#COVID19Chronicles-167: September 26, 2020–Why can’t we get our act together on enforcing protocols?

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Minister Tufton aired what many people feel about reports of people breaking COVID protocols: the breaches are frustrating and annoying and disrespectful.

However, it will strike some, at least, as mightily ironic. Why? Well, just this week Jamaica had a visit from a well-known musical artiste, Ye (aka Kanye West), who came to feel the vibes with Buju Banton. All cool? Well, the images that went viral showed Kanye couldn’t care a toss for Jamaica’s COVID protocols, and I may pun wasn’t masking his contempt for them, as he lounged in Gargamel’s studio.

He also took in some local bickle, again, happily unmasking his love of the food from the fire:

The displays raised annoyed comments on social media, including from noted influencer, Yaneek Page:

The matter raised a question at Thursday’s COVID Conversations and the minister shuffled an answer that was not satisfying about procedures for exceptions, blah blah.

Well, Kanye/Ye flew off and went to Haiti, today, but look-Ye here.

Haiti didn’t see any need for any exceptional treatment and a fully complaint-on-arrival Ye was escorted to the VIP lounge.

Which brings up the obvious question of why Jamaica seems incapable of enforcing its own protocols. It really doesn’t matter a fig if politicians gripe about indiscipline amongst Jamaicans, but is complicit in allowing the breaches when it has matters more or less in its control.

This is, sadly, a continuation of mixed messages that have been apparent for several months and is really the government shooting itself in its own foot, undermining its own efforts. It doesn’t matter if the government wins battles of words if its deeds don’t match.

#COVID19Chronicles-166: September 25, 2020–More messages, please; people are not getting it.

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The realisation is hitting home starkly that Jamaicans are not hearing and/or heeding the many messages about COVID-19 prevention, so we have seen a recent wave of attempts to do more communicating, especially as it relates to wearing masks. Minister Tufton has been on a blitz this week. His tone during last evening’s ‘COVID Conversations’ was all about not descending into despair about where numbers are heading and not to accept comments that suggest the government has stopped caring about the development of COVID.

He spent a lot of time stressing the anticipation and planning had mitigated many of the worse outcomes earlier projections suggested:

However, it’s clear that the messages that people need to act on are just not sinking in to a wide enough degree, and this is reflected in visits he’s made to communities and businesses.

Some public agencies and companies have joined the push, eg the public bus company, JUTC, has been flashing items for its passengers.

The bus company had responded well in March to the early need for sanitization of vehicles:

But, in keeping with general laxness in observing health protocols such as wearing masks and keeping distance, evidence is clear that passengers don’t get or wont apply it. In April, JUTC issued a statement to the effect ‘no mask, no travel’:

However, anecdotal evidence is that this is not observed, nor are rules on only seated passengers.

In addition, the ministry of health and wellness is liaising with firms and the private sector organizations about new workplace protocols:

These efforts come as the Caribbean is being urged to do more to tackle COVID-19, especially in the context of the region’s known high incidence of NCDs:

Many people know that non-compliance with COVID protocols has a point where it can be displayed as violent opposition. While we are far from highly politicized protests, we saw this in Jamaica when curfews were introduced on April 1, with open defiance and some decided to openly flout restrictions on night one, only to be summarily embarrassed for so doing.

So it went on in the first month:

Transgressions occurred but enforcement seemed to be offsetting.

However, 4 1/2 months on from curfews being introduced from April 1, we see that recurring as enforcement of restrictions on entertainment hits a wall of resistance, yesterday, with police being attacked.

Several involved in organizing the party and some of the 200 patrons were quickly remanded in custody.

This has happened in other countries to varying degrees. Most embarrassing when politicians cannot hold strain, as in Kenya.

As various activities resume, however, we see that following protocols is a struggle even in the full public gaze, as in the NFL, which has fined several coaches heavily for mask-wearing breaches the past weekend:

Some useful infomation on budget was presented last night on where expenditure had been focused:

The first field hospital (from the USA) was accepted; they are modular and should facilitate more flexible responses to cases:

Fundamentally different: a look back at a career #12: Representing the IMF abroad—being seen in plain sight and darkness

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I was watching a good movie last night, The Good Shepherd, about the origins of the CIA. Towards the end, there’s a scene in Congo, Leopoldville [now Democratic Republic of Congo, Kinshasa], where our spy hero is walking along a street near a market, wearing freshly pressed shirt and tie, carrying his jacket on his arm in what we suppose is searing heat and humidity. I immediately thought of a day on a Fund mission, when the staff member is walking casually around a new city, but what’s apparent too is it’s clearly understood by those locals around what he is: a foreigner. That’s not a hostile term, just an acknowledgement of being ‘not from here’. Hostility can wait. But, much can spin around that fact.

When I joined the Fund, staff were supplied with several ‘tools of the trade’: a black leather briefcase and a HP12c calculator.

These were like the army-supplied rifle and bayonet, canteen etc.

Mission travel was marked by the presence of people with black briefcases arriving at airports, being met by officials, then seen for about two weeks entering and leaving official buildings in business clothes, or at the weekends in casual clothes—always ‘armed’ with these ‘weapons’.

Mission meetings were marked by the presence of the calculators on desks or tables; team members, especially new ones, often tapped on them, frantically, as officials dripped numbers like pebbles from a cliff. Oddly, I never got an HP calculator when I joined 😦 I used a calculator I had from my Bank of England days. I never got one until I became a resident representative (res rep), after over 12 years; by then, I had graduated to a Casio, solar-powered—environmentally friendly before I knew it; I still have it. 🙂

But, the image of Fund staff working wasn’t what tripped my memories, it was the sight of someone walking in an area, trying to fathom what he could, while casually enjoying some air. I’ve lost count of where I’ve walked or maybe gone in a car just getting a feel for a place or just enjoying what a city or country could offer. Because most missions start with a long flight, often trans-Atlantic in my case, it was good to get the body reacclimatized to normal air and to time differences, so I often went from the hotel to get my bearings soon after checking in. Now, mission members don’t often travel as a team; individuals can have travel itineraries to suit themselves. I often took the opportunity of the permitted stopover each way to visit friends or relatives. It was great to keep home style contacts when away from home. I was lucky that, over the years, I’d made acquaintances and friends in many places. I often stopped in London and caught up with friends and relative. I stopped in Oslo often, with friends, the man had worked with me in Washington and I knew his wife and kids from when they were small. I ski and have gone straight from airport onto the snow, even having my first lesson skiing cross-country, and using my friend’s wife’s skis and salopettes to ski with 🙂 I would bring ‘gifts’ which way I was travelling.

As I related before, my first mission was to Ankara, Turkey, and I loved the hotel being on a busy street with lots of local things to see or and smell and gauge a little something about the place. Given that many Fund staff become hermits once on the road, I soon realized I was abnormal. 🙂 But, my style all comes from years of travel for personal pleasure. I get to hear people and try to understand how they handle money, their simple interactions with each other. These make for a little easier formal interaction later, if one’s observant. For instance, IMF mission briefings don’t touch on cultural practices; when I worked at the Bank of England, that was part of what people got to know, along with some background on key personalities. Not the Fund! Just jump in with hobnailed boots on and thrust the good old ‘now listen here!’ down their throats…not quite, but you get my point.

I also use time I have to decide what to do when and if I get more time to explore; that could be as little as 15 minutes or as long as a weekend. So, off I strolled in Ankara. Then, I did likewise in Kampala. You know how many people always want to know where the gym is in a hotel or the ice machine? No real difference. I found a street barber in Kampala and watched and thought…and the next weekend went for a trim. I discovered the hotel did massages 🙂 I knew where to get fresh bread and pastries in Moscow, even though I was in the swankiest hotel; my love of something local to snack on was satisfied.

In those places, I did not give much thought to how I might have stood out; I was in casual clothes. I am a black man, but Turkey and Uganda have seen and see black people often, without conflict because of colour. Ethnicity or tribal differences, are other issues. Language or accent usually mark you, though.

When I first went to Riga, I took note of a park near the hotel. I soon went there for a walk; the day was grey and cool, in autumn, but I knew Europe at that time of year, so it didn’t feel odd. I noticed the poplar trees, often seen in parks in London. Away, but homely. The cold was more severe and fur hat and boots and heavy gloves were soon part of my go-to gear.

Black people in Latvia are as common as dragons on the metro. 🙂 The former Soviet Union, really Russia, had some hostile attitudes towards people ‘of colour’. (For Russians, people from Chechnya, for instance, are called ‘black’.) Black students, often from Africa, tell torrid tales of their times studying in Moscow. But, I was a Fund official! Anyway, it was not an apparent issue, as I walked and watched people feed ducks.

What became a problem from day one of work was that no one spoke English! I had only recently started Russian lessons, so was not going to put weight on that crutch. So, my early meetings were in poor, old German (not my favourite tongue; my counterpart on the budget was fluent) or broken Russian and hand gestures and arithmetic (my counterpart on accounting was nothing if not willing to find some way for us to communicate; she was my teacher in the abstruse logic of Soviet finance). We got there, with a lot of difficulties and many cups of coffee and a little vodka 🙂

When you stay at Hotel Metropol, in Red Square, there’s no option, in my mind but to get to see the magnificent architecture in that one-time bastion of communist power and the oddly powerful juxtaposed St. Basil’s Cathedral. Arriving on a Sunday, I could join Muscovities strolling in the square, with the odd whispers (негръ (negr)—black man 🙂 ). It’s more fun when you can understand, and reply ‘Da’ (yes) and the eyes bulge.

So, I got to know some of Moscow well in my off-hours. So, too, in almost every city I visited.

I loved old cities, like Tallinn, with their medieval squares prominent; they are often great meeting places, and at the weekend, even in deep winter, can be where to see many people just ‘taking some air’. Once my language skills were better, I’d use such times to practice in the guise of seeking information, and hoping for more than just an ‘over there’ or ‘I dont know’. If the weather was nice, as in summer, then chilling at a cafe was in order. I love assimilation.

As I said, not everyone ventures out, but it’s nice to have some mission companion, especially when you can be the ‘guide’ at least because it’s not your first visit.

Things were always better, though, when the mission had a res rep in country, which was more the norm if a program was in place. They got to know the city and country inside out; that’s what excited me about my assignment when it came—to be that fountain of local knowledge of places, activity, customs and people. It’s funny, thinking back, how many people wanted to tell the res rep something 🙂

So, our res rep in Riga—a single woman from Latin America—lived in an enormous apartment in the city centre, really for four families, I guess: the Fund would make the residence fit its needs, within reason, mindful of things like access, security and communications. It was adjacent to the central bank, where she had her office. Our rep in Tallinn—an American man with a wife and young child—had a house on the outskirts of the city, and its best feature was a sauna, where the team could get a little different down time at the weekend. The rep in Moscow also lived in a ‘palace’ and the Fund’s office there was almost on a par with politburo standard, ironically sitting opposite one of bastions of Soviet power, it’s foreign ministry.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation

The rep in Baku, Azerbaijan—an American man, with wife and young child—had a lovely apartment, in the city, and he’d become an expert in carpets, so his home was a splendid display of tapis, plus literature on them and their historical origins and significance. He taught me much about bargaining—I’d learned in Turkey (even mis-bidding in an auction), and Azeris are cousins. I learned that a nice rug rolls up well in a suitcase; just rearrange the documents that need to go to Washington. It was then that I learned not to carry documents back myself, but to ask the rep to put them in the ‘pouch’ to get to DC in a week or so. 🙂 Now, you’re talking!!! Our home now has the fruits of that not-so-laborious lesson.

So, when I became a rep, I paid it forward-backward and made sure mission members knew I’d happily send papers back from my office, so that they could put carvings or paintings into their luggage 🙂 But, it could also be a two-way street, as we could not get supplies from DC other than say ‘official stationery’, so missions knew to arrive with things like Pringles and coffee and biscuits 🙂 It was good for them also to bring things they enjoyed themselves, so that meetings would have a level of comfort that can be conducive to good rapport. The art was to pick up something interesting in-transit, so the international flair could show.

That said, not all reps are ready for their spaces to be ‘invaded’, especially their offices. I remember the scene when a mission chief had the temerity to take over the rep’s desk and chair! In the field, the rep can outrank the mission chief, not because of level of seniority or classification within the Fund, but because it’s his world—the position sit apart from those at HQ (and it’s full ambassador rank). I got those things clearly understood, early, and had no problems. Of course, we can renegotiate space etc. Same way with staff: the res rep’s staff are his resources, not the missions’: get the mission secretary to make copies and make binders. 🙂

I always tried to be generous, knowing that being far from home, tired, frustrated, angry etc all make for bad work. So, our home was always a refuge for missions, and our cook was ever ready to show off what he could do on the spur of the moment. If you want relaxed, just drop in. “Yes, you can play with the baby.” That humanizing aspect was always important to me.

But, working in the field is often not smooth sailing, and the arrival and departure are not just simple events, they can be when matters are shaped or broken. I have been in the VIP departure lounge with missions when the agreement with the authorities is not yet reached; the conversations could be tense, on matters of substance (eg actions that must be taken) or numbers (budget and financials that are not reconciled). Missions have to explain where they reached, once back at HQ, and cannot just spin around and get back on a plane to iron things out. It’s both matters of principle and money. Fortunately, the time between when missions leave and have to report to Management at the Fund can be about a week, and a lot can and has happened in that time…thank goodness.

Whatever happens, the res rep is often left ‘cleaning’ up and ‘clearing’ up after missions 😦 We may be the ones to explain to local media the facts and dispel rumours. Your media friends can be vital. The Fund used to be really secretive; now transparency and openness are part of our mantra. However, that doesn’t mean that one can blab about any and everything to those outside official circles.

Reps may not know how all the numbers are supposed to gel, in detail, and we are not single sector experts, anymore. The best thing is that the res rep normally doesn’t have to do ‘grunt’ work on spreadsheets. Yea! Even walking away and letting team members sort them out and send the file for review. Oh, blessings! We can also have no need to write from scratch, but become reviewers and editors. Oh, this is the life! That’s why many res reps return to HQ and have the worst of times with deadlines over numbers and texts.

Being in the field is the best. It’s why many res reps make a career out of filling such posts. Our man in Baku did about three postings back-to-back. If that doesn’t happen, then assignments with a little space in between can work, just fine.

#COVID19Chronicles-165: September 24, 2020: The PNP leadership race is on-ish

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If I were a betting man, I’d…But, I’m not, so why go there? 🙂

The burning orange political question is: Who will take over from, Dr. Peter Phillips, who indicted his intention to resign as PNP president after the shellacking in the September 3 elections.

Bill Johnson, perhaps preparturely, ran a poll, commissioned by Jamaica Observer. It put Lisa Hanna ahead; but only Mark Golding, the St Andrew Southern MP has so far declared his intention to seek the presidency. While Hanna, Damion Crawford, Julian Robinson and Philip Paulwell have not yet signalled their intention to contest the presidency. Hanna’s doing especially well amongst the youngest cohort, and the gap narrows to be almost nothing for the oldest cohort. The Observer reported: ‘Hanna’s ascension to the top of the group in the September poll is an improvement on her favourability among respondents in Johnson’s previous poll conducted August 21 to 23.’

Hanna has indicated that she’s taking soundings and will announce her intentions on September 27. The PNP notes she’s ‘humbled’, much as beauty queens would say just as they don a crown 🤔

We have to ask if this will be a popularity contest or substantial policy-making ability and leadership qualities contest.

I’m not academically qualified to do polls, so I’m just looking at one metric—social media presence as measured by Twitter followers.

If I look at Twitter, alone, I see that the numbers are all about Lisa and Damion, with over 25,000 followers each; Julian trails far behind with 15,000, and Mark…well, still at the gate with just over 1,000. Phillip Paulwell (<200 followers) is so far behind on Twitter as to be seen as a complete outlier:

I ought to look at Facebook, too, as that platform is more used for engagement and more extensive dialogue. I could also look at Instagram, though it’s really a ‘showcase’ with little content beyond images.

Those who will select the leader will look at lots of things, including things at which we can only guess. I’ll just take a quick look at what the possible candidate have shown up during the election campaign and since.

Mark Golding has been flashing his wares and been bold and brassy with clear race intent. So, if we look beyond the obvious, it work thinking who could help PNP in any inter-party football matches. Who’s this striker wasting his time rifling thought Budget papers? “My word! Golding!” He’d definitely be the pick.

Lisa was like Bambi ahead of the elections, skipping to Ma Lou. She’s been a bit quiet since.

After a 31 vote election victory following a magisterial recount, I’m not sure what the dance would or should be; some sort of shuffle, I guess.

Damion was a bit all over the place leading the party’s manifesto team, which manifestly didn’t get it right. The joke was his manifesto moved with the sun, so we weren’t sure what to look at and ended up being in the dark.

Personally, I think DC has been a busted flush for some time, from when he did the ‘Yah boo, sucks’ to his constituents in St. Andrew East Rural, then tried to say ‘Tricked ya!’, only for the constituents to say “Tricked you back! You’re outta here!“ so buddum, no seat to defend. Then the parachuting into Portland Eastern for a by-election—a solid PNP seat since Whappy kill Fillup—only for that to go solidly for Ann-Marie Vaz (she showed it was no fluke by holding the seat in the recent general election). He came talking goats for all and left bleating. But, the PNP Executive seem to adore him and he keeps getting plunked into the Senate.

Julian was really ‘Mr. Invisible’ during the election campaign, I suspect mostly because his general secretary role limited his freewheeling. He’s taken a bit of flak for the election defeat. He seems too decent a guy to bet all down and dirty in politics and his well-argued approach somehow seems to be in the wrong place. If he ends up facing Golding (which seems to be the contest Clovis depicted in yesterday’s Observer, I. Think it will be a gum fight not bared teeth.

Courtesy: Jamaica Obser

Paulwell? Well, Paul, we call you. That ‘has not tweeted’ isn’t what we want to see as expressions of interest. Is it that he’s not interested in engaging with the ‘articulate minority’. I hope he’s at least really taking note of social issues in Port Royal. Sadly, he may be associated as the face of election defeat, as he had the thankless task of conceding defeat.

Other commentators, better qualified than me, are throwing their views into the air:

So, early doors. Other names may come into the frame. I’ll take another look at least after Lisa Hanna decides.

#COVID19Chronicles-164: September 23, 2020: New measures

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PM Holness held a digital press conference on Tuesday afternoon:

No new lockdown will occur; the PM argued economic damage will be great and there’s no assurance that people’s behaviour will change, once lock down is lifted. However, curfews will continue till early-October along with restrictions on gathering:

Many in the business community, however, feel the curfew hours are too tight, and small-medium sized operations are suffering unduly.

Current COVID trends

The PM focused on the trend of COVID infections and deaths. In keeping with this phase, the basic assumption is that every one is infected.

Field hospitals (4) are being built out, Dr. Tufton reported:

Antigen testing kits have been ordered:

Schools will restart on October 5, but not with face-to-face teaching; online recorded material and TV presentations will be part of the mixture:

#COVID19Chronicles-163: September 22, 2020: Let’s face it, mask wearing has become a huge issue

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Many people are in bewilderment how something so simple as wearing a mask proves to be so difficult. I’m not going to promote antimaskers who have turned it into a political issue about freedom, who won’t wear and will rip off. I just hope for their sakes no rules are introduced compelling people to wear clothes 🤔😳😂

The advice is now clear from health experts.

Visual images circulate about right and wrong ways to wear masks:

Use everyday and everywhere and wash cloth masks after each use.

But, then comes attempts to follow the rules or simply just get the mask on the face right.

Clearly, mask wearing doesn’t lend itself well to certain combinations of tasks, most obvious is eating and drinking. Coaches trying to give instructions and wear microphones with masks? Needs more thought.

It’s getting sillier than Arsene Wenger’s problems with his coat zipper:

My blogger friend, Susan Goffe shared a chart of the 4 mask-wearer personality types:

Messaging is vital. NZ PM was quick to correct the impression of laxness.

Some countries, like Germany, have reached their limits of official tolerance, and are moving to use of force:

Sadly, in Jamaica, we’ve almost reached the stage where main messengers, policy makers, are sending at best mixed, and at worse, wrong messages. The PM has started making a point of highlighting he’s wearing his mask when giving a speech.

His PR machine has now ramped up the message:

If Jamaican politics were the FA Cup Final

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Today’s my daughter’s birthday and to celebrate, in her absence, I’m giving myself licence to be the Dad I am—a bit loony.

I’m a former footballer of not bad skills; think Adama Trouré with dashes of Wilf Zaha, on the right wing, mainly, sometimes on the left, as I was a good player with both feet. I was also a midfielder in later years, both right and left—energy bunny—and even played sweeper and full back when I was a player-manager—wide head. Gawk! Have to do everything, myself!

I often see sporting parallels in lots of life—I’m also a former sprinter of decent ability as a teenager.

I was singing Earth, Wind and Fire’s ‘September’ to myself when I saw something about one of our political leaders. So, I wondered how things would be if, we were just savouring the FA Cup Final—played under COVID-19 rules, with very few spectators, but the usual intensity. Belmont (aka ‘The Bells’, playing in their familiar green and white and sporting footwear from a new sponsor), just crowned league champions, again, played Hope Academy (aka ‘The Academics’, having their roots in the intramural university football scene). Hope played in their usual orange and black, but their uniforms looked a bit worn and rumours of financial troubles looked to be true.

Belmont really rang the Academics’ bell, much like Leicester shellacked Southampton last year 9-0, coming out easy 4-1 victors; the win was sealed by half time. A couple of decisions had gone to VAR, but nothing really mattered to the overall score.

So, let’s peep into the dressing rooms and hear the managers’ team talks. First, let’s listen in on Hope, whose manager, in his 70s, is more like a Roy Hodgson figure—having steered the national team through some tough matches some years ago, but now trying for success at the club level. He’s somber and not given to rashness. He’s a local, and goes by the nickname “The Rock”:

“Put the blame on me. I led the team. We weren’t well prepared. Up front, in defence, especially in the middle, where we lost control and gave away the ball too easily. Damion, you had a shocker. Sorry, mate, truth hurts. You wanted all the plays to go through you, whenever we released you into space, you turned around a million times, your hair got into your eyes—those locks, mate—and you shot the ball at our goal at lest three times! We couldn’t win with that. Buck up, man!”

Damion was the team darling, and though he’d left the club a few times are being booed by home and away fans, had decided to give it another go, and had been awarded the captaincy. The Rock turned in frustration and said:

“You know, stuff this for a game of soldiers! I think you’re not serious and I don’t see that I need any of this, now. We’ve just had our heads hand to us, and as I’m talking I can hear you catfighting over who’s going to get the Digestive biscuits. What a bunch! You, Bunsome! You talked a lot before the match, but where were you when we needed someone to get stuck in? I’ll be surprised if you don’t get put on the free transfer list right away.”

“My health is a bit dicey and I’m in the vulnerable category for COVID; my family is really where I should focus. I’m done! The owner and director can figure out who they want to run this show, but it ain’t me.”

Along the corridor, we can hear the frenzied singing of a winning team: “Campeon! Campeon!…” We ease the door open, and the players are spraying each other and the gaffer with what looks like huge bottles of pineapple soda. Champagne will come later, we imagine. But, let’s get a bit closer as he gathers them together.

He’s another local manager, who likes to be called ‘Brigadeer’—he’s a natural leader with boyish good looks; he’s much younger than ‘The Rock’, and not as experienced, but he’s just come off a superb season—his team had an unassailable lead in the table, before COVID-19 forced all matches to be abandoned.

Little had got past his team in league games, especially on the wings, where masterful coverage was offered by two relative newcomers, Cameron Jordan-Smythe (a polyglot, who spoke the many languages of football style), and “Faithful’ Wilberforce, whose tactical brain and positioning meant being at least a move ahead of any opponent, and had grabbed her chance to impress when one of the team stalwarts was suspended in mid-season.

Some of his flamboyant forwards, were often wasteful in front of goal. One especially tricky dribbler, Darius Vasco de Gama, who has Brazilian blood, had really skated on thin ice once too often with match officials and seen the red card for some reckless play. He had a public tongue lashing from the manager: “His judgement has been poor! Really poor!”. A couple of seasoned players had also tipped the boat badly by getting into some money trouble and hanging with the wrong crowd, and had to be suspended for a number of matches—Rogelio Rendon and Andres Vietlief. But, the team had regained its confidence, come together well, blending some players thought well past their prime, with some stunning young talent, and sealed the deal once matches resumed in mid-June.

Here’s Brigadeer:

“What can I say? We did it in the league. We put in the road work and our legs stayed strong, even after the little lay off. We showed stamina; they took water breaks, we just sucked up the air and stayed focused. I love it! Hands in, on five, ‘My team!’. You know I don’t like pointing to anyone but myself for our successes or our failings—though we’ve few of those, eh. Hehe! But, I want to say a word about Nilesy (Niles Christensen). He came from Iceland and I really wasn’t sure he’d survive in the rough and tumble of our football, with its faster play, tough tackling, and some hostile crowds. But, he did. He had everyone on the carpet with his calm distribution. Nilesy, you’re the man, our MVP. My other word has to go to Cristoph (Tottenburg, for the media). Boy, did you come good for us after the break; re-energized and it seemed that no one could mark you. Untouchable, mate! I know you’ve ambitions to try a club in Europe, and whispers are Barcelona are interested but so too are Bayern; or you may just say it’s your time to manage a team. Whatever, happens, good luck, and I really appreciate the dedication and the vision. Kristoph!”

We’re being waved away, now, as the team looks to say a few words in private prayer. That really was a good look at how defeat and victory sit on the shoulders of players. Back to the studio.

Fundamentally different: a look back at a career #11: Have faith! A brief look at religion on the road.

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You get an interesting insight into faith when you travel and moreso if you stay in any country more than a few days.

Africa is almost split across its middle between the dominance of Islam (north) and Christianity (south); it has a close connection too with whether countries are francophone or anglophone but less so than the simple geographical split, as the linguistic layer cake later. That makes sense, given how Islam was spread by refugees from the Arab peninsula and then through Moor conquests coming down from the north.

However, many people in Africa have firm Animist beliefs–voodoo has its roots in Benin; worship of spirits is common. b, from Baga traditions) and her statue was placed facing the doorway for that purpose. (We’ve, since, always, had Nimba statues in our homes.)

You get to see Animism in the most surprising settings. Early during my posting in Guinea, I was invited to a football match, as a guest along with the British Ambassador, who was my neighbour. Neither of us had been in-country long. As a former player, I was fascinated to see a local match up close. The formalities all seemed normal, with my ambassador-neighbour doing the honours at the coin toss. Just when I thought the guests would leave the field and the teams get on with the game, someone brought a chicken to the centre, holding it aloft. After some chanting that I did not understand, the chicken’s neck was cut! Its blood was drained around the centre circle, then the man took it to the side. The field was new and had now been duly sanctified.

I’ve worked in both Islamic and Christian states, including Orthodox Christian Ethiopia. I loved living in Guinea; predominantly Muslim but also celebrating major Christian festivals, Easter and Christmas 🙂 Islam has had a long tradition of tolerating other religions. My secretary was a Catholic and all other staff were Muslims.

Seeing a world revolve around a weekend that starts on Friday and ends on Sunday was a big change only for coordination with my Washington or UK lives. The main prayers on Fridays shifts focus well. The reverence of Friday prayers was always evident by the glorious display of robes that day (boubous). My office closed at noon.

Living in a world where Ramadan and fasting drive lives is revealing. In my first year, I fasted the whole of Ramadan; it was tough. It was tougher than it needed to be because I didn’t know I could drink water, and I hadn’t learned that you should get up before dawn and load up on food 🙂 You don’t fool me twice! I cracked that the second year.

What Ramadan revealed was how the lower energy levels just drive down productivity; lassitude is just everywhere. I was lucky to break fast in the evenings (iftar) with friends and families, most days, which gave a much clearer meaning to what the prolonged fasting meant. The whole process is cleansing, physically and spiritually.

Guinea practised what I called ‘Islam light’. That was evidenced by the absence of extreme form of modest clothing throughout–long clothes were common forms of attire–to the extent that seeing bare-breasted women was commonplace.

Photo I took driving through Labé

Black Africans are generally not ashamed of their bodies.

Burqas and all black attire were seen to any large extent only in parts of the Fouta Djallon, amongst some fundamentalist elements of the Peuhl population. Yet, even in the heart of that community, you’d see things like motorcycle taxis where women were riders and men pillion passengers.

Most Christians only know of monogamy as a way of life, whether formally married or not; many have a hard time with the idea of polygamy, when a man with multiple female partners, simultaneously. Well, the Muslim marriage allows up to four wives; it doesn’t give the reverse polygamous rights, as if polyandry were accepted. It took a while to understand how that worked out, and I did not have any judgments, but noted that for some men it was about raising the odds on creating a family, eg by taking on some younger woman(en) to add to his marriage. The tenet is that each wife should be loved equally. I don’t know what the test or proof of that is; it’s understood, though that the husband can and will have his favourite. Guinea’s president during my time, Lansana Conté, had three wives, one of whom was a Christian. Let’s not delve into the less-know area of extra-marital arrangements when a man has several wives already. 🙂

We attended a Catholic church in Conakry for several years, as a way of introducing our young child to Christian workshop. For me, a Protestant, that was no simple journey of faith, but the priest was a wonderful man and the congregation, mainly people from Sierra Leone was truly joyous.

One of my best Guinean friends, now departed, El Hadj Sow (who was secretary-general in the ministry of finance), was an Imam of great repute, who hailed from the town of Dinguiraye, a holy city for African Muslims. He taught me what little I know about Islam and the Quran. I was fortunate to speed several weekends with him, his brothers and, his family, when they had the tradition of taking each meal at a different brothers house, from Friday through Sunday. It was very simple and open and I have great memories of Rhian wandering into the prayer area and kneeling to join the prayers, something she was accustomed to doing at home when our household staff had their prayers 🙂

I know many Muslims who have been to Mecca for the Hadj; many more than Christians I know who have made any pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

The power of faith and religion was best brought home to me in places where it had been denied for years, the former Soviet Union. If nothing else marked regime change, it was people flocking freely to and in churches. Ironically, Soviet leaders had understood the power of Christian and other beliefs within Russia and the satellite states, and did little to damage the physical structures, such as churches or mosques, some of the most beautiful examples of which exist within that political regime.

Little can touch the beauty of Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral, poised defiantly in. Red Square.

#COVID19Chronicles-162: September 21, 2020-Schools reopening; field hospital; dengue

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It looks like phased opening of schools will occur from October 5.

Field hospital being set up:

Dengue looms on the horizon as recent heavy rains have helped mosquitoes breed more. Fogging (which only tackles adult mosquitoes, not breeding sites) will be stepped up.

Fundamentally different: a look back at a career #10: Dealing with the unexpected

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We don’t usually get hazard pay for work done on the job, but sometimes we should. When I started my Guinea assignment, I spent a weekend with my assistant on the roof of the building that hosted our office. Why? The Fund knew it couldn’t rely on the parlous state of local telecommunications so wanted to install a satellite connection. Problem? No technician to do that. So, naturally, my assistant and I were up on the roof of our building jiggling a huge satellite and trying to liaise by phone with a technician in another country the physical installation and the technical calibration. I’d not swear to being able to get a job doing that, but, who knows? My assistant and I were forever well-bonded by this experience. [In passing, I did the unthinkable of proposing him for training several times, and as a result the technical capacity of the post was enhanced greatly. He’s now a senior economist/resident representative for the Fund in The Gambia 🙂 Job done!]

One mission to Riga, Latvia in 1994, was memorable for SAS losing my luggage. Checks showed it had gone to Iceland. Well, fine. My briefcase and computer bag were all I had. So, for the next day, a colleague offered me a jacket, shirt and tie. I never travelled long-distance in business clothes. I had no toiletries–never again, and I always have or make sure I keep the vanity kits from in-flight. At the end of day 1, still no bag, which had somehow not been sent to Riga, but Valletta, Malta. The airline suggested I buy some clothes and would get compensated. Great! You probably cannot imagine what lack of choice looked like in recently former Soviet countries: dark grey or dark brown. Jeez!

Security can be an issue, especially when you work for an organization that often doesn’t ‘get the love’. That said, I have never been shot at, though presidential guards’ guns were trained on my driver and car in Guinea, with me inside. Diplomatic privileges kicked in fast—shouldn’t have been necessary—and hostilities (for reasons unknown) were ended.

We were often moved around with lots of security in tow, but that was more for the politicians we were meeting than us. We sometimes could not be trusted to keep our mobile phones in meetings and had to leave them in a tray outside the room.

Some people never felt safe or secure on mission, either because of some deep fear of being in a foreign country, or because the political or social state of the country caused them concerns. I remember one mission to ‘Tana, when one mission member never set foot outside the hotel other than for meetings, after we’d been walking and saw people defecating on the sidewalk. One can understand some mission members, often women, not feeling that walking alone at night was for them; but some felt that way about daytimes. Sadly, that meant when missions offered some downtime from the string of meetings, at the weekends, they were among those always found in their rooms, at worst, or somewhere on the hotel property. In tropical places, like Guyana, that was fine, where the hotel had a nice courtyard with trees and plants that offered a great alternative to the four walls of a room. But, imagine Moscow in February. Many Fund economists will admit they know nothing about their countries beyond the journey to and from the airport, their hotel, and and where they had their meetings.

Choice can pose problems when travelling, and if food options are limited, get used to being back again and again…like regulars…and the menu may mean the same meals, again, and again… It’s usually only 2 weeks and not every meal, lunch and dinner. Going out at night was usually a short walk or if further missions usually had cars and drivers assigned to them by the national authorities, so no need to navigate fares and journeys with taxi drivers. I’ve done that, though, and lived to tell the tale of how to drive the wrong way along one-way streets in Ankara at night: there was a lot of traffic 🙂

By contrast, I was an adverturer. I’ve travelled a lot for pleasure and I have a facility with languages, so was not overawed easily. I grew up in London so thought I could navigate most urban situations with at worst some simple braggadocio. However, you don’t want to attract undue attention to yourself, so the open mike or Karaoke can be skipped, especially if a bit wasted. So, I had no problem doing soft cultural things on my own, or with a colleague, and I was always up for that. I would also want to explore local street or cafe food. In some places, I had acquaintances who would be helpful guides. So, in Moscow, for instance, I spent a few weekends with friends in their typical Russian flat, with their kids, eating and drinking vodka on a winter’s day. I’d been picked up and dropped off in their car, but I’d have happily taken the fabulous Moscow metro.

Adventures could be simple pleasures, like having my hair cut by a street barber in Kampala. They involved hunting the market in Moscow for film or driving out to a dascha with colleagues who were both Russian-speaking and knew Russia. It could involve taking the ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki to see what it was like to head there for shopping. When I worked the monetary sector, I always tried to get a good feel for how money and finance worked on the ground, whether in banks (I opened a bank account in Uganda), or in parallel FX markets (I’ve changed lots of money, even though sometimes Fund rules strictly forbade it), or is regular markets (to see where goods were coming from—the power of China was often visible in consumer goods). A trip to the Pushkin Museum or the ballet in Moscow, which cost 1 ruble; going to the opening of the McDonald’s in Moscow—my first ever Big Mac!

National authorities can test your adventurous nature, too. I’ve told my food stories. But, there are the ‘trips’, some boring, to nationally significant places, but with the added ‘special’ meal or ‘entertainment’. Sword swallowers? OK. Balalaika players? OK. Taking the floor with belly dancers? Not OK, for me 😦 Trips along lazy rivers with lunch at the end? Very OK. Hunting (never took up the offer)? Not OK. I enjoyed visiting the bobsled track at Sigulda, Latvia, and am forever grateful we were not asked to take a ride in a sled for the full experience.

Stress on missions is normal: the Fund has a lot of learning by doing on the job; no mission tutorials, for instance. Working hours are usually long and mission chiefs can be autocratic. I’ve been on mission where a new team member was totally at sea about how to do ‘routine’ forecasts, and we spent hours with her tearfully working through her sector numbers. She was no technical dud, coming from a senior position in her home country, but missions can be solitary and your colleagues may actually or apparently undermine you. Some departments thrive on that, even seating mission members on the same tasks, unbeknownst to them to develop creative tension. Not my style and not my liking 😡

Some just cannot handle the sometimes crazy deadlines on missions and the frequent iterations and integration of numbers. Whether simply flustered or in a downright panic, as I have been, it’s just no fun. My worst nightmare was doing a debt sustainability analysis (necessary to assess if a country had achieved their goal for widescale debt relief); the program kept on crashing. Now, the calculations can be done by hand, but, really? My other nightmare came when I realized I’d calculated some date with the wrong signs—not uncommon with the balance of payments, where some flows need the opposite sign because they are ‘below the line’ (financing items). But, my best was non-nightmare. I was presenting my budget forecast to the finance minister, who was visibly angry and asked “Where did these numbers come from?” I looked at the budget director, with whom I had spent days working on them item by item, mainly in German and Russian. He nodded his accord. The minister was furious because I had a 3% deficit and he thought it ought to be 6%. That’s normally the reverse reaction. A lot of whispering and huddling went on for a few minutes, then the minister came back: “I don’t like these numbers, but I’ll accept them!” I think that was an apology.

Working all night, especially towards the end of missions was normal, even doing numbers on the way to the airport and in the lounge waiting to fly, with some official ready to take the electronic file (disks back in the day, thumb drives later, and now just a shared link). Then, you could crash on the flight…or maybe, just remember that you’d made or not corrected some cockup 😦

Not surprising, then, that coping skills can be tested. I’m a chocoholic; I’d load up on Cadbury’s when I transitted London. I wasn’t a drinker or smoker; but others were. Mission chiefs should sense anxiety but how it’s dealt with varies. One mission chief always had a few sessions where the team read scenes from a Shakespearean play 🤔Another always opened the nightly team meetings by offering the contents of his minibar; his expenses were no issue. Both were good icebreakers, at the end of f sad sad sometimes trying days.

I was never on a mission where any hanky-panky took place amongst or involving mission members. I have been on missions with people who were later found to have been hanky-pankying…. 🙂 The nearest I came was being taken to a night club with Latvian officials—the club was in the penthouse of our hotel—and there I saw how the top apparatchiks could live: young ladies, endless drinks, no paying, sleezy-looking associates… 🙂

Air travel issues are one thing but living in a place brings other ones. Guinea isn’t well served by air travel in or out or within. Most distance travel is by road. The IMF doesn’t have projects to assess but other lending agencies do. I’d often be invited and it helped put flesh on economic activities. A close acquaintance was the rep for the Islamic Development Bank; his office was adjacent to mine at the central bank. I joined him on a road trip to check on a rice project in the Fouta Djallon. He was a Peuhl (Fulani) and that was his native region. We travelled in my Land Cruiser with my driver and economic assistant both of whom were also Peuhl. We’d agreed to stop at their home villages. However, coming uphill from the site, the car hit a large hole in the road and was tipped onto its side. We were four in the car, but could not move it. Fortunately, workers from the rice fields were quick to come to our aid.

Who’d think a plush hotel suite would be hazardous? The Metropol in Moscow is the most elegant hotel I’ve ever stayed in: its rooms are mainly like studio apartments, and really feel like personal space. Once you stayed several times, they happily assign you your favourite room. But, they also decide upgrades. So, I was thrilled to get a suite the size of a 2-bedroom apartment, with palatial trimming.

However, I never expected to host my mission chief there for any meetings, but he insisted. Well, it was his first trip to Moscow and he’d been given a plain room. When he got to my suite, his eyes popped out on stalks. I explained how things worked at the Metropole. As soon as we’d done, he headed to reception to demand an upgrade; he got it, but it was meh. 🤔😇

Finally, fittingly, maybe, is the matter of gifts. The Fund had a clear policy on accepting gifts and the acceptable value that did not need declaring. Grandiose gifts could be donated to the institution. I have no stash of expensive watches given by any government 🙂 I had fond memories of eating or drinking my gifts, or giving them to friends. Sadly, gifts are often given at the most inconvenient time, eg on arrival at the airport or worse, on our way from the lounge to the plane, when there’s no chance to put the items into checked luggage and one has to negotiate carrying a mini-statue of Tutankhamen all the way back to Washington. But, let’s keep things in perspective: I’ve some trinkets and commemorative coins that hold many tales of good and bad times serving the world. 🙂