DR GABRIELLE JAMELA HOSEIN
HOW ARE Caribbean people coping in the pandemic? This is important to ask, for it connects those discussing diversification with those examining social protection, bringing the social together with the economic in ways we must consider.
If Caribbean households are becoming poorer, have exhausted their savings or increased their debt, and are raising tens of thousands of children whose educational performance (and future earnings) are set back, to what extent must our economic plans address the familial and generational shock that more greatly defines our future labour force, consumer demand, and psychosocial health?
The Caribbean Policy Research Institute (Capri) in Jamaica just published its report, “Insult to Injury: The Impact of Covid19 on Vulnerable Persons and Businesses.” It reviews Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago, and helps us know the state of insecurity across our sister isles.
There is a lot to say in response to my opening questions.
As we already know, nearly all households across the region are experiencing decreased income. However, more “women are becoming permanently unemployed than men, exacerbating their existing situation of having lower incomes, precarious work, and higher unemployment.” Capri’s survey showed that 18 per cent of respondents were no longer able to work due to care roles in Jamaica compared with 17 per cent in TT, six per cent in Antigua and Barbuda, and seven per cent in Barbados.
Both women and men equally reported care work affecting their ability to earn an income and, thus, reduced earnings. However, in terms of not being able to work at all, the impact on women was more than double, affecting 13 per cent of them versus five per cent of males. In a region with a high number of woman-headed households, this implies a significant increase in daily familial stress and insecurity.
As we also know, there is increased demand for social assistance to meet basic household needs, particularly for those below the poverty line. It’s also been well established that inequalities in student access to online learning are a crisis in the making. There’s great regional variation, however, with 34 per cent of students in Jamaica versus only 11 in TT reporting difficulty focusing on schoolwork.
Up to January 2021, 30,000 of our children were still without devices. Capri offers comparisons of those surveyed, showing that 44 per cent in Jamaica, 14 per cent in TT, five per cent in Antigua and Barbuda, and two per cent in Barbados reported no access to the internet.
I want to highlight the report’s focus on access to food, particularly in terms of the poorest households in our region. The impact on the poor is significant and unequal, pointing to a widening gap even among those at the bottom.
For example, Capri reports that 60 per cent of respondents from poor households below the poverty line were unable to buy food because of high prices, compared to 34 per cent of non-poor households which were just above the poverty line, and 47 per cent of respondents from households with children were unable to buy food because the price was too high. More specifically, “poor households reported having to reduce the number or portion of meals they eat each day, almost twice as much (29 per cent) as non-poor households (17 per cent).”
Only ten per cent of respondents in TT reported this compared to 49 per cent of respondents in Jamaica, but the recession is deepening in TT and deficit- and debt-financing can only float us for so long. We should also note the particular precarity of Venezuelan migrants, who exist in the no man’s land of our state policy, which offers no clear position on asylum or refugee possibilities. This affects their access to income and ultimately food.
We are here already. San Fernando Business Association president Daphne Bartlett has been quoted assaying, “Half a pound of flour is being sold. Also, a half-pound of rice. People are cutting a margarine in half and selling it. That tells you that consumers’ purchasing power is really bad.”
Across the region, economic contraction means increasing hunger, greater dependence on the State, higher crime, riskier forms of livelihood, and social unrest; further undermining our collective vulnerability. Concern for unequal and increasing financial, nutritional, and psychological depletion among the most poor has to be woven through our aspirations to generate wealth that includes and uplifts, rather than just distributes subsistence welfare.
The alternative is expansion of those unable to cope, and small societies with appalling wealth inequality. Let’s consider recovery options that don’t add “insult to injury.”
Diary of a mothering worker