To say that life for workers has been altered dramatically since the onset of COVID-19 would be the understatement of the decade. And three months into this wholly unforgiving period, daily existence has become particularly difficult for thousands of Barbadian households.
Beneath the veneer of pride for which Barbadians are renowned and for whom the response to enquiries about their well-being is often “I good”, there is much anxiety and fear about the future. For those who lost their main source of income, the country’s social security scheme has offered a lifeline, at least for the next few months. But after September 2020, it could be ‘crapaud smoke yuh pipe’ for tens of thousands of workers when the last of the 26 weeks of unemployment benefit cheques are mailed.
We compliment the administration and officials of the Ministry of Health on the critical balancing act of seeking to control the spread of COVID-19 on one hand, while attempting to safely reopen business activity on the other. There is no doubt that Barbados has to be removed from its self-imposed economic comatose state occasioned by three months of curfews and lockdowns.
Even before the pandemic struck, a sizeable and increasing percentage of our population waded through a life of poverty. This has been their lived experience as they often occupy low-paying, unskilled jobs. And COVID-19 has only added to their woes.
For those in the highly-taxed and often time overly ambitious middle class who delight in displaying the trappings of extravagance but who, in reality, live from paycheque to paycheque, they represent an awesome feat in monthly economic gymnastics.
There are many of us who can attest to situations where middle-class workers occupy elaborate homes and drive fancy cars and trucks but struggle to stock their refrigerators with food or fill their gas tanks at petrol stations. They are confronted with this situation, not because they are inadequately paid, but because they have fallen into the debt trap of multiple credit cards, unsecured loans and lines of credit.
There is already a warning from the operators of private educational institutions that the State should prepare for an exodus of children from private schools to public institutions, as a growing number of parents inform them of their inability to pay the high-priced tuition fees.
For those in the upper-class, some have been temporarily inconvenienced, while others who own businesses worry that their life’s work and their children’s inheritance are threatened because the spending power of most customers has been reduced.
And so, COVID-19’s onslaught on the Barbadian economy and workforce has been far-reaching. The last known figures for the island were in 2016 when the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) put the poverty level at 17.2 per cent. Overall poverty for females at that time stood at 21 per cent. We know that in developing countries like us, high female unemployment and poverty are doubly problematic because female poverty usually translates to desperate situations for children and households.
Surely poverty levels could explode if the period of sluggish economic activity is prolonged. The administration said it had originally planned to assist 600 of the most vulnerable households through its Household Mitigation Programme. It has been forced to expand that group to 1,500 families as the true picture of poverty in Barbados is unveiled.
As we gingerly navigate the optimum course of fully reopening business from today, and international travel shortly thereafter, we urge great caution. The picture of COVID-19’s management in key tourism markets of the United States and Britain is not encouraging. Our collective anxiety about importing more cases of the disease from holidaymakers is quite real. We trust our health professionals to provide the needed leadership to our decision-makers and that all appropriate steps are taken to protect all citizens.