#COVID19Chronicles-220: November 15, 2020-A hard COVID autumn and winter coming?

Predictions of a hard COVID winter are beginning to look right. Much of Europe is now bracing for an extended second wave of COVID infections:

Most European countries have decided to impose a range of national lockdowns. Germany, which had managed its situation well, is preparing for maybe five months of restrictions:

By contrast, the USA, which has gone through a wave of new highs of cases and deaths over the past two weeks is far from any sort of national restrictions. CNN reported:

‘More than 100,000 new Covid-19 cases were reported in the United States on Saturday, the 12th day in a row the country saw new cases of the virus rise by six figures.

Friday saw the highest daily case count since the pandemic began with 184,514 new cases. 

As of Saturday afternoon US time, 116,716 new Covid-19 cases and 917 additional deaths had been reported. 

The US has reported more than 10.8 million cases and more than 245,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic.’

Texas is way out in front, and President Trump refuses any such national measures, emphasizing last week that “this administration” wont do that, citing the financial/economic costs and lost jobs. (This was also his near ‘acceptance’ moment that he had lost the election.)

In fact, yesterday saw El Paso’s lockdown deemed illegal by courts. Newsweek reported:

‘Texas state appeals court rejected a stay-at-home order in El Paso County on Friday despite the community seeing a surge in new cases and rapidly decreasing space in morgue trucks and tent hospitals.

The Eighth District Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the state and local restaurant owners, who sued El Paso District Judge Ricardo Samaniego for issuing a city-wide shutdown after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a reopening order on October 7.’

Asian countries are also ramping up restrictions:

What is also clear, is where life has moved back towards ‘normalcy’ has seen recent difficulties, with sporting and educational activities having to be curtailed as cases spike among playing and coaching personnel as well as with students and teachers.

Cancellations are starting to mount and affect fixtures:

Plans to adjust to COVID-affected schedules are coming into play in an otherwise full US fall/winter sports calendar:

Does Jamaica’s economic progress (increased wealth) depend on reducing informality?

Let me go out on a limb and say that I think the PM’s views are wrong that Jamaica’s economic progress (measured by increase wealth) will be greater if informality were reduced.

Part of the current plan (developed by the preceding administration under finance minster Nigel Clarke) to rebuild the economy is to reduce informality. Associated with that is the aim to increase the number and scope of those who are in the banking system. Now, many benefits can come from this, including making it easier for the state to know who are its citizens and what they are doing. Also, in principle, citizens should benefit from being able to use the banking system to intermediate and reduce dependence on cash. Of course, for many, cash is king because of its anonymity (aka keeping things informal, or less than fully formal).

However, it’s clear that informality has been a boon for Jamaica by giving it greater economic flexibility, which has been a crucial safety valve in the context of many structural inefficiencies.

I have lots of concerns about informal activities in Jamaica, because most of them are distortions. However, removing informality doesn’t automatically remove distortions or more positively create a society that is really full of level playing fields. I have mentioned many of these before, most recently in May, but I will repeat some of them here. I have also looked at them, as have others, as part of what we see as the normality of ‘hustling’.

Squatting:

Capturing land is a bigger national sport than track and field, and has been the route for many Jamaicans to get into the ‘housing market’. Of course, ‘market’ is a misnomer because much of the property and land acquired has been obtained cost-free. If we were to remove informality (and let’s assume we do it totally, rather than gradually) we would then have to watch the real housing market deal with people who perhaps have low capital and income and may not be able to ‘buy’ their way into the market, even if we assume they all want to enter at the lowest end. New demand and supply would have to come on stream and prices will then reflect this. At the outset, it’s likely that excess demand will exist, and housing prices would rise. Simply put, Jamaica does not have enough formal housing to deal with the transfer of people from informal housing. It can be created, but I cannot say how long it would take for some combination of the State and private sector to do this.

Jobs:

We do not need to get STATIN to tell us precisely how many Jamaicans work informally; the anecdotes are extensive enough to do the main analytical job for us: vendors; labourers (urban and rural); work done for cash (which could be from odd-jobs through to professional services that are ‘off the books’—escaping the eyes of the tax authorities); small businesses that are not incorporated and may be as wide as from sole proprietorship through to several employees. (Simple case: one woman has a chicken coop to raise live chickens for sale and eggs; she employs 4 people every 2 weeks to help kill and clean chickens, eggs from a dozen layers produce one egg each a day—all for sale, and hopefully make a profit after cost of feed and ‘wages’ etc are taken into account. None of this is illegal in the sense that these are legitimate activities, but it all happens without any references to formal structures. Banks do not need to participate in financing, holding deposits or other roles. Cash is king, mainly. Money may go to banks, but it’s not related to any economic activity and is likely never going to feature in any tax assessments.) None of this is confined to individuals and corporations can participate as suits their needs and doesn’t cause any moral problems. Businesses could actually be applauded if they did socially responsible things like supporting informal businesses.

There are bigger segments of activity, eg public transport (taxi and minibus services) that can go on with high degrees of informality because our society does not insist on proper licensing of operators and all who are involved in such businesses.

Some of these same activities exist in other societies that are highly formalized and the anecdotes about ‘gardeners’ or ‘odd job men’, perhaps performed by illegal immigrants or others in marginal positions (even students or moonlighting people) can be culled from them, as well as taxi drivers who are ‘asylum seekers’ actual or not. (It’s not hard to manufacture the needed documentation to make everything seem legal and above board—much socioeconomic activity thrives on trust, not confirmation of the basis of that.) In the UK, it could be ‘Polish construction workers’, in the US, it could be the ‘Salvadorian gardnerer’ (none of these are meant to be racial or national stereotypes).

If, for some reason, we choose to formalize these activities when those involved in them are not ready, chances are the worker will not agree (eg no cheques or credit card payments; no receipts, etc.) The jobs wont get done if ‘paper work’ is involved.

Now, all of that is fine because it means that incomes are maximized in many ways. ‘Buyers’ get jobs done/goods bought/services provided for less—lower basic prices and no sales tax/VAT/GCT etc. ‘Sellers’ get tax-free incomes, which they can spend as they wish, ideally on similar informal goods and services (a win-win).

If that were to change, the basic situation is that Jamaica would have to operate on a higher cost/price basis (as all of the taxes, fees, capital costs etc. that should be incurred are recognized).

So, reduced informality tends to give greater benefits to the State, especially the Treasury (ie collector of taxes, revenues, etc.) That comes at a cost to many private operators (individuals and enterprises).

Utilities:

One important element of informality is the stealing of utility services. We have seen during the pandemic an upsurge in complaints about bills, which have pointed to the standard global practices of utilities to try to compensate for theft by loading such losses onto the accounts of those who pay. If the government is serious and comprehensive in its dealing with informality, then this is a huge elephant in the room that has to be addressed. Again, put simply, many people and businesses live beyond their means by consuming utilities services for free or far less than the going rates. If the government were to eliminate that, then it would have to either provide income for people to be able to continue consuming at previous levels or force people to consume what they can truly afford (ie recognize true poverty). Ideally, the government would see the social value of access to water and electricity and have in place a safety net to support some minimum level of consumption for every household. (The essence of this was part of the PNP election manifesto with its proposed J$3000 credit for electricity bills.)

That’s not the whole of the informality story in Jamaica. It goes too to things I know the government wants to address and we should too, such as the identification of citizens as unique and tying that identification into the delivery of government services and goods. But, that is a separate aspect of informality that is to be addressed. It’s not really necessary for the economy to function in the sense that not much really depends on each of us knowing exactly with whom we’re transacting. What we need is to know is: services/goods will be given on agreed terms; payments will be made on time and in keeping with agreed terms (in full, over time, etc, with interest, with penalties, etc); taxes and fees due to the State for these activities will be duly recorded and made properly; any legal rights of workers or providers are respected fully. (That’s how many effective and large financial markets operate.) I might have missed a few things, but I think the idea is clear. All of that could occur if we each were assigned a number and that was all we had to exchange. The national database would then connect the number to individuals. So, we could actually operate the economy on the basis of near total anonymity. If nothing ever went sour with transactions, we wouldn’t really need to know precisely whom we should try to track down for retribution; the system could be able to search for ‘xx22yy11’ and get his/her particulars to then feature in whatever ‘corrective’ or ‘restorative’ processes were involved.

Finally, the concern with informality is also largely about measurement. We have a false picture of many things because data sets only or mainly cover formal activities. That’s not trivial because policy is not going to be well framed if it understates the extent of gains and losses within the country. So, reducing informality for that reason is good, but again, its downside comes from the need to expose to the world things that happily go on ‘under cover’. If we accept that 40% of true economic activity in Jamaica is informal, it means that policy levers tend to only affect just over half of what we want to affect. That’s a huge frustration to policy makers.

I wont talk about illegal activities, and formalizing those. We have to move the moral compass a lot to bring many activities that are now illegal into the formal world because it would be legalizing them. Now, it can be done, eg prostitution is legal, has been decriminalized or abolished as a crime in many countries. But, to bring into the legal frame current crimes like lotto scamming, would push the moral envelope, because it would be near impossible for say Jamaica to legalize it so that our scammers could fleece the world—it’d be great for our budget, though. Likewise, society isn’t likely to want to bring into formality (ie legalize) a lot of violent crimes. Of course, one could posit that these changes happen, but it would be in a world most of us would not recognize or want to live in.

If none of the above is convincing, then take the view of the IMF’s MD when discussion informality and inclusive growth (my emphases):

Take the case of digitalization. It has created more opportunities for individuals to engage in informal employment to supplement their income. Think of all the people who work in the gig economy. But we may be missing gig economy employment in labor force surveys. The informal economy can provide income or a social safety net. But it is a complicated issue.”

I rest my case.

#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.

#COVID19Chronicles-155: September 14, 2020: Economic pain

I’m not going to characterize economic outcomes during the pandemic as if they’re unexpectedly awful: the bottom has fallen out of the world economy and we’re part of that. Our pain has different sources and remedies and that’s what’s important to understand. Simply put, we’re highly dependent on other countries, especially the USA.

Data for the 2nd calendar quarter and 1st fiscal quarter, April-June, and now available: they show the economy contracted by 18% compared to the same period in 2019:

No sector has escaped. In services, hotels and restaurants have been brutalized—declining 88%—while in production sectors, mining and quarrying declined 25%. The sharp decline in tourism explained the former as the sector limps along at about 10-20% capacity. Alpart closing affecting mining badly, and limitations on movement badly affected ‘other services’ and ‘transport etc’.

Tourism has borne the local economic brunt of the pandemic but played its part in suppressing the health impact. Sector spokesmen stress how tourism has tried hard to respect health protocols. But, they fear being made scapegoats to justify another closure of our borders.

Obviously tourism is especially fragile now.

Some perverse positive trends: remittances are up: The BOJ governor commented in a published statement, “Incredibly, while the global forecast is for remittances to decrease by 20 per cent in 2020, remittances to Jamaica have increased since May, evidenced by a 15.7 per cent increase in May and a 41.6 per cent increase in June, after a very small decline in the first quarter.”

Despite the tired howls that the sky is falling almost every time the exchange depreciates, the FX market is showing the resilience and behaviour it should with a flexible exchange rate. The J$:US$ rate touched 151 over a week ago and was trading at about 143 last Friday. Again, BOJ governer Byles: “It must also be noted that the newly reformed FX market continues to operate in the way that an FX market is supposed to work. The exchange rate is supposed to act like an elastic band that contracts and expands automatically, to transparently reflect the state of the market and the overall economy.”

There’s no shortage of FX: “An even clearer picture was painted on Tuesday, September 1, 2020, when the Bank of Jamaica intervened in the market, offering US$20 million via a B-FXITT (Foreign Exchange Intevention and Trading Tool) flash sale. For the first time since the start of 2020, the market did not ask for more than what was being offered. The market did not even ask for half of it. BOJ received bids for only US$7.8 million, or 39 per cent, of what was offered. This is an emphatic and unequivocal indication that the FX market is presently adequately funded and in no need of extra funds.”

However, the sharp contraction of the quarter reported ought to be much more than the next quarter, as the economy opened up again from mid-June, albeit with many operations and workers not at full tilt. The surge in positive cases that has led to the official change of status to ‘community transmission’ may bring with it greater irregularity of activities, as firms and organizations deal with identified cases and some shut down temporarily to clean and sanitize. Tougher enforcement of health protocols may also push some businesses past their tolerances and business will fall, eg for public transport due to enforced lower ridership.

So, we might have touched the bottom of the downturn, but that will not be clear till next quarter. Either way, the road to recovery will be long, whether it’s not until early 2021/22 or later.

Fundamentally different: a look back at a career #5: Back to Africa, again

Africa is a massive continent and its countries have incredible variations.

I’m really pleased that my first visit to Africa wasn’t as an IMF staff member; it pays to see things from a different perspective. Having said that, I’d gone to the continent first as a staff member of the Bank of England, as a footballer, mainly, during an international 40th anniversary celebration of Reserve Bank of Malawi (RBM) in the mid-1980s. Its highlight was playing the top two teams in the country, Silver Strikers (sponsored by the RBM, which had started as a social club for central bank staff) in the ‘Silver stadium‘ in Lilongwe, with a crowd of about 20,000 and live radio broadcast. Nothing like hearing your name over the loudspeaker: “Dennis Jones…on the ball…” 🙂 We also played the many-times national champions, Bata (now ‘Big’) Bullets in Blantyre, the other main city.

What was incredible about these matches was our opponents included several national team players, some of whom had trained in Brazil. They were shocked that our team had players in or over their late-20s; for them, retirement by 24 was normal. It was also an exhausting experience to play football at altitude, both dealing with a ball that flew so fast and far, and sucking on thin air. Lilongwe is on a plateau, 1,050 metres (3,440 ft) above sea level. Blantyre lies at an elevation 1,039 metres (3,409 feet).

Three things were extraordinary about Malawi, still under the iron-fist autocratic rule of President Hastings Kamuzu Banda. First, was the conservative dress code, notably, the policy that women were expected to dress “modestly”, that is no bare shoulders, and legs covered to below the knee, Second, was the creation (in 1981) of Kamuzu Academy, a private boarding school that was founded by, and named after, Banda, and described by its proponents as “The Eton of Africa”. Third, was Chibuku shake-shake, a beer made from sorghum grain, about which I’ve written before.

But, Fund work sent me to the continent many times.

My first mission was to Kampala, Uganda, doing technical assistance on international reserves, for the Statistics Department, about which I’ve already shared some stories. But, it was where I discovered the ‘double’ massage: two masseuses working the body at once 😳I’d wanted an hour but only a 1/2 hour slot was available, so…Undoubtedly, the best massage ever 👍🏾🤔

I also played squash for the first time on a court with no roof, at the residence of the World Bank country manager. In those days, I travelled with my squash racket like people travel with a tennis racket.

Madagascar was my next place to visit for Fund work, negotiating a Poverty Reduction and Growth program; my responsibilities were for the balance of payments and external debt (I was working in the Fund’s Policy Development and Review Department (PDR), which developed and oversaw the application of Fund policies, including reviewing mission briefings and staff documents at HQ, and on missions being a mix of ‘internal audit’, ‘policy integrity’, expertise on all things general policy, and working on the external accounts). It’s an odd situation to be part of mission teams, but not working to the dictates of the country department, but being ‘above’ them in many ways, representing the institution. My love (not) of doing debt sustainability analyses began there 😦

Madagascar is an island, to the east of the continental land mass and its population has ethnic traits from across the Indian Ocean. It’s the source of most of the world’s vanilla—originally from the Americas and now the 2nd most expensive spice in the world (after saffron). It’s losing its forests at an alarming rate—1-2% a year, and up to 90% of forests are burned each year. It has some of the world’s rarest and most-threatened species of animals and plant life. I was thrilled to see lemurs in the wild.

It’s where I had to work in French for the first time and in a country with long family names, the longest recorded being Andrianampoinimerinatompokoindrindra, you can imagine note-taking wasn’t a breeze. Its capital, Antananarivo, is referred to as ‘Tana. My notes were filled with ‘FM A said’ etc, ie finance minister [name]. It’s another elevated capital, and sits at 1,280 menters (4,199 ft) above sea level in the centre of the island. When I worked there, Marc Ravalomanana, a Malagasy entrepreneur and politician was president of Madagascar, having won election in 2002.

Mauritania always sticks in my mind because of Saharan sand in Nouakchott and because desert life is so different from anything else. For example, at the weekend, residents of Nouakchott prefer to head into the desert instead of to the beach. Pitching a tent and cooking lamb (méchoui) under the open sky, and in relative solitude.

Its ethnic mix is mainly Moors, originating from the north, and black Africans. originating from the south.

It’s a country where slavery was only outlawed in 1981, but is practised nationwide.

My missions there were negotiating a Poverty Reduction and Growth program, and I was again Mr. Balance of Payments and Debt. It’s where I was on 9/11/2001. I was recently kicking the French by now, and its use as one of my working languages was now well-established.

It was where I first saw a parallel exchange rate market working, live and large, in the streets and shops with rates calculated rapidly on calculators and money exchanged in huge volumes.

It’s where I experienced my first sandstorms and happened to be out running with my colleague to and from the airport one morning, and we had to navigate by sound and our voices. It‘s where I first saw women openly vilified for running and chastised for their wearing athletic gear, even long pants and long sleeves.

Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya was president during my mission (having held office since 1984).

Guinea will feature more in its own right, because of my living there for nearly 4 years as the IMF’s resident representative. Sierra Leone will also feature apart as I had dual responsibilities as resident representative there, though non-resident. Travel between these neighbouring countries was not easy, and complicated because vehicles drive on the right in Guinea and on the left in Sierra Leone, and crossing the borders was always fun for the first 10 minutes.

Angola’s capital Luanda, has long had the reputation of being the most expensive city in the world. Coming out of the chaos of civil war in the mid-1970s and discovering oil, shortages and expatriates with high incomes made for a spiralling of costs, most notably for rental accommodation. Oil wealth does odd things to property values. I knew no Portuguese, and fortunately could work in English. I was on only one mission to Luanda (again, for PDR), not long after the end of my res rep assignment in late-2006. The odd thing about it was the authorities did not want a mission at that time and were not at all interested in borrowing from the Fund, but, we went through our hoops and loops. Though Fund thoughts were on a post-oil future, oil revenues were still gushing. So, it goes, sometimes, when economics and politics are at loggerheads.

South Africa was a transit point for the mission to Angola and also some regional meetings. I stayed in Johannesburg and had the chance to visit Cape Town, see Table Top Mountain and penguins at the Cape of Good Hope. I also got to see what a plane load of off-duty oil sector workers looks like on a long-distance flight from there to London. If you cannot take the liquor bought in duty-free onto the flight, what else to do but drink it before getting on the plane. To say the sight and sound of jolly, drunken British oil riggers for over 8 hours is not my idea of fun is an understatement!

Libya holds a special place as we visited soon after the embargo on US travel was lifted (February 2004). I met ‘Brother Leader’, Colonel Ghadaffi, who spoke to a conference of African central bank governors. Rhian was just 6 months old and she (one of the first Americans to visit) and Therese came along for the junket.

We had to fly from Conakry to London to Tripoli. On arrival, we were met at the plane door by Libyan officials and whisked through security to a VIP lounge. We waited there while other people arrived, some I recognized as governors. When the ‘group’ was complete, we were ushered out to a fleet of black Mercedes outside the airport arrivals. We got into the back of our car and greeted our driver. I don’t speak Arabic, so I used English and French. Then, off we sped, and I mean sped. Motorcycle outriders cleared our route as we hurtled along at 140 km an hour into Tripoli 😳‘This is new’ was the expression on our faces; Rhian was blissfully ignorant. We pulled up at a glitzy 5-star hotel that was the conference venue,checked in and went to our palatial room. Not bad!

Libya is strictly Muslim, and though Guinea is predominantly Muslim, Islam is practised there with a lighter touch, eg its main domestic business is beer making 🤔😳🍺 It took some getting used to having fake gin and tonic. More than any of the other Muslim countries, I’ve visited, with maybe the exception of Mauritania, Libya is incredibly chauvinistic, and my wife couldn’t stop marvelling at men alone sitting at tables of coffee shops, and women, alone, seen in markets and stores.

But, as trips went, the visit was on a different plane for splendor and history and political enigma. My baby daughter became a star and featured in lots of pictures being passed around by central bank governors 🙂 I suspect she recalls nothing about visiting the old Roman city of Leptis Magna.

Morocco was never a work location, but a favourite stopover en route to/from Mauritania, because a Tunisian colleague and I loved the food and feel of Casablanca. No Bogart-like experiences with Lauren Bacall. I discovered the literally moorish delights of pastillia. 

To offset that, I have fond memories of being steamed and massaged in a hammam.

Sénégal was also not a work location but Dakar was a transit point for Guinea and South Africa. We took a vacation there from Guinea, made better because the Fund rep there was a good friend and a Guinean, Ousmane Doré, who later was Guinea’s finance and planning minister (2007), and whose residence became our ‘hotel’.

In Sénégal, we visited Goree Island (Île de Gorée) the site from where slaves were shipped across the Atlantic during the 15th-19th centuries —a hard emotional visit as tourists. 😩

No two countries the same or remotely similar.

Fundamentally different viewpoints: a look back at an international career #1

Just taking a little detour from focusing solely on #COVID19Chronicles to clear my mind of some other things I want to explore.

****************

My good friend and former IMF colleague, Wayne Camard (@WayneCamard), posted a story on Facebook, recently, about some memorable moments in his life as an IMF economist. Like him, I’ve had people suggest I write a book about my experiences; still resisting. But, I may do a series of recollections, as a start.

I remember a story about Wayne, in Riga, Latvia, after a lunch with officials and a lot of vodka with the many toasts. I’m not going to tell the best part, but let’s leave it that it involved a van ride back to the hotel and Wayne did not make the afternoon meetings. 🙂 He has no recollection of the events, he told me (I’ve since reminded him of the details, in private); for me, they’re vivid, and my wife, also once an IMF economist has heard the story many times. Wayne is still held in high public regard, so let me not put that in jeopardy with any tell-all reports 🙂

But, of my past, what stands out? Two little tales, for starters, far apart in time and in terms of what happened.

I told a friend last week about my first trip to Uganda, in 1992, and being met at the airport by a man from the central bank, who asked me if I “had seen a white man on the plane?” I said no. He was perplexed and then said the man was coming from Washington DC, the IMF. I asked him if the man’s name was Mr. Jones. “Yes! That’s it!” Well, I let him have his few seconds of pause and then offered my hand and said “Here I am!” His ‘oh my gosh!’ expression was priceless.

I spent two weeks in Kampala, working mainly at the central bank trying to identify their foreign reserves—they thought they had a lot more foreign assets than was the case. It still had many signs of its civil war-torn past (1980-86), eg broken traffic lights. I loved the sense of familiarity of the place, with clear echoes of Jamaica, though food was markedly different. I discovered matoke (plantain and beef stew), the national dish. I also discovered the cost of telephone piracy when my hotel phone bill after a couple of nights was over US$1000: the phone company was recouping losses from years of piracy 😦

At the other extreme, was my time as resident representative in the Republic of Guinea, 2003-7. During 2005, my father came to visit and we did a bit of touring to the Fouta Djallon, without Therese, where we climbed Mount Nimba (a mountain made of iron ore) in my Toyota Land Cruiser and my father climbed down a steep rope ladder in the hills. My father had the time of his life, and my daughter, Rhian, then about 18 months, was a good traveller, though sometime in a stroller.

On our way back from Labe, fighting had broken out between students and government troops, and we made a hasty exit to the sound of gunfire in the town centre. We met road blocks and traffic detours on the way back to Conakry. I got a call from my good friend in the French military that diplomatic staff could head to the evacuation rendezvous point at the French embassy, if desired. He gave me a rundown of happenings in the capital. As we came to the city limit (Kilomètre 36), we passed easily but soon met boulders in the road and could see tyres or debris burning in the distance. My driver lived that side of the city and I asked him if he wanted to head home; he said no, as his son would go our our house and meet him on a motor bike. I then asked our nanny (who is still with us as a housekeeper in Jamaica) if she wanted to get off and head home; she did. As we went on, with no idea if we would get by without incident . At one point, when some students approached our car, but with no threat, my father piped up “This has been a great trip!” No kidding, Dad! We got home safely and retold our stories to my wife and put the baby to bed and had a good drink.

I struggle to find anything about such activities in my employment contract. But, I have plenty of reasons to say I really had the time of my life in Guinea.

#COVID19Chronicles-141: September 2, 2020: How silly can it be?

The real contest will be tomorrow, September 3, and I will plan to do a few different things to get some material to post, including a feeling for what voting in a pandemic really is like amidst the clear fears of infections many voters have.

But, on this penultimate day, I’m going to try to look at some of the sillier things that have gone on during the season. Now, I will do this with no partisan intent and in keeping with my mantra that I am an equal opportunity critic.

Gold medal-Just weird:

The award must go to Rohan Chung (Independent; Manchester Central) for his silent TV ads:

I didn’t hear any of his radio interviews, but that might have been because he didn’t say anything.

I’ve seen some reports about what the candidate represents, and I have heard him say he’s no idea against whom he’s running. It’’s hard to take this bid seriously, and I see nothing in his future but a few days of fame (trending on social media means a lot to many).

Much speculation surrounds his backing. Reports are he’s usually found wandering Mandeville shoeless (not a sin, really), but deep pockets are needed for TV ads. Could the money have been better spent on needy people?

Silver Medal: There but for the grace of Gods:

I was personally sad that the reliously-inspired Jamaica Progressive Party (JPP) dropped out of the election race so soon after announcing their intention to contest all 63 seats. I have no intention of being easy on them because they were ready to challenge all the tenets of sound economics and a lot of reason, and I really wanted them to defend that in serious way.

They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, and in its short life JPP has found itself impersonated. This is its Facebook page; its Twitter handle is @jppjamaica:

However, someone has created a face account (@TheJPPJamaica) and tried to make it appear to be real—really confusing:

I’m convinced that @TheJPPJamaica is fake by one simple test:

Smaller parties don’t usually spend their valuable time focusing on their bigger opponents.

With cleared up, however, I am still bridling about losing my chance for a bit of nobility in the to-be-formed Kingdom of Jamaica. Maybe, they’ll join with the Maroons and we can get that Bitcoinish currency idea—the Lumi (not loony) currency, distributed by the Accompong Central Solar Reserve Bank (CSRB), back on track. What a meeting of minds that would be.

Notice how these fringe ideas seem to flow freely from Jamaicans who’ve lived abroad and just ready to save us? I’m not a pot calling any kettle black, now 🙂

Bronze medal: Pick a number, any number:

The clear leader is Damion Crawford and the ‘WEALTHY’ plan, whose funding seems to be playing whackamole, and up to yesterday seemed as slippery as an eel. I don’t know if it’s finance or fun ants.

Sadly, each attempted clarification leaves more confusion:

Best case scenario is that PNP lose and no one has to worry about finding the funding; worst case scenario is PNP win and someone will be taking the emperor to the tailor to find clothes that fit.

I have no sympathy for PNP, whose executive made Mr. Crawford manifestor-in-chief. You really can’t keep ignoring what experience tells you, or as Einstein said keep doing the same thing and expect different results unless you’re insane. This is the man who played a ‘trick’ on his former constituents by saying he didn’t want to represent them any more. Then, changed his mind, but lost the chance. He was parachuted into a by-election, lost it, vowed to stay, then claimed he’d need to step away from representational politics because it was hitting his business bottom line:

These are all self-inflicted wounds that make it hard to sell credibility and clarity of planning and financial acumen to the people.

1st alternate-Soap opera:

Honestly, the contest in Portland West was worthy of daytime streaming. In a nutshell, the two opposing candidates (Daryl Vaz, JLP; Valerie Neita-Robinson, PNP), seem to hate each other’s guts. The vitriol flying between them has often been in need of rating by the Broadcasting Commission. A day in court may be coming, and as one candidate is a Queen’s Counsel and the other is a real firebrand, saying sparks will fly is an understatement.

Mr. Vaz is the incumbent, a Cabinet minister who rarely skirts controversy, and normally a major mobilizer of voters. This year, however, reports are that the vitriol may have meaning as the contest is tight and he has been seen doing door-to-door canvassing for the first time since 2007.

So, not the silliest of seasons, but quite a lot of distraction fitting for a period of high anxiety over health issues. I mean, what did you do during the last pandemic?

Arc of the covenant: Thoughts on a migratory path

Why did my parents choose the paths they did? After my mother decided to go to England to further her nursing career, why did my parents do what they did? My father could have stayed in Jamaica with me and kept on a nursing career path already underway. He could have taken me to my mother in England and left me with her (she had potentially good family support there). Long-distance relationships were, and still are, not uncommon amongst migrants, so too are families where children get left behind while parents seek work abroad. Splitting the household could have minimized risks and removed many uncertainties. I could have grown up as a ‘barrel child’. Their son could have moved along an educational path that, while not certain, was better known and understood. Instead, he was pitched into a new educational set-up, which he navigated better than many of his migrant peers and ended up well-positioned, as his parents had hoped. My parents opted to move into a world that often treated migrants as second-class citizens, especially in key areas like jobs and housing. What a huge risk!

At what point did any of these options get discussed or discarded? Of course, I can’t now pose those questions of my parents.

That the choices they made did not leave them on the floor of migrants’ fortunes over a period of 25 years is fascinating. They succeeded far more than they failed. For instance, they moved from renting small basement flats in London’s inner city to buying houses in the suburbs. That’s a good story to tell.

No way could they have foretold events that would leave them living comfortably as retirees in Jamaica, debt-free, pensions coming predictably from the UK, largely protected from exchange rate losses, not uncertainly from Jamaica in depreciated dollars.

Hindsight is 20-20, so I don’t know how much second guessing my parents did through their lives, but I know they were happy with the outcomes.

Money can’t buy happiness? But, it covers a lot for a funeral

Always look on the bright side of life. So sings Eric Idle in The Life of Brian:

So, the birds are coming home to roost, in the week after my father’s funeral, or the bills are landing hard and fast.

Today, the average North American traditional funeral costs between $7,000 and $10,000. This price range includes the services at the funeral home, burial in a cemetery, and the installation of a headstone,’ reports a blog named Parting. That’s in line with figures cited by SmartAsset, when discussing possible insurance coverage.

My Daddy’s funeral was relatively straight forward, and save for a headstone, the actual direct burial costs have come to less than US$7000, so far.

But, in Jamaica or other places where people like to celebrate deaths, we know there’s much more to account for.

Now, it was a great 9 night, as I noted last week; my cousin did us proud again, as she’d done for my mother, her aunt, in 2004. This wake event is a given in Jamaica, and I said to those I’d asked to arrange it that cost wasn’t my concern and I didn’t need to know the details other than date and time; just make it happen.

My St. Elizabeth cousin who prepared the food told me she catered for 100+, after being asked to cover 60. She and two helpers cooked mannish water, fried chicken and fish, curried goat, rice and peas. Everyone ate heartily on the Saturday before the funeral. But, left overs also helped feed several over the weekend and mannish water was saved to add to the family lunch planned for after the burial. Drinks from the wake left plenty of leftovers for that lunch and still plenty remains to help make a merry Christmas. That’s a good return for J$115k for food and J$77k for liquor and sodas; that’s about US$920 and $620, respectively. But, you can’t put a price on happiness.

The repast after the burial was held at the church hall, and the caterers prepared for 100 people. A rough head count at the church and gravesite indicated around 120-150 people. All who wanted to have a meal could, including family and friends for whom a special lunch was available at home. But, a good number of family and friends couldn’t resist a cup of mannish water right after the burial and then the curried goat, BBQ chicken, fried fish and other food smelt really and was right there…😂🤔Even after serving so many, left overs were there to supplement the lunch. The repast caterer charges came to J$100k, including some tables and chairs. Happiness! The greatest gift that I possess.

But, the church hall has been paid for, and my father was a parishioner so we got it half-price. Oh, the organist needs to be paid.

The family lunch was donated by a close friend who owns a restaurant chain. I’m so touched by that gesture that makes the much-loved Jamaican phrase ‘good friends are better than pocket money’ real. 🇯🇲😍 I’d estimated 35 for that lunch but asked for 50 to be covered, and appetites were hearty.

Some of our Caribbean neighbours gear up some aspects of funerals just like weddings. Imagine matching outfits for the family and you’re right on track. We know that professional mourners are also popular with some people. Neither of these things took my fancy.

You decide if your pocket can stretch to the Bahamian offering, which I’m told could be part of a typical US$20,000 funeral bill.

Money makes the world go around? Believe it!

#WhetherJamaica and #shithole countries?

While POTUS45 was thinking of yet another way to insult a large swathe of black people (and I’m sad that my good friends in Norway were unwittingly dragged into this swim in the swamp), I was having lunch with some francophone friends and discussing something I found intriguing with a Haitian friend. In our conversation, we talked about what it was like for her to be exiled in Jamaica from her homeland as a child and trying to find her ‘way back home’ after growing up through the nostalgia with your parents and relatives and friends. That was her situation. Mine had parallels, though I had not been exiled, as my parents migrated voluntarily. She lives in Jamaica and has since gone back to Haiti and tried to find ways to make business connections between the two countries.

The point of intrigue was about how countries had wrought their independence from colonial rulers and what had happened to them. I’m tempted to use ‘befall’, but that would suggest absolving those countries from blame for the woes they experienced.

I thought about how Haiti had wrested its independence from France through a slave rebellion starting in the late-18th century, the only state formed after rebelling against colonial masters. I thought about how Guinea had gained its independence in the late-1950s, as the first colonial African country to accept de Gaulle’s offer, with its first president saying famously:

“We prefer poverty in liberty to riches in slavery.”

I thought about Jamaica, getting its independence from Great Britain in the early-1960s.

Each had been described as ‘the pearl’ of the colonies, having been a major supplier of food stuffs and minerals, and each has sank into deep economic crisis compounded by punitive extractive policies by former colonial master, pqpoor budget management, political turmoil (though Jamaica did not have violent changes of political power, though violence associated with its political parties), and social degradation of different degrees, leaving each much poorer than its resources and location would have predicted.

There’s a lot to the history of how each went from glory to gory, but how fitting that they could be summarily described as #shithole countries by the person whom many see as leader of the ‘free world’–not a view I have, but that’s me.

Sadly, many, including current and past citizens as well as visitors would agree with that description of each country. I don’t feel that way about any of them, though, I’ve not lived in or visited Haiti, so cannot base my views on anything I know personally.

The debate about the US president’s comments will rage on. The lives of people in these countries will go on. It’ll be interesting to see where views settle on whether truth was spoken or insults made.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”–attributed to Spanish-American philosopher, George Santanya.

Those Americans who forget that many of them and/or many of their ancestors came from the world’s #shithole countries expose themselves in ways that are all too obvious.

Namaste!