#COVID19Chronicles-172: September 30, 2020-People have had enough?

I’m not doing anything more than compare and contrast. Resistance to various pandemic control measures has been there from the outset in the spring. People talk about mounting frustration with lockdowns and mask wearing. How these negative reactions are shown is interesting.

In Jamaica we’ve had instances of people attacking police who tried to close parties during curfew.

Meanwhile in Spain, protests have been about measures and jobs threatened by the pandemic.

https://twitter.com/saracarterdc/status/130800555544995020 8?s=21

Israel has had a series of protests against the government’s handling of the pandemic, despite new lockdowns, which some see as a pretext to curb protests:

#COVID19Chronicles-171: September 30, 2020-Back to school? Some perspectives from students, parents and teachers.

While most parents, students and teachers in Jamaica wait anxiously for the new school year to begin on October 5 (having been deferred from September 7), several in that category have been back at school for nearly a month already. Many children studying abroad went back in late-August and some private schools in Jamaica went back about the same time. So, how has it been for some of them?

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My daughter started boarding school in the USA, in New England, in September 2019. She was having a great junior year, with excellent grades and a fuller athletics program than she’d enjoyed in Jamaica. She had decided to make the move and had done the research and sold the case to her mother—I was resistant to the end, but bent after I went to visit the school. To our great joy, she was representing well as a Caribbean-US girl and as a self-motivator. She’d found herself amongst a few Jamaican friends and some acquaintances from The Bahamas. She was inspirational in the school having a fund raising drive to aid Hurricane Dorian relief efforts. Then COVID-19 struck.

She spent an unplanned 6 months at home, after spring break, when the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic meant she was not able to return to school. She enjoyed being home in Jamaica, but did not really enjoy when school resumed for the spring term, and she had to continue classes remotely, online. She missed the opportunity to try a new sport, varsity softball, which should have had spring training in Florida in March. She really missed the trip to Disney World that’d been planned as part of the trip. 😩Boo! COVID sucks! 😡

She returned to school in late-August, however. She had to return with a negative PCR test result, less than 10 days old. Testing wasn’t fun, at UHWI, but negative results were a great comfort. 👍🏾🙏🏾

Her own take on the transition was interesting (as shared in a Whatsapp message):

“…as i knew I was going to be travelling to the US by myself, the thought gave me so much anxiety and even going through the airport on the day I was very anxious especially in jamaica because I didn’t know if ppl would take it seriously and be wearing their masks correctly but I was pleasantly surprised and I didn’t know what to expect in ja or in the US but luckily I had an older friend there with me to help me out as well. some people in the miami airport were a little non chalant about wearing their mask and as i passed them while being socially distant I was very passive about them not wearing their masks. but now that i’m at school i’m settling in quite nicely, not a log of ppl on campus but student will be tricking in soon mainly on the 3rd and i’m so excited but the freedom i have will be tightened up (like ordering food).”

She’s a senior now in high school, so is also in the throes of college applications. Broadly, US colleges have decided to make applications ‘test optional’ for 2021 entrants. She has an SAT result, from a test sat last fall; she wanted to resit to try to improve her score, and managed to do that at school last week, adding the essay component, which made the exercise about 4 hours long.

Meanwhile, college enticements are flowing in; online sessions and tours are being offered; some in-person visits are resuming. It’s an active and exhilarating time, with its full bucket of anxieties over choices and what is the right strategy to get what you what, where you want. Oh, to be 17! 🙂

As the application process advances, one can’t help but focus on how colleges are preparing for entry in 2020 and beyond, with installation of protective facilities (eg isolation areas) in case a major outbreak occurs at the college. Many have medical facilities associated with them, but how they would be used and be available in an emergency is to be tested.

Her first two weeks involved quarantine in her dorm; her room mate arrived after about a week. They had meals brought to them. COVID testing is every 3-4 days, and rapid results methods are being used. The dorm house has a nice porch, so it was at least an option to sit there and enjoy the approaching fall cool weather and the changing leaf colours.

Masks are mandatory and social distancing is applied.

Classes resumed a couple of weeks ago. Day students were registered last week. Online options exist for those who prefer them, and classes are recorded. Face-to-face classes have resumed. Life on campus is resembling normal life, but with many restrictions. For instance, movie night over the weekend was outdoors.

Students were able to walk in the woods around school. But, some organized sports have resumed: my daughter has had a week of soccer practice; a limited schedule of inter-school matches will be arranged for the varsity team, while the junior varsity will play intra-murally.

My daughter was able to leave campus at the weekend for a trip to the plaza and pharmacy—masks and social distancing in force. School will run until Thanksgiving in late-November, students will leave campus and not return until 2021. Online tuition will resume after the Thanksgiving holiday through to the Chrismas/New Year break.

We speak often, including video chats, as the fancy takes us, but often between activities when my daughter is walking to or from her dorm or a class. Her days are full but still fun. I’ve not detected any health-related stress in her voice. She had trouble sleeping in her early days back but Sleepytime tea seems to be working well.

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I have a Jamaican friend, who teaches in a private school in St. Andrew. Her son is at a private university in New England, as a junior (his 3rd year). He also preferred returning to campus because he felt he could focus better. He also felt that the protocols were well thought out, so the safety factor was key. The state requires quarantining or a negative test. The school has easily accessible testing stations throughout campus. They test every 3-4 days and the turnaround time is about a day and a half.

Students have to be creative with socialising as only people who live in the dorm can enter the building. So, friendship circles have shifted somewhat to include persons who live off campus. Add to that, many friends have not returned to campus at all as they have opted to attend class remotely. There is some concern about how this will evolve when winter arrives as outdoor venues won’t be as comfortable. Culturally, New Englanders are very self-conscious so compliance for mask wearing and social distancing is enforced by everyone. If someone steps in without a mask the social pressure is there to get them to conform. Creates a greater sense of overall safety.

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As a parent I have several issues to deal with while my child returns to being educated in the current situation. First, there’s anxiety coming from separation and distance. But, I’m confident in my daughter’s school and how they managed the online teaching during spring term, the summer preparation, and now the fall resumption. I hear confidence in my daughter’s voice as she discusses her days and activities.

She had previously attended AISK, which is leading Jamaican schools on how to bring technology to bear to facilitate resumption of classes.

Interestingly my friend, although she had the same anxiety, as things evolved locally she felt that her son would be in a more controlled environment at school. Their testing procedures are more accessible and the systems are in place should he end up in quarantine.

Her concerns about distance was similar. There is no just jump on a plane anymore. Christmas break may not be an option as quarantining on return to Jamaica will take up most of the time and so he feels that it won’t make sense. She completely understands but it’s heartbreaking when one considers not being able to see him until next summer.

+++

But what do teachers see? My friend sees that protocols have to be simple for them to work. Classes have to be small. Kids will be kids and will forget protocols and so numbers have to be at a size where they can be easily monitored. The students have been more or less cooperative. Teachers spent a lot of time explaining the rationale behind the systems to students and they get it. Adults have to be on guard all the time to remind kids to social distance. Yes, it’s great to have kids back. The toll on teachers is extensive. Their duty schedule is expanded because the kids are now in self-contained units for the whole day. In addition to the physical toll teachers also worry about their level of exposure everyday and the possibilities of getting sick. The mental health component is real. The level of anxiety is high.

#COVID19Chronicles-170: September 29, 2020-Health vs economics?

Since the onset of the pandemic in the spring, many have focused on and argued about trade-offs between health and the economy. It’s not really an either or matter, as it needs to focus on what elements of the economy may be deemed important and what aspect of health provision is important. So, to me, at least, it’s not about an economy working fully as it did before and health focused just on COVID-19 issues. In a simplified example, we could say that policy makers would try to preserve the activities of the main economic drivers in terms of income and jobs, with an eye on how they could proceed while not worsening dramatically the chances of keeping good control of the pandemic. The health focus could be how to ensure that resources directed at addressing COVID-19 (personnel, facilities, tests, and medicines, say) were given priority, subject to not playing key elements of routine and emergency health care in jeopardy.

That said, an interesting study was conducted by MIT in the summer to look at this trade-off. It found: ‘Vital forms of commerce that are relatively uncrowded fare the best in the study; less significant types of businesses that generate crowds perform worse. The results can help inform the policy decisions of government officials during the ongoing pandemic. As it happens, banks perform the best in the study, being economically significant and relatively uncrowded.’ So, it pointed to categories of economic activity there in a sense more COVID-friendly. It then allows some assessment of what policy makers sought to protect, so bars/restaurants might have found favour, but they serve some important social support functions in allowing people to preserve certain senses of normality. Likewise, many would understand schools being less favoured because of overcrowding despite therisks of losing out on educational development.

In Jamaica, discussion about this trade-off has centered around closing/opening our borders, mindful of the significance of tourism; curfews, when and how long; restrictions on movement, mindful that compelling certain high risk groups to remain at home might be good from a health perspective, but have harmful effects on ability to work and earn; and policies to encourage working from home, thinking that economic activity without the need for commuting, would yield health benefits for less economic loss.

The discussions roll on. One clear decision in recent weeks, has been that another lock down is not part of government thinking; the economic costs are deemed too great.

Some business people have since been arguing for short curfew hours.

However, I asked if the curfew were only 10pm-5am what is the health/limiting virus spread benefit we’re supposed to be getting from it being that short?

Some interesting interactive charts about national responses to the pandemic also give insight into how countries have prioritized activities and policies (eg income support). So, the charts below show how the UK and Jamaica had different trends in visiting various places. We can see the sharp decline in the period from around mid-March and lock down because the norm in many countries. Then, from April, we see activities resuming, and in many instances, these are still far below pre-pandemic levels.

5 things that have ruined Premier League football and are not VAR and the new handball rule

If I hear another ‘pundit’ or manager complain how the new handball rule is ruining the game, I’ll tear out the remaining hair I have on my head. The twaddle that has erupted because some players, with the aid of technology, have been adjudged to have broken a rule, is amazing. The two managers, after Newcastle got a last minute penalty and earned a 1-1 draw with Tottenham, took different stances (funnily, the beneficiary was highly critical of his fortune):

Not everyone is buying this lamentation:

Ken Early thinks there’s a wider problem:

‘Except the problem is not the rule. The rule is only a second-order effect of the real problem, which is VAR. VAR has shown us that football is, to a surprising extent, a game of micro-handballs. In the past referees dealt with them equitably, by failing to notice them. If it happened too fast to be perceptible to the naked eye, nobody worried about it. No body, no crime. Now VAR spots everything that could possibly be a handball and demands to know what the referee is going to do about it.

However, my feelings go wider than the vein-bursting screams of Jamie Carragher that it’s “an embarrassment!”

Not one of the commentators thought to mention things that are a basic part of the modern game that have ‘ruined it’ for fans. Well, let me put a few to you.

1. Handling the ball instead of letting a goal score: that’s a rule being applied to its letter, but none of the moaners are arguing that a player should let the goal score and not handle, get a red card, and then help his team because a penalty kick is awarded instead of a clear goal. The injustice of that is beyond dispute! The selection below includes some handballs efforts to try to cheat and score a goal. They also include some odd handball decisions that had nothing to do with (and pre-date) VAR. The game was already ruined!

The game was not ruined by Maradona’s ‘hand of God’? Give me a break!

The gleeful celebration of a cheat, afterwards!

2. The ‘professional’ or ‘tactical’ foul denying a clear goal scoring chance. These so-called ‘dark’ arts of the game cannot be called for what they are; or are they? ‘Professional’ and ‘tactical’ speak to how they are taught and used as part of the ‘beautiful’ game at its highest level. Commentators are often ready to praise how a player ‘takes one for the team’, with such actions, committing the foul and getting maybe no worse than a yellow card.

3. Price of replica kits: ‘Dr. Peter Rohlmann, a sports merchandising expert carried out a study of the breakdown of the income and expenditure involved the market of replica shirts. He found that the manufacturers’ costs of material, labour and shipping were less than £5 per shirt, so a top selling for £50 is a 1000% mark up on costs. Perhaps the one surprising finding from Dr. Rohlmann’s report is that the clubs themselves merely receive around 6% of the price of the shirt, that is £3 on a top retailing for £50.’ The game isn’t ruined? I guess not, given the kit sponsorship money that clubs get.

4. Transfer fees and player salaries. I watched Spurs-Newcastle at the weekend and the cameras were trained on Gareth Bale, who’s just returned to his former club, after several years at Real Madrid, which seemed to end unhappily with him clearly not wanted by the club. But, poor (sorry, not poor) Gareth had to live with that and little playing time. How could he cope? Just so: ‘his wages are reported to tot up to an eye-watering sum of £350,000 a week after tax. Bale joined Real Madrid from Tottenham in September 2013 for a then world-record transfer fee of £85m (100m euros), and then signed a contract extension in 2016 worth a reported £150million, according to the Guardian. Contracted to the club until June 30, 2022, he is said to earn £600,000 a week before tax.’ Game not ruined for us all? I figured (no pun intended) not. Any wonder that ‘This year saw the Cardiff-born star top the 2020 Sunday Times Rich List in May, when he was named the wealthiest active sports star aged 30 or below.’ A player who cannot command a regular full-time spot on a team! Give me some of that! Game definitely not ruined for us.

But, let’s not heap blame on young Gareth, alone. Look at the top 10 young list; everyone’s a footballer, bar Anthony Joshua!

Oh, yea! The game is healthy and doing us all good. 😦

5. Entrance fees. The Premier League’s own research shows that ticket prices are about £30 pounds a game. About 3/4 of fans are season ticket holders: a £400 season ticket for 19 Premier League matches is £21.05 per match ticket. But such tickets for match-going adults last season ranged from £458 (Sheffield United) to £1395 (Tottenham). Top-end tickets were about £90 per match.

Though a bit out of date, the Bleacher Report indicated that paying to go to matches was out of the reach of ordinary punters: going to the football has become an unaffordable activity for the majority of the traditional supporter base’. ‘The cost of attending football has risen at more than twice the rate of the already extortionate cost of living in Britain today.’

For a little comparison, tickets for Bayern Munich’s games were lower than in any of the four top tieof the football LEague.

But, fans in the Football League still love the game, according to the EFL Supporters Survey 2019, and about 2/3 of them wanted goal-line technology and VAR to help with officials make decisions; that view might have shifted with experience, but it’s acknowledged to be a work in progress.

Donald Trump’s taxes leaked

The bombshell from the New York Times revealed only $750 had been paid in taxes in 2016 and 2017; a lavish lifestyle had been supported by business expenses:

Reactions from other respected media paint no rosy pictures:

Yahoo News! 5 takeaways tells all you need to know:

#COVID19Chronicles-169: September 28, 2020: Being presidential? Conspiracies?

Lisa Hanna will run in the forthcoming elections for PNP president; it’s likely to be not a beautiful contest, so far with only Mark Golding as opposition:

Julian Robinson is stepping down as PNP General Secretary (a possible aspirant for president in some minds), as is Fitz Jackson, the PNP chairman—‘falling on their swords’ for the recent general election loss:

Minister Tufton was at pains to dispel ‘conspiracy theories’:

To say that Jamaicans are suspicious of politicians much of the time is an understatement and the country has a serious ‘trust deficit’. I pity anyone trying to tell a consistent and accurate story as a politician in the midst of the ‘noise’ and disruptive information that floods many people’s consciousness. I’d wager that ‘fake news’ really originated in Jamaica 🙂

‘Conspiracy theories’ can represent lots of things, including real attempt to destabilize policy dialogue, pure mischief, and boredom/idleness. I wont speculate which have been in play.

#COVID19Chronicles-168: September 27, 2020: Better the devils we know?

I expect little from politicians, personally. I also don’t hold them in great reverence; most don’t show me reasoning capacity of the highest order; their emotional outburst make me question the balance of their views; and in Jamaica, I’m concerned about their constant attempts to appear be the source of all good things people want, but sadly too often, primarily, for their own supporters.

What I expect is a good ear and a real appreciation of national and local issues. So in that vein, I wonder what they really understand about mask-wearing resistance.

Do Jamaicans respect noise abatement rules? Most do; many don’t. Do Jamaicans respect road traffic rules? Most do, many don’t and a particular subgroup—-taxi and minibus drivers—don’t to a degree far greater than the rest of us. Do Jamaicans expect to be given concessions, let off and given second chances for egregious behaviour? Yes, and with good reason, based on actual experience with government.

So, with a background of patchy compliance with most things, what should we expect over something as seemingly trivial as wearing masks?

I’m just going to take a look at what COVID19LIFE is getting us to accept and understand in that regard.

I went to play golf at dawn, yesterday, as I often do on Saturdays. After weeks of heavy rain, the club had warned about mosquitoes in abundance and urged long-sleeved shirt and long pants. I’d forgotten that last week and found I was the special on the menu 🤔😳😩🏌🏾‍♂️Fool me once…

I had the picture taken because I dress like this only at this time of year; the mosquitoes at Caymanas are savage.😩😳

Golf allows lots of human interactions but with lots of social distancing. Those working at the course adhere to COVID protocols; caddies and course maintenance staff wear masks most of the time as they move around the course. Naturally, when far from anyone one can see their masks in place other than covering their faces. Players are usually good at compliance; on the course, they are the same as those who work there, and many have added not using caddies as a form of added protection—not having additional personal interaction (bad for the caddies’ pockets, though). Many players do not mingle in the bar areas but sit on the balcony, well-spaced and ventilated and use the hand sanitizters before heading on into the main building. I tackled someone entering the bar last week without a mask (not a man I recognized, so I assume a visitor)—the sign stated clearly no mask no service—but he had to be an exception: “I’m just paying my tab.” I gave him the choice of 7 iron or 3 wood up his a**e. 🤔😡Sorry, I’m not tolerant!

After golf, I headed home with two errands in mind, get cash and buy bananas. Well, the two Scotia ABMs by the gas station at Washington Boulevard/Molynes Rd had a dozen people waiting outside them so I didn’t stop there. (I noticed though that they were mostly masked and about 2m apart; some couldn’t help being up under armpits, though.) That meant I had no money for bananas. Aargh! I could use Qwisk or my credit card? What’re you smoking, bro? 🤔😂😩So I drove though the small street market at Grants Pen Rd/Shortwood Rd and just observed. Masks were more evident than last week, though this was a spot check not a structured survey.

My observations last week (scenes in the video) had triggered a response from the MP:

My ABM errand had to wait till closer to home. The line at the Texaco gas station was short but the mask issue loomed large:

It’s obvious some people don’t get what ‘personal responsibility’ means, so despite efforts by others, we’re worse off than we need be:

Mask wearing is proving to be a bigger test than many expected; it’s also pushing at boundaries of personal liberties for some—the USA seems to be the main battleground. It could also indicate some mental problems:

It’s also about messaging. It’s also about if incentives are needed, either sticks or carrots. When pushed, governments have gone for sticks. It’s hard to think what carrots would work. In using sticks, some governments have also pushed closer to dictatorial measures. That’s not been tried in Jamaica, and I’d not think it’d be well received.

Is some cognitive dissonance at work?—conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behavior, as displayed when people know the bad effects of certain ‘recreational’ drugs but still take them.

When Jamaicans have been asked by health officials about their understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic, they answer overwhelmingly that they understand what it is and how it spreads, but…many believe they wont get it. That belief is bolstered, I imagine, because deaths have been low in relative terms and even the number of cases is low, relatively speaking. So, it’s a mild form of denial, I guess. However, that’s why many feel they have nothing to spread as well as nothing to catch. The important feature that most people will be infected by not show symptoms either hasn’t factored in, or people really believe that unless you see or hear the symptoms, nothing is being passed around. That said, we’ve heard stories of near panic when someone sneezed in a confined space.

Government officials in many countries have dug their own graves on messages by being as mixed up as fruit salad in how they’ve followed rules or been the arch buffoon in how not to wear masks.

What know is those who understood the need apply it. Mark Wignall wrote about this behaviour in today’s Sunday Gleaner. He noted the denials: ‘One said to me, “Missa Wignall, big respect. None a wi right here so know anybody whey sick wid di virus, so right now, wi feel safe. Respect.”’ He also pointed to what I have noted, that ‘personal responsibility’ if for others to practice: ‘So we are stuck with what we know. Jamaicans know, to a large extent, that we all need to protect ourselves, but from my talks with many at street level, they somehow believe that if ‘others’ do what is right, all will, in time, be okay. That is plainly dangerous.’ (my stress).

That final point, is for me, too true and points to a grave and obvious danger, because the fight in Jamaica against the pandemic is not even and is for everyone but ourselves to fight, in the mind of too many.

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

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.

https://twitter.com/reggaenation/status/1308241410106089472?s=21

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.

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

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.