Posted: Friday, April 17, 2020. 11:44 am CST.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Breaking Belize News.
By Dr. Marcelino Avila: The global significance of COVID 19
It is still hard to grasp the sudden onset, scope and impact of the coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis. It all started about early January 2020, and today about one third of the world population, including Belize, is under some sort of lockdown and quarantine. As of today over 200 countries are affected, and the number of new cases and deaths in many places is still growing. For your information, here are some statistical data on the current crisis in 10 most affected countries, plus 2 countries in this region and Belize, for comparison, as of April 15:
Source: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/ NA = not available
Clearly countries who took swift and stringent measures have less total cases and deaths/million caused by the virus, compared to countries which wasted valuable time with soft measures against the pandemic attack, i.e. Spain, Italy, France and the US. Although the total number of cases for Belize is relatively small, just containing Covid-219 comes with an enormous cost, but were we not to try to contain it, the direct cost of treatment and caring for those infected and those who could die would be unbearable, God forbid.
Socio-economic impact in Belize
As the virus is already in Belize and due to the emergency and quarantine measures, a major impact is being felt across the country. The poor people in particular, who are at least 43% of the population (2010 data), are suffering more due to the cost of medical supplies, food and utilities (they need water, light and telephone), when in fact many have no income or no jobs. And, if they contract the virus, they would have to incur costs of seeking help, testing and treatment. Presently, because of the high levels of unemployed or furloughed, the poor are in desperate need of the food and financial relief program of the Government, especially those in rural villages and remote communities.
The service sector (i.e. tourism, restaurants and entertainment, call centers, non-essential commerce, etc.) has been heavily impacted, and rebounding quickly is not possible. In addition to increasing our exposure and risk to the virus, the tourism sector will not rebound soon to its previous level in 2019. Tourism has all but disappeared for the time, and its revival will depend on several factors of demand abroad and on physical (not social) distancing, testing capability, and other local measures we put in place in Belize.
The government has begun spending over $100 million directly on the virus-related programs. And the government’s monthly payroll is at least $38 million plus $8 million for pensions and ex-gratia payments. With dwindling revenues due to a shrinking economy and after maxing its domestic and external debt level (95% of GDP), government will be in a tight squeeze in the next 3 months and may have no option but cut back on recurrent spending, capital investments, and on the size of the public work force, estimated at some 16,372 persons in the 2019/20 budget.
Considering all the above, the national lockdown may lead to social unrest and psychological problems among our people. Producers and businesses will have to borrow to survive, some will lose valuable assets, and others may take drastic actions to prevent bankruptcy. People can be unusually reckless in time of crisis, e.g. being on the streets during curfew hours, risking being arrested and jailed, perhaps seeking to be housed, fed and protected by the state. Stopping this logical response to an emergency by those already under extreme stress may be close to impossible. Just imagine the effect of this vicious virus on a country where the tourist (25%) and the government (25%) sectors account for just about half of the economy – think of the effect on jobs, income, investment, businesses and livelihoods. All of this will ensure a negative GDP growth rate in 2020.
Another important impact, which is already unravelling, is the revelation of the weaknesses in our healthcare system in terms staff competence and preparedness, availability of essential equipment and supplies, and minimum-standard infrastructure, and most importantly, the capacity to respond timely and providing effective services to Covid 19 patients. This virus is highly contagious and very aggressive, hence it could drastically change Belize, all in the span of next 2 to 3 months. The virus has arrived and is beginning to spread, and already serious questions are being asked about our healthcare capacity, locations, infrastructure, criteria for critical decision making and cracks in the non-partisan approach. We need to get our act together immediately.
Opening the economy
The million-dollar question for everyone is when the crisis will end and the economy return to normal. Experts who have studied similar shocks and resiliency, but certainly none of the magnitude of this epidemic, make reference to key factors such as the political stability, corporate governance, the risk environment (related to the levels of tourism, exports, government debt, ability to keep interest rates low), logistics of the supply chains, and transparency and trust in the government. That is why countries like Denmark, Singapore, Taiwan, Rwanda and New Zealand which are known for good governance and whose initial response to Covid-19 was exceptional thus far, are already on the re-bound.
The economic and public health experts say that ending a state of emergency or opening the economy should depend on progress achieved on: a) random testing across the country (to know the extent of the real problem), b) ramping up the health system for testing, spread tracking, isolation and treatment, c) having a well informed and compliant citizenry (for hand washing/sanitizing/distancing and using a mask), d) having the confidence of the business community, workers and consumers, and e) financial policies and incentives to support the opening by the productive and business sectors. We have to rise to these challenges and prepare for the worst scenario.
Rethinking and Resetting Our National Blueprint
The good news is that there will also be positive impacts associated with this pandemic across Belize. Already there are innovations in non-partisan approaches and cooperation, application of digital technology, live streaming and tele-marketing, just to mention a few. To secure some basic necessities of food and beverages, pharmaceuticals and equipment, we are paying more attention to the management of supply chains and processes from the field or from raw materials all the way to the table or plate. Many formal and informal organizations at all levels and from all sectors are demonstrating a real commitment to altruism, voluntarism and partnership. All of these will be much needed in forging ahead with a truly national effort to rebuild our economy.
And most importantly, this COVID-19 pandemic is offering Belizeans a very timely, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take stock of where we are, to understand our foundations, what resources we possess as a country, our strengths, our opportunities as well as our weaknesses, and above all, an opportunity to decide where Belize wants to go in the long term. At this time, we can rethink and reset our national goals, strategic directions and criteria of good performance. Some of us believe we need a radical change, a reset of development thinking, one that will build a strong foundation for governing in our young democracy, holding our leaders accountable, growing our economy, lifting people out of poverty, how to address crime and violence, how we use our environment and, most critically, how we take responsibility as citizens, families and communities. This are nationalistic tasks, not only for the politicians to decide, but for all Belizeans to chip in, to do the planning because we all will must execute and benefit from the plan.
In this country, the time has come to stop playing games and it time for serious dialogue and decision making on some very important national issues that can make a real difference, such as:
We can change the course of history for ourselves, we can decide on our own directions, move the development processes in ways that are meaningful for us, and measure success in terms what we value as a nation of fine peoples. With more faith and hope, more love and hardwork within each one of us, we Belizeans will survive this crisis and others to come, and we will prosper under God’s blessings.
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