As Dr. Tufton signalled last Thursday, focus will shift from daily data variations towards lifestyle information about ‘living with COVID19’. In keeping with that, his ministry issued its new-style reports today (on its website https://www.moh.gov.jm); updates are supposed to be at 10am daily.
Many people have become accustomed to the former style of data releases, and what I have noticed is that changes cause some to wrinkle their faces in some confusion, or even go to some form of extreme conspiracy theory reactions.
I’m not going to discuss some basic misunderstanding about data generation and statistical publications. I’ve had explanations from doctors at the ‘front line’ dealing with COVID cases and those involved in COVID testing and the inevitable glitches or whatever that complicate smooth data collection. I’ve done data collection and publication all of my professional life. My general view is to focus on whether the general data setup is robust, in light of the nature of what’s being monitored. I don’t have energy to second-guess those doing the work of which I am a consumer.
≈ Comments Off on Fundamentally different: a look back at a career #3: Tackling the Soviet transition
These recollections don’t come with any chronological or geographical order.
A significant part of my Fund career was spent working on former Soviet Union (FSU) countries, beginning in 1994, after dissolution of the FSU and these countries became IMF members in 1992. My first assignment in the area was to Riga, Latvia; then several missions to Moscow, Russia; Tallinn, Estonia; Baku, Azerbaijan. Four quite distinct countries culturally and historically and linguistically. But, those differences made me marvel at how the Soviet Union had blended together, not necessarily as a wonderfully spun tapestry, but as a functioning whole. It had centralization at the literal core, and this went from things like a synchronized heating season from October 15 to April 15. It included centralized financing, with money being funnelled to and from bank accounts in Moscow; for instance, Baltic countries were surplus countries and funded the central bank, countries like Kyrgyzstan were deficit countries and drew on the funds.
When the FSU fell, one of the biggest tasks of disentanglement was the national balances for each of the former republics. Those financial flows were relatively straight forward with the ruble as a common currency, but as countries started to develop their own currencies, things got interesting. My work, initially, was mainly to help develop monetary statistics that conformed to western accounting principles, not Soviet ones. It also involved teaching about IMF statistics. I soon graduated to country program work, developing economic policies to be supported by IMF financing.
So much for the work. Numbers and reports get produced., but how?
Where’s the best place to hold a meeting? Well, in Estonia, it’s often in a sauna. I was not taken aback when the finance minister suggested to my mission chief that we met around the hot coals; I’d heard of this before and it was set in the context of being an environment where literally little could be hidden. What they hadn’t bargained on was that women, not brought up in this Nordic cultural tradition would see it as an attempt to exclude them. After some explanations, some of the women on the team agreed to join. So, just as booking meeting rooms in hotels in normal in many countries, Nordic countries book saunas for events.
The meeting was simple and the discussions didn’t last long, and were then left behind as local Viru Valga vodka (my favourite) and Saku Pilsner beer flowed, with peanuts and other salty snacks (to replace some of what had been lost through sweating). But, to enjoy that, we had to take the ice bath plunge—not some namby-pamby shower with a cold tap, but a hole cut through the ice. Oh, yea!
I can’t recall now if that meeting was during the missions when some other interesting things went on.
During one visit, we had one of those unbelievable moments. We were just coming out of the Cold War and trust of things ‘western’ wasn’t yet cemented fully. I remember having team meetings followed by meetings with the authorities where they seemed ready for all of our points and were ready to agree them as we brought them up. That’s good, in a way, as our program got stitched together quickly, but it was also bothersome. We suspected our rooms were bugged, so decided to do the thing seen in films of running a false narrative to see if it came back to us…it did.
Life on mission is often marked by unexpected problems that have nothing to do with data collection or interpretation.
In our early days, booking into hotels in the FSU was really a trip. On a first mission, we were at reception checking into our rooms. A team of six people usually gets 6 rooms, maybe with an extra one for meetings, so that no one needed to feel embarrassed about sharing their private space. So, as we waited, we were presented with 3 sets of keys. Eh? “These are for your rooms…” We reacted ‘But we are six people.’ Well, each room had two beds, so what was the problem? Soviet-style lodgings were about functionality and price, not what was seen as luxuries. It lasted for a night then ‘normal’ mission service was resumed. I’ll tell you this was at the top hotel in country!
Few of us had ever lived through anything like winter in Northern Europe and it was part of the hard adjustment many of us had to make. Ever slept in a bath in your overcoat? Ever had to attend meetings dressed in fur coats, hats and gloves? Not easy for taking notes, let me tell you. Fortunately, when that happened, our resident representative in Riga had an electric fire in her room, so when the authorities needed their smoking breaks, we dashed to that room to huddle around the fire to get some blood recirculating.
Did you know that the major cause of death in winter in those countries is being hit by falling icicles? You’d understand if you saw the huge ones dangling from eaves as you walk along ice-covered sidewalks every day?
Do you know about the high suicide rates in places like Finland? You’d understand the notion of seasonal affective disorder after getting back to your hotel room at 2-3pm and it was dark outside and you looked out of the window onto the city lights of Tallinn—very beautiful—and it was still dark at 10am the next morning as you walked to your meetings.
In areas needing special focus during the pandemic, he’s made an interesting choice for Cabinet (19 ministers) in Fayval Williams as Education Minister, who’d handled the energy, science and technology portfolio after Andrew Wheatley resigned. That portfolio now goes to Daryl Vaz.
The PM found senior spots for some of the younger MPs who’d performed well as junior ministers, notably, Floyd Green as minister for agriculture and fisheries and Pearnal Charles Jr handling housing, urban renewal, climate change and the environment (and he’d been in the Executive before as a senator). Women feature a bit more, with 6, of which 4 were previously in the Cabinet, already.
It’s largely a recycling of the old guard. Octogenarian Mike Henry is sidelined, but near him in age, Karl Samuda, stayed. Some will think that the PM missed the chance to send clear signals about inappropriate conduct, especially poor “judgement” as Cabinet ministers before, by retaining Daryl Vaz and J.C. Hutchinson (now demoted to a junior minister). A simple take on these is that they are key to party support in the country. Though, he too, plays an important part in such mobilization, Andrew Wheatley is seriously damaged goods, at the moment. Keeping Marlene Malado-Forte as attorney general will disappoint many who have seen her judgement, including on social media as often ill-timed and poorly judged in terms of content and soundness of legal advice. A highly capable attorney could have been nominated to the senate for this post, which is a more difficult one when handled by a representational politician.
I think a smaller cabinet is warranted, if only to demonstrate that leaner and more efficient, rather than a continuation of same-old structure.