Fasten your seatbelts

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In a moment of candour, our Prime Minister, the Honourable Gaston Browne, shared that it will take some 18 months for us to emerge from this Covid crisis. That could be an overly optimistic assessment, bearing in mind the sad fact that political leaders are often loathe to level with their people. They prefer to engage in specious ‘happy talk’ and other sweet-sounding pabulum. After all, the only calculus that matters to most politicians is getting his or herself reelected, and distressing news about how tough are our circumstances, or how tough they could become, do not serve that end.

The thing is that, there is no hiding the harsh truth from the people of Antigua and Barbuda. When our major tourism markets sneeze, we invariably catch a cold. The four-week shutdown in England that began at the beginning of this month, and the resulting suspension of British Airways flights, is a shock to our struggling tourism sector that we can ill afford. Moreover, after December 2, 2020, the tentative date for reopening the British borders, they could decide to extend their shutdown if they are not satisfied that their current rising Covid numbers are sufficiently lowered. Tourism Minister, Charles ‘Max’ Fernandez has admitted that the British lockdown could deal another body blow to our gravely wounded tourism sector.

The ongoing Canadian border shutdown, even with its closest neighbour, the United States, also does not portend much hope for the immediate future. The Canadian position is to “avoid all non-essential travel outside of Canada, and avoid all travel on cruise ships.” And so it goes.

The United States borders are open, but the irresponsible leadership in the fight against Covid in some States is a cause for concern. Clearly, the Covid-free certificates, or robust testing at our airport, are an imperative.  Remember, the US just set a new single one-day record with 120,000 new infections. In fact, records are being set and broken almost on a daily basis since the middle of October, especially in States like Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Utah and Wisconsin. Perilous times, for sure! If these numbers continue to mount, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that there could be some travel restrictions in the offing. Here’s a sobering thought: For these past 10 months, more than 9.6 million people have been infected with the coronavirus in the United States, and some 234,000 have perished.

Then there is the worldwide cruise tourism sector. It is not a pretty picture. For example, the Turks are making a small fortune from the dismantling of cruise ships at their Izmir port, as grimly reported by the New York Times in an October 30 piece entitled, WHERE CRUISE SHIPS ARE SENT TO DIE. According to the article, At a shipyard in Turkey, the boats, including some from Carnival’s Fantasy fleet, are being turned into scrap, even as the industry hopes to find a way to start sailing. Along the meandering industrial peninsula of Aliaga on Turkey’s Aegean coast, the contents of gutted vessels lie strewn on the dusty roadside, scattered among clusters of orange lifeboats that tower so high they obscure the dramatic scene unfolding in the shipyard below. There, five mammoth cruise ships sit crammed into a muddied cove, as hundreds of workers chip away at their hulls and bows, exposing the intricate anatomies of the boats that once carried thousands of people around the world. Now, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to devastate the cruise industry, companies are downsizing their fleets and selling the ships for scrap.” Hmmmm! Is this a harbinger of things to come here in Antigua and the Caribbean? With the vagaries of this Covid pandemic, one never knows, does one?

Clearly, there is much bawling and sufferation, especially since this administration has not been forthcoming with a little ‘sumn sumn’ for the distressed people. Never mind the fatuous claim from those in high places that they can access dis and dat sources of funding, and that they have $500,000 million set aside in the kitty. Sigh! It wobbles the mind as to why this administration is allowing the people to hold their bellies and bawl, if they have these emergency funding sources to which they can turn. As you can imagine, we take a lot of this administration’s claims with more than a grain of salt.

Folks, it is manifest that we are going to have to tighten our belts even further. Never mind the weird suggestion from the Minister of State in the Ministry of Finance, Lennox Weston, to “Use our savings.” What savings, Mr Minister? Even before the Covid crisis, many of us have been unemployed, with no hope for employment in the foreseeable future. Things were already hard – what with one of the worst cruise tourism seasons in years. What savings? The meagre savings that some of us managed to squirrel away have long since been depleted. Hundreds of tourism sector workers, among others, are now on the breadline, unemployed, living on the ragged edge, stone cold broke. What savings? Much like your administration, we are living from hand to mouth, (your words), and “We owe a lot of people, and we do not have money to pay them” (Your words at the opening of the new treasury building in August of last year, long before Covid).

Fasten your seatbelts, brothers and sisters. This promises to be a long, bumpy landing.

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