Barbados-born economist Carlos Forte is accusing the Mia Mottley administration of operating a well-oiled public relations machine when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, while not going far enough to minimize the economic fallout that comes with the health crisis.
At the same time, he is recommending that Government put several measures in place to help residents and businesses including extending the unemployment benefit, offering discounts on land taxes, fuel taxes and tariffs on selected items.
Forte, who is based in Canada, told Barbados TODAY while Government had done “a reasonably good job” in protecting the country from the spread of the virus, the same could not be said for its management of the impact of the economic recession on Barbadians during the same period.
“Indeed, the government has perhaps been best at its public relations and stagecraft. However, since the advent of the spike in new COVID-19 infections after December 26, the PR has begun to unravel. This was not happenstance as a trend of complacency and misplaced arrogance was observed during the October/November St George North by-election campaign through to the current outbreak. That complacency steadily snowballed,” he said.
“My contention is that the Mottley administration has been ‘risking’ with inadequate travel and quarantine protocols for far too long,” said Forte, who added that the protocols for travel to the island were flawed.
He argued that loose quarantine provisions for private villas and a failure to enforce strict social distancing and mask-wearing protocols for public gatherings and public transportation, and allowing parties and fetes, lulled the population into a false sense of security.
“Effectively, the government has been gambling with the health of Barbadians,” he said in giving his assessment of the situation.
Forte added, “Now that the country is under siege by a COVID outbreak, the PR machine has been put into high gear before it completely unravels – but you can’t spin a public health crisis. No amount of PR that runs counter to the lived reality of Barbadians will suffice.”
At the end of December, Barbados started to see a dramatic spike in positive COVID-19 cases among locals, including prison inmates and workers at the institution.
Following this, Prime Minister Mia Mottley announced the introduction of a COVID-19 communications team to improve the quality of Government’s communication with the public on developments related to the pandemic.
Saying that he hoped the outbreak would be contained quickly, Forte acknowledged that it would also be up to Barbadians to follow the COVID-19 protocols to stop the spread.
Stating that the confirmed cases among locals would suggest there is community spread, he said he believed the outbreaks on the west coast and in the prison could have been avoided “or at the very least, mitigated”.
However, insisting that residents should look to the future with optimism, Forte urged Government to embrace calls from the medical practitioners to improve the protocols including those which governed arrivals to the country.
“It may also be necessary to implement a moratorium on travellers staying for less than six weeks while extending the current curfew/restrictions on mobility for another month,” he said, adding that he was disappointed that officials here did not seem to be learning from the lessons in the US, Canada and the UK.
Suggesting that Government was placing too much emphasis on tourism at this point, Forte said short-term tourism during a pandemic is a “high-risk, high-stake” endeavour.
“It is a fool’s errand. It is a strategy that puts the health of the nation at risk – a choice that puts the broader economy at risk, one that raises the prospect of longer or more frequent national shutdowns,” he told Barbados TODAY.
Instead, the economist suggested, “We must be patient. We must be disciplined, and we must focus on those areas of economic activity that can function with minimal international travel and in-person contact. To the extent that a domestic bubble, free of local or community spread can be created, economic activity will take flight.”
Forte said: “In the interim, the government should lead the effort to mitigate the worse impacts of the COVID recession. And just as we need good data to track and manage the pandemic, we also need good data, timely data, to manage commerce, the economy and effective mitigation strategies.”
Urging government to disclose the current unemployment rate, Forte recommended that the unemployment benefit be extended to 12 months, a monthly stipend be given to those who do not qualify for unemployment benefit but have lost more than 75 per cent of pre-pandemic income.
He also proposed that government significantly increase capital spending on roads, the water distribution network, sewage and waste management systems “and any other public infrastructure that will be needed in the coming years”.
Forte also supports implementing a legal framework for material reductions in residential and commercial rents and utilities, legalising a moratorium on evictions where tenants can demonstrate an inability to pay due to material adverse effects resulting from the recession.
He also proposed that government coordinate and provide legal support to payment deferrals on financial obligations with interest forgiveness until September 2021 – including mortgages and other long-term loans and provide material discounts to the public for land taxes, fuel taxes, and tariff reductions on select imported goods – especially food and essential goods.
“It is time for some leadership on the economy. We now know that the BEST programme is a bust. It was destined to be. It was an ill-conceived disguised hotel bailout with no real clarity of purpose.
“It would be substantive if the Mottley administration would demonstrate the same determination to easing the financial burden on Barbadians and mitigating the economic and social fall-out as it has repeatedly strived to do for hotels and most recent tourists,” he said, in an apparent reference to Government’s decision to cover hotel room costs for visitors, both tourists and Barbadians living overseas, who have been waiting for their COVID-19 results longer than 72 hours.
He pointed out that countries all over the world were affected by testing delays and less than desirable access to COVID-19 tests, adding that Barbados’ source markets were well aware of the challenges and the risks associated with travel.
“I should hasten to add that discretionary travel is discouraged as a matter of public policy in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States,” he said.
“The narrative of potential damage to the Barbados brand due to longer than expected quarantine is a red herring – one that insults the intelligence of Barbadians. Perhaps, the only place where the Barbados brand would be damaged in those circumstances is in the imagination of the heads of a few reactive persons that are perhaps all too accustomed to finding new ways of spending good money on bad ideas. But alas, who doesn’t want a free lunch?” said Forte.