Poor people can’t get a break

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And the hits keep on coming.  We’re referring to the persistent blows to the backs of the poor of this country. The latest is the distressing news from the Antigua Public Utilities Authority (APUA) that, “Following the nine-month waiver of disconnections as part of APUA’s Covid-19 Relief Efforts, disconnections of utility services for residential and commercial services will resume from February 1st, 2021. To avoid disruption of service, customers are encouraged to settle accounts in arrears.” Sigh!

The big question is, HOW! How the hell are they going to be able to settle arrears when they are still barely scratching out an existence with temporary jobs, because their permanent jobs are still on shutdown? How are they going to make good on their arrears when they have been severed, with no severance monies forthcoming? (see Jolly Beach and LIAT workers). Their savings are depleted. They have had to tighten their belts in extremis, many families going to bed hungry. How are they going to make bread and water out of stone?

We ask the question, what has changed in the dire circumstances of the poor majority in this country – the souvenir vendors, taxi drivers, bus operators, hotel workers, food eateries and restaurants, and other small businesses, to convince the APUA that employment has returned to pre-Covid-19 levels, and money is being made by those whose lives were disrupted by the shutdown in March, 2020? What has changed? Heritage Quay is still a ghost town. Those business that reopened, are barely breaking even. They are certainly not hiring or rehiring many of those who were laid off. Many businesses are downsizing, changing their business models to adapt to changing commercial activity. Costs have gone up on account of compliance with Covid-19 regulations. If people could not pay their bills nine months ago, what the hell makes APUA think that they can pay them now? The cumulative amount, mind you. It makes no sense!

Just ask Mr. David Matthias, the Director of the Social Security Scheme, if employment is back to anywhere near the March 2020 levels. Just ask him if contributions have returned appreciably. He’ll ruefully respond in the negative. Just ask this beleaguered administration if there has been a marked uptick in economic activity, thereby boosting its tax receipts, and it will respond in the negative. But then again, it depends on who the government is responding to. This administration speaks with a forked tongue; it plays fast and loose with the truth, as a matter of course. For example, when responding to unpaid contractors and harried road users, frustrated at the warri-board roads, it turns its pockets out and says that there is no money in the treasury. When it comes to paying salaries, wages and other emoluments, it is routinely late, and given to pleading poverty on account of Covid-19.

But when it comes to presenting the Throne Speech, and trafficking in feel-good pabulum, its self-praise of the nation’s finances and our sound financial position knows no bounds. On any given day, one is likely to hear two completely different stories from the mouths of those in high financial places. Such is the quandary in which we, the poor stiffs of this country, find ourselves. We know not whom to believe.

The fact is, this government cannot pay its workers and those businesses to whom it is indebted. The government is asking for forbearance from many of its creditors. It is asking for a restructuring of much of its debt. It is asking for concessionary terms for its borrowings. It is even asking for some debt relief and forgiveness of loans, locally and internationally. Why can’t the same be offered to poor people? We’re talking an easement and a lifting of the yoke, the millstone around the necks of the poor. We’re talking forbearance on the part of creditors like APUA, and even some of the big banks.      

This administration has talked a good talk about moratoriums, and debt relief, and a pause on evictions, but done little else by way of help for the poor. And yes, a stimulus, be it ever so small, is apparently ‘a bridge too far’ for this feckless regime. It is a crying shame! Especially the trite reasons cited by this administration for not anteing up a cash injection for the poor. Many other countries with a beating heart around the world, and the region (see St Kitts), have done it. But not this bankrupt, self-absorbed administration.

Pearl Quinn Williams, the United Progressive Party’s (UPP) candidate for St. John’s Rural North, in a guest editorial piece entitled, HAVE A HEART! WAIVE THE INTEREST! [Daily Observer, April 28th, 2020], spoke to the issue of forbearance and relief for the poor. Wrote she: “Therefore, given the amount of persons who would have been laid off due to Covid-19, it is likely that all of these persons, faced with a choice of buying food versus paying their loans, would certainly choose food. Banks, undoubtedly aware of this, were faced with a choice – do we take a hit by insisting that persons pay their loans during this period of crisis, when we know they will be unable so to do, and their loans will become non-accrual, or do we place the loan service payments in abeyance for 3 – 6 months, and continue to accrue interest in the background, thereby preserving our income and profits? . . . The moratorium without write-off would preserve and protect their magnificent profits, but waiving of the interest, which amounts to a write-off, would hurt their bottom lines marginally, notwithstanding that it would also hurt their customers greatly. Given the option chosen by banks, it is evident that the bottom line is far more important to them than the financial welfare of their customers.” Quinn Williams’ argument is that in the spirit of good corporate citizenry and beneficence, the banks could take a small hit in these unprecedented economic times, given that they have reaped bounteous profits over the years. Sigh! It was asking too much of them.

APUA is not much different in its calculus. It is not interested in the noble concept of shared sacrifice. Whatever little it surrendered by way of a percentage reduction for on-time payments, it is now ready to recoup that negligible shortfall in revenue by demanding its Shakespearean “pound of flesh.” Never mind that the Covid-19 crisis is far from over. Au contraire, the coronavirus appears to be in the throes of a vicious third wave. The United Kingdom (UK) has closed its borders until mid-February. Travel from Canada and the United States have not nearly returned to pre-Covid-19 figures, and it is unlikely that they will for the foreseeable future. Factor the new PCR test requirement for re-entry into Britain, Canada and the United States, and it is not a comforting picture. For example, a number of hotels that had recently reopened and rehired some workers, had to lay off those same workers in light of the steps taken by the UK.

Added to that grim reality is the fact that, it is anyone’s guess when cruise tourism, which will undoubtedly be a shadow of its former self, at least to the end of this year, will return. Our Minister of Tourism, the Honourable Charles ‘Max’ Fernandez, has admitted as much.

Meanwhile, the rising Covid-19 figures in a number of Caribbean territories, as well as here in our fair State, is cause for concern. In fact, there is talk in high places that we could possibly see another shutdown, if those numbers continue on an upward trajectory. Were that to happen, then economic activity would once again screech to a grinding halt, much as it did in April and May of last year, just before we reopened in June. Back to square one!

Of course, APUA has said that those who are unable to settle their accounts should make an appointment with the APUA credit department to set up a payment plan. Sigh! We submit that it will be a rather long line comprising those who are unable to settle. Seems, Henry David Thoreau, the great essayist and practical philosopher, was on to something when he remarked, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, and die with their song still inside them.” May heaven spare us!

We invite you to visit www.antiguaobserver.com and give us your feedback on our opinions.

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