#COVID19Chronicles-235: November 29, 2020-Guilt tripping

Travel guilt is real!

Several friends of mine are caddies at Jamaican golf courses, and they occasionally tell me stories about the generosity of foreign guests with whom they work. Now ‘tourism (or travel) guilt’ is a real thing.

How travellers deal with it may vary:

Whether travel itself is part of the solution, or spending, or donating, or being especially kind and tolerant, the traveller may feel some angst about what he or she is doing. In places like Jamaica, we see a lot of this guilt meted out in the form of kindness with a monetary tilt.

With many restrictions on movement during the COVID pandemic, it’s been clear that guilt about travel has risen. But, it can be what helps some keep sane. We know!

Funnily, for all of my own lack of need, I have been the beneficiary of it, when some foreigner ‘took pity on me’ and thought I’d need USD 100 pressed into my hand for doing my job as a volunteer, I also had pangs of guilt, but decided I’d accept the gift and do something good with it. It went to a charity.

However, it takes a certain level of pity, or generosity, or more money than sense to give away a US$400 golf club that looks brand new, plus a tip. Well, one of my friends messaged me today about the new ‘toy’ he’d received this way. 🙂 Some guests with whom he’d worked for several days, helping them to learn golf, decided they’d part with their prized putter and depart from the island with a clear conscience, I guess. It’s lovely!

I was fortunate enough for him to let me also have a little ‘play’ with the toy, and I really must reconsider my life choices and think if being a caddy is what I do from now 😉

#COVID19Chronicles-229: November 24, 2020-COVID PCR testing

Well, since the pandemic began, I’ve not had the need (or desire) to take a COVID test—my wife and daughter have, though. Touch wood, none of us have had any symptoms, so these have been for reassurance or need to travel. Only our teenager has had the need to travel overseas, and she took a test for that. She also had to take tests bi-weekly while at school. She also had to test negative before returning to Jamaica almost two weeks ago. When we have taken staycations in Jamaica, we have not tested beforehand, but our lodgings have had strict protocols in place. We may be travelling during the US Thanksgiving holiday period later this week, and with our daughter some 10 days into her 14 day quarantine, it seemed a good idea to test before setting off. It also makes more sense as the country has moved into the ‘community spread’ phase of the pandemic, which is quite different from when we last ventured to other parts of the island. The latest data show that almost every community has now had COVID cases.

The video show last week of active cases over time is revealing:

I wasn’t really looking forward to the nasal probing.

We made ‘bookings’ online for tests at UWHI, for 8am, and set off for that. Well, so much for thinking things would be smooth based on appointments. About 20 people were already waiting at 7:50; no one was at the ‘registration’ table, so we milled around. Some health sector personnel arrived around 8am and started to set up. “Don’t worry; you’ll all get through,” one said. Well, that’s a comfort…not, if you had scheduled other things based on an appointment time. (Sorry, that Jamaican disregard for the value of people’s time was again evident.) “Well, it’s free, so I don’t know why you’re complaining,” one young woman uttered. I pointed out to her that the price was immaterial to how the organization went and asked if it was better organized when it had been done with a fee. ‘Crickets’.

The health workers tried to get people to ‘line up’ based on ‘first come, first served’. Well, that wasn’t going to sit too well with my wife: “What’s the point of booking online?” she asked? Well, the point was that you were listed, but it didn’t matter much. “Those who are travelling, over there…” came an instruction. We moved to ‘there’, to the left of the registration area; others drifted to the right. Gradually, order started to appear, as people’s details were taken down, forms filled, and testing kits passed out, then people lined up at the testing area. One older lady got a ticking off for her doctor sending her to be tested; I presume she might have had symptoms and should have gone to…? Actually, it’s not clear where one should go! The email I received (below) had stated ‘you will not be tested here, and will be sent here’! So, I’m sympathetic to the lady who was as clear of where to go as a garbled message could make her 😦 My several attempts to understand it left me thinking Accident and Emergency should be where to go, but I wasn’t sure.

Some of the registration staff were the testers, so shifted from the desk to the booth. The line for testing started to lengthen.

After some more ritual grumbling about how Jamaica should be able to better organize, we had our kits and were in line for testing. But, grumbles were valid. Why take information online and not use that to at least have labels printed for each person to be tested? Admittedly, some may not show, but it’s a nonsense for people to answer the questions at registration and for forms and labels to be then handwritten.

While in line, a young lady asked how old we were and the 60+ year-old parents were ushered to the front of the line; the teenager stayed put. 🙂

I’d heard some horror stories about the nasal swabbing and, honestly, I was not looking forward to it. Then, I heard a frail old lady being given instructions: “You’re pulling away; come back; that’s good”. Then, she was being led away by (I think) a young relative. A man and I exchanged comments that if the ‘old granny’ could do it, we surely could. Man up!

Well, it’s not terrible; it’s not overly pleasant; it only takes a few seconds. It’s harder to hear and follow the instructions given by the tester: “Take out the bottle…Take off the top…Put them on the counter…Take out the stick…Step forward…Tilt back your head…[Swabbing]…Hand me the bottle…[Stick broken off, and bottle sealed.]…You’re done…Next!”

Results are due back within 48 hours. We all tested negative. Yea!

But, as we should all understand, one can test negative today and contract the virus tomorrow, but we don’t have continual testing, so let’s live with what we have, for now. Meanwhile, people are getting more sense of relief as news of successful vaccine trials roll in.

Prospects for their availability before end-year are looking good:

#COVID19Chronicles-224: November 19, 2020-Georgia on my mind: Recount and run-off elections driving the wheelless cart of presidential denial?

Ray Charles sang ‘Georgia on my mind’ live:

Right now, political double-think is on display in the state of Georgia, following the 2020 US general elections. President Trump is trying to contest the outcome of the presidential vote, where he trails by about 14,000 votes (0.3%).

At the same time the senatorial races were deadlocked with the Republican incumbent leading in one senate race, but no clear winner in the special senatorial vote, though the incumbent Republican is trailing; both seats will need run-off races. These races will determine the balance of power in the Senate.

The president is not trying to contest the senatorial votes. But, calling into question the outcome of the presidential vote must mean issues across the board, given that it’s a single ballot paper.

However, the votes are being hand counted in an audit to verify the voting machines, under new state law:

The hand recount is being monitored by the Carter Center:

It was expected to end on Wednesday evening and results issued by midday Thursday :

So far, it has resulted in the a lead for Biden of 12,781 votes, a margin that had shrunk by 1,375 votes over the past week as uncounted ballots were found in Floyd, Fayette, Douglas and Walton counties through the recount. But, few other issues have emerged:

Absentee ballots for the senatorial run-offs started going out on November 18:

The Georgia electorate may be swollen by new young voters who can register by December 7 for the run-off vote on January 5:

Voter registration concerns exist, despite the recent general elections:

Advance in-person voting begins December 14:

The state secretary of state had refused to endorse Trump from January and feels he’s now feeling retaliation.

He’s also indicated pressure from senior GOJ figures, including Senator Lindsay Graham, to toss out valid votes.

He and his family and other officials have also received death threats:

To his immense credit, Brad Raffensperger has been firm in his view that is role is to be neutral though added that Trump lost in Georgia by casting doubts on mail-in voting, which cost him over 20,000 votes based on Republican voting in the August primaries.

#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:

#COVID19Chronicles-209: November 5, 2020-Remember, remember…Guy Fawkes

Forget about US political shenanigans for a moment.

In the UK, it’s Guy Fawkes Day, to note an attempt at treason in 1605-the ‘Gunpowder plot’. The idea was to kill the Protestant King James in the fight to push Catholicism. It’s marked by bonfires and fireworks in the night. As children, in the 1960s, we used to make a stuffed figure (straw and paper inside) to push around and ask for money to buy fireworks-“Penny for the guy”. The effigy would go on a bonfire.

But, the UK goes into lockdown 12.01am today for 4 weeks. 😩🙏🏾🇬🇧😩 So, no bonfire parties.

At a glance:

In more detail (citing The Independent):

‘Pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops will close, along with entertainment and leisure venues – including gyms – as well as hairdressers and beauty salons, and the axe will fall on all amateur sport. As before, takeaways and food deliveries will be allowed, as will click-and-collect services. Mixing with other households inside homes will be outlawed and travel allowed for specific purposes only, for work, education, healthcare, to shop for essentials and to care for vulnerable people.

The big difference from the previous lockdown is that schools, colleges and universities will remain open. Also, people will be allowed to meet with one person from another household and sit with them in a park (winter weather permitting, with social distancing – but not in private gardens) and elite sport will continue – so the Premier League will not be suspended.

What about the rest of the UK? The other big difference – this time, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland already have their own tougher rules, and there is no expectation that the lockdowns will be brought into line. Downing Street, however, believes the differences are often exaggerated.’

The furlough scheme – with 80 per cent of wages paid by the government – will continue through November, having been due to end on 31 October.

The UK government hopes this will “save Christmas”.

Many binged yesterday:

While the 🇬🇧 hit new COVID records 😩😡

Some Jamaican friends who were in the UK and due back in late-November managed to get a flight out yesterday, along with a few escaping British tourists, from what I saw at the airport last night.

#COVID19Chronicles-184: October 12, 2020: Crime has been waving at us without pausing for breath

I’ve written a lot this year about crime and, in particular, murder. The prospect for higher crime, as a result of conditions created by the pandemic, were clear from Spring: 

So, the release of data showing a pandemic-related surge in crime and murders ought not to be a surprise.

Some of the comments seem to not see obvious dots to join:

The Gleaner wrote: ‘Among the measures were all-island curfews, which require citizens to remain indoors, and a lockdown of the entire parish of St Catherine as well as several communities in the capital city, St Mary and Clarendon. But according to the statistics, St Catherine, which was also blanketed by a SOE up to August 17, leads all parishes with 123 killings across its two police divisions since March 10. It doesn’t take much wit to understand that knowing that security forces are stretched even further than before must leave more ‘space’ in which organized crime can operate. It’s also true that there will be fewer ‘accidental’ observers around; it’s as if the fields have been cleared for only the ‘best’ and stronger players. 

The Gleaner also reported: ‘Beau Rigabie, commanding officer for the St Catherine North Police, could not confirm The Sunday Gleaner’s figure, but said gangsters fighting for “dominance” of lucrative turf in the Old Capital were contributing to the killings. Other causative factors, he said, were domestic disputes and street-level crimes committed by armed thugs.’ That seems to confirm my deduction in that the fight for turf is easier during curfew conditions. 

Domestic (aka ‘intimate partner’) violence increasing is no surprise as the tensions and conditions that nurture that are more evident during the pandemic, with many more people confined to their homes—school and work, for instance, offer little escape. It’s been a phenomenon noted in many countries.

As the Washington Post report notes, clearly:

‘For untold numbers of women and children around the globe, the coronavirus pandemic has meant a twofold threat: The risk of catching a deadly virus coupled with the peril of being locked in confined spaces with increasingly violent abusers.

Official statistics are mixed. In some countries, reports of abuse have risen during the pandemic; in others, including the United States, they’ve fallen. But people who work with victims say that in countries seeing fewer complaints, the numbers mask a darker reality. The closure of schools and day-care centers means teachers and social workers have been unable to identify and report abuse. A growing body of evidence suggests incidents of domestic violence are rising as fam ilies struggle with restrictions on movement and mounting economic hardship.’

The real issues for Jamaica are whether these crises are being seen and addressed or only seen, with hindsight, with the common lament that ‘we didn’t know’.

#COVID19Chronicles-180: October 8, 2020: Vice presidential debate time

The US vice presidential candidates had their show last night, as Kamala Harris (D) sat opposite VP Mike Pence (R), in Salt Lake City, Utah.

COVID-19 tests before the debates were negative for both:

But, in COVID19 times, did they need to be there? People have pointed out that Nixon and Kennedy had their debate remotely, in 1960:

Precautions were taken, in light of the president have contracted the virus along with a slew of senior White House aides. There was plexiglass separation, though VP Pence has objected:

The Commission on Presidential Debates had agreed to seat Kamala Harris and Mike Pence 12ft apart – up from 7ft at the presidential debate.

Political stakes of the debate had been raised since President Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19:

Health concerns were dominant before the debate, including whether Pence should be in quarantine. All present had to wear masks.

The debate started well but the moderator was again a disaster 😳😩

For future debates, they maybe need someone more forceful like The Rock🤔

Pence adopted the president’s ‘interrupting’ strategy:

Despite that, each ended with about the same speaking time, according to CNN:

Candidates took questions from the public:

Main takeaways, according to the LA Times, can be found here:

Fact checkers had work to do; Pence repeated many false claims the president makes:

Harris won?

Mask rules ignored at the end:

The fly on Pence’s hair was the real winner, sitting there for its allotted two minutes 🤔😂:

#COVID19Chronicles-179: October 7, 2020: New restrictions heading into Heroes Weekend through October 31.

It appears that the government has learned from its relaxed attitude towards festivities during the Emancipendence Weekend, when it did not extend curfew hours and restrictions on activities. The PM announced in Parliament an new Disaster Risk Management Order #14, to tighten things up for the Heroes Weekend (October 18-19):

Restrictions will remain in place through October 31.

Older citizens may not be pleased that the ‘stay at home’ age limit has been reduced to 65, from 70.

Special curfew restrictions are to be put in place for some parts of the Corporate Area, namely, Whitfield Town, Kingston and Waterford, St. Catherine, where curfew started at 6 pm, October 6, 2020 to 5 am the following day, each day, ending at 5 am on October 20, 2020.

During curfew hours, only essential workers with identification will be allowed to enter or exit. The gathering limit will be no more than six (6) persons in any public place from October 7 to October 19.

PM Holness said from October 20 until the measure ends on November 1, curfews will run from 9 p.m to 5 a.m daily. He said this will ease the pressures on quick services businesses and persons rushing home who may find it difficult to prepare a meal.

He added that containment measures are being considered for the Christmas period.

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.