities have been having difficulties coordinating its distribution to those Belizeans who are in need. Our authorities have also been having problems getting a promised stipend to thousands of Belizeans to help keep them afloat. It has been slow, too slow, but we seem to be unraveling the kinks in the process, fortunately.
Shortage of foreign exchange is a big problem in Belize at this time. The first industry to collapse because of the disease was tourism, and with that went fully fifty percent of our economy. Foreign earnings have dried up, and that makes it critical that what we have is put to the best use.
We shouldn’t be spending the little foreign exchange we have on luxury goods. Our trading partners will have to understand. There are trade agreements, and as far as we know those haven’t collapsed. If there are business persons in Belize who want to import luxury goods we might not be able to stop them, and under the trade agreements we have signed on to, we won’t be able to increase the tax on such goods so that only the very rich can afford them.
We should have leaders who love the people as much as, or more than, they love themselves. Our first Prime Minister, George Price, wasn’t exactly a saint, as some of his followers suggest, but there is no doubt that he loved his people and country. Price sacrificed his ego to make sure he set a good example for his people to follow. He did not spend his salary on luxury goods. He told us that we should be proud to eat the food we produce.
In the absence of selfless leadership, regular Belizeans will have to make the decisions that will help us through this difficult time. If we love Belize we must buy products that are labeled, “Made in Belize.” Rich Americans are proud to buy products with the label “Made in America”; they know if they don’t support their brand they won’t be rich for very long.
Merchants who love Belize will have to start investing in products that are made here. They will have to use their capital to invest in our agriculture, in manufacturing, in our cottage industries, and in our art. Those kinds of investments are a lot more risky than buying and selling goods from abroad, and maybe not as remunerative, but it’s a load they must pull if the battle will be won.
Fortunately, we haven’t been ravaged by COVID-19, even though, like a number of countries, we were very slow to lock our borders to keep out foreigners and tourists. There were people, Ms. Audrey Matura especially, who were calling for us to lock our borders at least two weeks before it was done. If we had, two weeks ago we would have been where we are now, and if we had instituted a mandatory quarantine, maybe there would have been zero cases mingling with the rest of the population.
We could say that for this first go-round of COVID-19 we dodged the bullet. We were fortunate that we were so far away from the first epicenter, Wuhan, China; that returning Belizean Chinese citizens hadn’t been in that area; and that tourists and foreigners coming to Belize did not bring the virus with them when they came to our shores.
It is not a secret why we were slow to lock down our borders. Our political leaders pushed tourism, to the point where 50% of our economy depended on it, and they knew that our foreign earnings and Belizeans in the industry would be hammered if we locked down the country. They played with fire and we didn’t get badly burnt, at least not on the health front.
When it comes to containment of contagious diseases, our low population density gives us a big advantage over most other countries. Lifting restrictions should not be fraught with the same amount of risk that most other countries will have to face. The models they use do not apply to the letter here.
We don’t know everything about this dangerous disease, but we know that physical distancing, washing our hands often, and wearing masks (even if our medical authorities need the World Health Organization to tell them so) do help in containing it. A recent report said that air conditioners are proven to spread the disease. We already suspected that.
We cannot eliminate all risk from earning a living. In a couple months the rains will start and we will have to deal with the dangerous dengue virus. COVID-19 will be lurking even if we are certified free of it, because our borders are porous.
At some time, hopefully soon, we should be making our first steps in our new normal. We expect the restrictions will be relaxed on some activities more than on others. Belizeans who have to get to work by bus will be at high risk if the government doesn’t subsidize the buses so that they don’t travel beyond 50% capacity. People who work in air-conditioned offices with others will also be at higher risk.
Our food vendors have to start making and selling delicious tacos, meat pies, tamales, boiled corn, fried meats, and condiments again. Our street side vendors and small shops have to start preparing and selling fresh juice from local fruits, and coconut water.
There might be ways for us to re-open some parts of the tourism industry in the next few months. The persons on the frontline in the industry might have to be the young. In the old days our menfolk used to go to Mahogany and Chicle bush for months. Maybe our young people working in the tourism industry will have to be quarantined for 14 days before they are allowed to return to their homes in villages, towns, and our two cities.
All Belizeans are praying, and marking time until the state of emergency is lifted. When it is, hopefully in the not too distant future, there won’t be a grand celebration, but we will be grateful for the opportunity to start picking up the pieces of our lives that have been shattered and scattered, in a world that will be haunted by the deadly virus for some time to come.