,

We Know Opening the Borders in the COVID-19 Crisis Doesn’t Add Up

Is this freedom? Beaches and parks, gyms and spas, places of worship, and businesses are now open. The requirements are different from what we expected. Masks do not have to be worn during exercise. They must be worn to enter and exit gyms and beaches, but not for the duration of the stay. There are to be no gathering of more than five people on beaches and parks. It is not clear why five is the magic number, or why it would be safe to be in close proximity to people from different households at this time. While the risk might have been lower because we have successfully flattened the curve and reduced the spread of COVID-19, it is sure to increase in due time.

The borders are now open to commercial flights. People all over the world, including Americans, have been waiting to be able to go somewhere else — almost anywhere else — for a vacation for months. Visitors are sure to come to The Bahamas, where we have put in the work to protect public health, but does it make sense to risk that for the US dollar?

On Friday, Florida reported 8,942 new cases of COVID-19. More than 13 percent of new tests were positive. This is just one state, and it is the one closest to us.

Most visitors to The Bahamas come from the US. It is not difficult to imagine a person with COVID-19 coming here and spreading the virus. It can easily happen, especially since all visitors need to do is present the results of test taken within the seven days prior to travel. Seven days is more than enough time to contract the virus, and we have already established there are asymptomatic carriers. Someone can take the test on Monday, contract the virus on Thursday, and be in The Bahamas strolling the beach mask-free, dining in a popular restaurant and playing black jack on Saturday. This is the risk authorities have chosen to take, and we need to be aware of it rather than taking relaxation of restrictions to mean we can safely go back to normal.

Let’s be clear: We are taking a risk

It seems the government has decided that, since COVID-19 is not going away before a vaccine is introduced and most people have received it, it makes sense to bring in some US dollars while we can. However the important the tourism industry may currently be, this is a risk and we need to regard it as such. As other countries open their borders, most E.U. nations are not likely to allow people from the US to enter because of its high rate of infection.

Our borders are now open, the beaches and parks opened for us to enjoy them for two days before tourists start arriving, and we have been told that we should not travel. If it is safe for people to enter the country, why wouldn’t it be safe for us to visit other countries and return? If we know the entry of tourists will increase the risk of COVID-19 community spread, why are households being allowed to break social distancing on the beach?

If the number of COVID-19 infections goes up, we will face longer lockdowns. Whether we travel or not, we will live with the consequences of new cases.

While we may be happy to be able to go to the beach and for hotel workers and taxi drivers to return to work, we have to think about the information we have been given, realise that is doesn’t all add up and behave accordingly.

Don’t get “lost in the sauce”. We are free to work out, to swim, to shop and to gather in groups of five. That does not mean we are safe. COVID-19 has not vanished. It is still possible to contact the virus. Even as we enjoy freedom, we can take precautions. Maintain the six-foot distance and wear a mask as much as possible. We complied with the Emergency Order for months and we have benefitted from it. There is no reason for us to rush into a second round when we can reduce the risk in simple, if inconvenient, ways.

To be clear, this is not to say the Emergency Order should be continued at this time or indefinitely. It does not make any more sense for us to continue to be under curfew than it does for us to have weekend lockdowns or tourists freely entering the country, especially from countries that have not adequately responded to the pandemic. This is to encourage consideration of the facts, discussion on the repercussions of decisions being made, and both personal and community responsibility.

Who will handle non-compliant tourists, and how?

Potential visitors have expressed their displeasure with the mask policy on the Ministry of Tourism’s social media accounts. Some have said they are cancelling their trips because wearing masks is not a part of their island fantasy. It would not be surprising to see tourists walking around resort properties with masks sitting under their chins or covering their mouths but not noses. Are hotel staff prepared to enforce this? How will they do that while maintaining the welcoming, (bordering on) deferential demeanours? How are employees being protected?

There should be health and safety protocols approved by Ministry of Health in place at all properties. There should also be guidelines for baggage handlers, flight attendants, Customs and Immigration officers, taxi drivers and anyone else coming into direct contact with visitors. If they exist, they should be shared and as models for vendors and other businesses — not only those coming into direct contact with visitors, but those who will be in contact with those on the frontlines of the tourism industry.

What do you need to change?

The past few months have been difficult. Our work lives have been upended, some of us somehow ended up with more responsibilities, we’ve spent far too much time with the people who live with us, and we have not really been able to socialise. There have been a lot of sudden, drastic changes. While there is some return to the way things were before, we can still feel a bit off balance. It is important to acknowledge this as a normal response to very abnormal circumstances.

For many, it is time to go to the barber, have a beach day, or enjoy a nice meal at a favourite spot. These are easy ways to get back to where we want to be. It may be a good idea to do a bit more than that, and try to address underlying issues and observations made during the lockdown period. Did you find yourself saving money because you weren’t able to eat takeout as much as you usually do? Do you want to change that habit for the benefit of your savings account? Did you realise you tend to shop online when you’re bored or under stress? Maybe it’s time to come up with more helpful, healthy alternatives.

Who did you call when you felt like you were at your limit, and how did they support you? Family members and friends don’t always know the right thing to say or have the tools to help you through a difficult time, so it may be a good time to look for a mental health professional.

What about work-life balance? Did it go out the window, or did you not have it from the start? Working from home can reveal a lot about the way we work and manage time. If you’ve noticed you’re consistently doing more than a day’s work, it could be time to reassess your position, duties, and compensation.

These are just a few examples of areas in our lives that we may see in a different way now. They are not just to be observed, but addressed. Now may not be the best time to make sweeping changes, but make note of everything you’ve noticed about your life that makes you uncomfortable. Ask yourself what would make it better, and move in that direction. While the world around us changes, we have the opportunity to at least plan for changes of our own.

Published by The Tribune on July 1, 2020.

, ,

QCT Racism and Injustice Series – Week 3

In last week’s session, young people in the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust talked about what is taking place in their national and regional contexts in response to the Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. We talked about the gap between gestures and meaningful action, the link between race and class, the tension between address issues at home and showing solidarity for actions abroad, and how COVID-19 and the stay-at-home orders may have helped to fuel the current movement and the global response to Black Lives Matter protests.

, ,

QCT Racism and Injustice Series – Week 2

In last week’s discussion on racism and injustice, we took a look at some of the responses to the Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. and thought critically about their usefulness. When is an action or response appropriate, and when it is inappropriate? Which actions are we uncertain about? What lessons can we learn from failed responses and successful responses? Check out the video, varied thoughts about specific actions, and ways to assess our idea before we take action.

, ,

QCT Racism and Injustice Series – Week 1

In the coming weeks, I will be hosting a discussion series with young people in the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust (QCT) network about the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S., racism and injustice in Commonwealth countries, solidarity, allyship, and the work to eradicate racism. These conversations are often difficult to have, but they are necessary, and there is a lot for us to learn from each other. In this first conversation, Izzy, Mike, and I ask broad questions to give us a sense of how everyone is feeling, what people are thinking about, and which topics we need to focus on exploring in upcoming sessions.

,

We Need a Proper Plan, Not Just Reactions

Last week I saw a Facebook post that stated the government plan to deal with the COVID-19 crisis is a good one, but the people lack discipline. I stopped and re-read it several times, wondering whether or not it was sarcasm. I waited for people to comment, interested in the conversation it would spark. People seemed to, for the most part, agree with the statement.

To say I disagree would be generous because I do not even believe what we have seen thus far from the government is a plan. We have seen the introduction of individual measures. They do not stem from a strategy and do not work together within a solid, cohesive design. If a strategic plan was in place, we would not have had a grocery schedule introduced just hours before a five-day lockdown was announced. Surely the people designing the plan would have predicted the chaos we saw at every major grocery store in New Providence. At the very least, measures would have been put in place to ensure people were able to practice social distancing as they waited to enter the grocery stores. This is not what happened.

There are four major issues with the way the COVID-19 crisis is being addressed by the government. The first is it does not consider and respond to the needs of vulnerable people. Measures put in place to protect our health end up disproportionately disadvantaging vulnerable people. An easy example is the arrest of the unhoused people for breaking curfew. If the government considered vulnerable people, it would have opened emergency shelters, invited people without homes to stay in them and advised police to transport them to the nearest available shelter instead of criminalizing homelessness when they are found on the street during curfew.

The second is that these short periods of lockdown followed by, essentially, large public gatherings as people panic in clusters at grocery stores in the attempt to prepare for the next lockdown period is like hitting a reset button.

According to last week’s address, we will be doing this over and over again, at least until the end of April. We stay home for a couple of days and this reduces the spread. We go out again in a rush, trying to get essential supplies (and yes, some use it as an excuse to be out and about), and end up in crowds, likely with asymptomatic people who are spreading COVID-19.

It would make more sense to give everyone time to prepare and have a longer lockdown. The government is probably delaying this because of the first issue – it is obligated to meet the needs of vulnerable people. There can be no extended lockdown before the government ensures there is food security. We know some can only afford to purchase a few items at a time. They need to be provided with food before grocery stores can be closed to the general public for an extended period. Is the government prepared to do this?

The third issue is the expectation that businesses bear the burden of enforcement. Last week, grocery stores were not given systems or clear operational instructions for compliance with the emergency order given the sudden changes. They were expected to, overnight, figure out how to manage large crowds with their existing staff. Law enforcement officers were not routinely stationed at grocery stores to help maintain order. The simplest suggestion – to give numbers and have people wait in their cars – was not made by decision-makers. Small adjustments can make a big difference and there would be less to correct and remedy with more input from experts and practitioners. Organizations that managed hurricane relief, for example, can offer tactics and solutions that have proven effective, but that would require consultation.

The fourth issue with the current approach is the assumption people – including those considered low-risk – will comply. This requires a sense of personal responsibility for what occurs within our communities. Whatever we like to think, we do not have this in high volume. We have a lot of work to do to properly build strong communities with members who actively care about and look after each other. People who do not care about each other’s wellbeing do not just comply. Until we build the kind of community we want, we need better guidelines and systems that work to enforce them.

I’ve learnt a structured day is important to me

It feels as though we have been at home for a long time. Relative to other countries, it has not been very long at all. We are likely at the very beginning. Not only that, but what we have done thus far is probably nowhere near what is needed. There will be more time at home and it is in our best interest to not only comply, but take some time to make decisions and create systems that will make it easier for us. Going with the flow may work for some, but others will be completely lost, frustrated, or largely unaffected until they realize how much time has been lost. We each have to figure out what works best for us, and that may require some trial and error.

I have experimented a bit on my own, tried different approaches and arrived at the conclusion that structure is important for me. I want to wake up early, do most of my cooking and baking before the hottest part of the day, check on family members, work on at least one of my projects, catch up with a friend, spend time in the yard and start winding down at a reasonable time every day.

Some people can work with a to-do list and check tasks off as they go, but I prefer to put tasks into time slots. I set time aside for meal preparation, phone calls, leisure activities, work tasks, household tasks and anything else that needs my attention. This is, of course, helpful when I need to schedule meetings and set times for calls with friends in different time zones. It helps that I am disciplined and used to working from home, but there is always temptation to stray from the plan. For some, it feels better to leave the day open and take on tasks at will. We all have different needs and they may have changed given the circumstances, so give yourself a chance to figure it out.

Even if you do not like structure, it is a good idea to set your non-negotiables. What are the things you will not let yourself do or fail to do? It does not have to be as strict as getting up at five o’clock in the morning, but it can be helpful to set eight o’clock as the absolute latest you will stay in bed. That way, you have a window of time within which to get up and you can give yourself varying amounts of wiggle room depending on the day you have ahead of you. It may be a good idea to set alarms for your mealtimes, especially if you are on a particular diet.

Time can go incredibly slowly or surprisingly quickly when you are in a different environment and missing the time queues you usually get when there are coworkers in your physical space. You could end up having lunch at ten o’clock in the morning or completely forgetting about it if you’re not paying attention. Based on what is important to you, experiment with different types of schedules until you find the right fit.

Books can help us escape

Whether you have a lot of free time or not, it is important to have something other than work to fill your days. There are new shows popping up on Netflix all the time, social media challenges, virtual parties with top DJs and live sessions with celebrities and professionals in a range of fields. One of my favourite ways to spend my time is reading. I have three fiction books to recommend.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng is a portrait of characters. It opens with the Richardsons’ home on fire and their youngest child missing. Rewinding, Ng tells the deeply personal story of a mother and daughter – Mia and Pearl Warren — who move into the same suburbs as the Richardson family and rent one of their duplex apartments. The entire book is backstory, digging into past experiences of primary and secondary characters, but it remains clear which characters are the focus. Just as you settle into the stories of the Richardsons and the Warrens, there is an adoption, a missing baby, a ruckus, and a court case with different characters. Ng is skilled in bringing characters to life, making the reader care, and blurring the line between right and wrong. If you read and love this book, pick up Everything I Never Told You and let Celeste Ng bring you into a world of fascinating, yet ordinary characters for a second time.

With the Fire on High closely follows Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X. Both are young adult novels that remain true to difficult circumstances without a heavy-handed approach or excessive focus on a moral. With the Fire on High follows Emoni Santiago as she navigates the challenges of high school, motherhood, and helping her grandmother to make ends meet. She is passionate about cooking and everyone enjoys her food. Her strength becomes a challenge when she takes a cooking class at school that requires everyone to follow the rules, no matter how good their intuition may be. This is the perfect book to read with a teenager. It is sure to spark conversations about family life, career choices, friendship, and the transition to adulthood.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams has been referred to as the “black Bridget Jones,” but the comparisons are only at the surface. Carty-Williams using Queenie’s life experiences as commentary on issues of race, gender, migrant cultures, and the continued effects of slavery. Queenie is easy to like. The opening of the novel is deceptively light-hearted and simple, so when it turns to heavy themes such as mental health issues and unhealthy relationships, it is a bit surprising. By that time, the reader has a relationship with Queenie and can’t help but to root for her, even when she makes terrible decisions. Queenie is a like a cousin or a friend from high school. She will annoy you, but you want the best for her anyway.

If you are looking for more books and recommendations for other activities, follow Equality Bahamas on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Our team is sharing book, tv show, movie, music, TedTalk, and Tiny Desk concert recommendations almost daily. Every now and then, we all need an escape.

Published by The Tribune on April 15, 2020.

, ,

Bring On Political Quotas

Last week, when questioned about the lack of representation of women in parliament, Leader of the Opposition Philip “Brave” Davis said 30 to 40 percent of the Progressive Liberal Party’s 2022 slate of candidates will be women. He noted the best proportion could be higher, but it depends on who makes themselves available. Both the Progressive Liberal Party and the Free National Movement both had outrageously low numbers of female candidates in the 2017 general election. It is clear political parties in The Bahamas are not paying enough attention to issues of gender, how they contribute to them, or the ways they can bring transformation.

Public sentiment about political quotas has been negative over the past few years. The topic draws commentary from people who are not only annoyed by conversations about gender equality, but do not understand how quotas work. Political quotas are not about arbitrarily putting women in seats. They are about creating environments in which women have the opportunity to receive the necessary training, education and experience, present themselves as candidates, receive party and public support to run for winnable seats and represent their constituencies well. Quotas encourage political parties to make adjustments that result in increased access for women. If every political party has to ensure 30 percent of its slate is women, they will have to invest in better recruitment and training practices because they want to win. Their wins are inextricably tied to the performance of individual candidates and women should be included.

It is important to dispel the most widespread myth about political quotas. We do not advocate for a political quota only to see a high number of women candidates in a general election. We want great representation. Our support will go to exceptional candidates who show understanding of issues of national concern, critical thinking skills, ability to develop solutions and other characteristics and relationships that ensure they will be effective (such as the full support of the political party and its leadership). Today, we are not convinced candidates with the greatest potential truly have access.

Can they engage in the process to become candidates? Do they have the support they need, especially if they are not already well-known? How can they compete with people who embody what so many believe a leader to be, just by being men?

Women, feminists and women’s rights advocates want true representation and are as concerned about the quality of candidates as everyone else, if not more. We have seen what appointing a woman just because she is a woman can do. We want excellent candidates. A political quota would help us to ensure such candidates are able to participate and not blocked because it is more politically expedient to run someone who is more readily seen as capable because he is a man. We have to intentionally make space for women and, by doing so, change the way we see women, leadership and women in positions of leadership.

In some countries, there are political parties that have instituted quotas. Voluntary quotas have been adopted by political parties in Argentina, Australia, Botswana, Canada, Germany, Kenya and Malta among others. If the Progressive Liberal Party is serious about ensuring women are given equal opportunity to participate in frontline politics by responding by the inequalities in systems and practices, it has the opportunity to set a precedent. It can be the first political party in The Bahamas to reserve a proportion of its slate for women and develop a process for recruitment, training and campaign management that accounts for gender relations. This needs to happen and it is imperative it is not a one-time deal, but is embedded in the party’s constitution, pushing others to do the same. The political quota is not the only need, but will prompt the systemic changes we need in order to move toward gender equality more broadly and proper representation in frontline politics in particular.

When we begin to see women as leaders and as effective representatives, we will no longer need a political quota. For now, it can only help us to move further along with people in parliament who look like us, live like us, understand us and can advocate for our specific needs as a constituency.

Published by The Tribune on June 12, 2019.

, ,

Culture Clash: Minnis’ Cabinet Shuffle

No matter how low we set our expectations, there seems to be surprise, embarrassment, and frustration at every turn. There has not been much to celebrate in recent weeks, the increase in Value Added Tax bringing a muddy tinge to our reality. It puts everything in a different perspective. We do not think about anything without considering the twelve percent VAT added onto it, or the twelve percent VAT that should cover it. This is about more than grocery. It is about management of funds, yes, but also about government operations and the way resources — especially human resources — are used.

We are more watchful, critical, and vocal when it feels like the money is coming directly out of our pockets, and it is. From the decision not to appoint new parliamentary secretaries with a reason — that the positions are unnecessary — pointing to a waste of $90,000 to reneging on the commitment to host the IAAF World Relays and, at the same time, claiming the Bahamian people “accepted” the VAT increase, the Prime Minister is obviously determined to do as he likes whenever he likes and create false narratives while refusing to acknowledge criticism.

Cabinet shuffle on our dime

The cabinet shuffle came at an unexpected time. This administration has not even been in for eighteen months and we have already ministers and permanent secretaries moved from one ministry to another. How is this beneficial to the Bahamian people? Is is cost-effective? Does it increase productivity? Is it a morale boost? There is no reason anyone can find to support this move.

When asked to explain the reason for the shuffle, Minnis said, “It gives individuals exposure and experience in all the different ministries. That’s why I don’t have any ministry. I have no ministry so I can look at all and learn about all.”

This raises even more questions. Why is the Government of The Bahamas in the business of offering work-study placements? We all know cabinet appointments are rewards to the faithful and the spineless. Prime Ministers treat those who have supported and spoken no ill of them with favor in the form of an additional salary. They would have us believe it is too much to ask for some consideration to the qualifications and experience suitable for each post.

It is clear that the intention is not to put people where they will perform best, or give ministries the benefit of experienced ministers. Minnis said, “Individuals are moved and they become knowledgeable in certain things. There is no so-called pre-training before you engage in a post. You learn and you become very good.”

Well, thank goodness for that. As long as the Ministers are benefitting from these educational experiences, right?

Of course most appointments depend on the limited range of education, skills, and experience of members of parliament elected, but due consideration to the optimal mix should be a part of the nomination process. There is no excuse for using government ministries — responsible for areas critical to our economic, social, and physical wellbeing such as health, education, youth, sports, culture, and tourism — as training grounds for people paid tens of thousands of dollars from the public purse. This is an insult and an outrage.

Minnis: Looking and learning or primary duties only?

As for the statement that Minnis has no ministry so that he can “look at all and learn about all,” similar concerns arise. Minnis is not the Prime Minister so he can get paid work experience in numerous fields. It is doubly troubling when we bring to mind his 2017 explanation for having no ministerial portfolio which is quite the opposite of this new line of reasoning.

“I made this decision in order to perform my primary constitutional duty as prime minister. This primary constitutional duty is the coordination and oversight of the Cabinet of the Bahamas,” Minnis said.

There is a difference between looking at and learning about all ministries and performing the primary duty of the Prime Minister. He should be able to entrust ministers with the task of overseeing their ministries and the departments therein and communicate regularly with the permanent secretaries, department heads, and cabinet. There is no reason for the Prime Minister to be intimately involved in every ministry, and no explanation for the waste of resources in reassignments and loss of productivity due to unnecessary, often disruptive changes.

Minnis said it himself. “You go in, you read, you understand, and many instances you become better than who was there, sometimes you’re not.”

A more believable version

Maybe we choose to buy the “exposure” story because it is easier to accept that the Prime Minister really thinks governance is a game of musical chairs, or appointments are collectible items and his people need to get as many as possible. What if there is another version of the story? Recall the appointment of Lanisha Rolle as Minister of Social Services and Community Development. People were not happy about it; least of all the people who celebrated the upgrade of The Bureau of Women’s Affairs to the Department of Gender and Family Affairs in 2016. The establishment of the Department felt like a step into the twenty-first century, but Rolle’s appointment was disappointing at best, terrifying at worst. She had already made it clear that she did not stand with the women’s rights advocates in The Bahamas.

It was, as expected, a disaster. The RISE (conditional cash transfer) program was discontinued in less than two months, never to be discussed again. Little, if any, information was provided to the press on this or any other issue. Regular meetings with women’s organizations suddenly stopped. It became more difficult members of civil society to get information. The then Minister of Social Services and Community Development outright refused to meet with many stakeholders. It seemed every single thing needed her approval, and this resulted in very little being done, and last minute announcements of events like National Women’s Week and International Women’s Day.

We learned from observation that her brand of empowerment, for women and those living in poverty, was the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps variety. There have been reports of her blatant disrespect of others and intentionally impeding progress on new and existing projects. She was certainly ill-suited to this ministerial portfolio, and it took far too long for her to be moved. Now, the question. Was this the real reason for the cabinet shuffle? Did Minnis finally get the memo — that Rolle needed to be moved from the Ministry — and choose other people to move at the same time in hopes that it would be less obvious?

If this is not the case, it is quite strange that the Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Culture lost Michael Pintard. It is odd that only four ministers are being shuffled. The others must be just as deserving of the “exposure” Minnis is giving out at our expense.

There is more than enough happening — and not happening — to upset us. One of the most frustrating is certainly the lack of honesty and integrity that would prompt leaders and representatives to plainly state the reasons for their action. Lay out the logic behind decisions. It is not good enough to give a quick response to move on to the next question or end the engagement. Bahamian citizens must demand to be treated with respect. After all, we are the employers. We pay twelve percent VAT. That has to count for something.

Published in The Tribune on July 11, 2018.

, ,

Culture Clash: How You Can Prepare for the Arrival of VAT

Value Added Tax will be increased to twelve percent in a matter of days, and many of us are still trying to figure out how to make it work. Adjustments have to be made, some on a daily basis, but this does not mean we have to be uncomfortable. It means we have to plan, and we have to look at what we have.

Some people do not like to look at their money. Sure, they cash checks, make withdrawals, and make cash transactions, but they do not like to count the money they have and face what it means for their lives and lifestyles. They avoid it, at almost any cost.

When is the last time you checked your account balances? Do you know how much cash you have in your wallet and stashed in other locations?

Some of it could be laziness, but the reluctance to check balances is most often linked to fear and discomfort with facing the reality real numbers force upon us. If you know you have two hundred dollars for the next month, you may be forced to make some decisions about what and where you will be eating, how you will get around, and which invitations you can accept. If you do not know there is only two hundred dollars left in your wallet, you can go for sushi three times in ten days, grocery shop without a plan, and pick up that layaway without stress. Not knowing is false freedom, and it can feel good. Until the consequences creep up.

How are you approaching the twelve percent VAT and its impact on your purchasing power? Do you plan to operate as usual until you run out of money, or are you making a plan?

Changing the mindset

It may be helpful to view the increase in VAT as a pay cut. It has the same effect. You will not be able to buy the same items in the same quantity as before. Once you come to this realization, having a plan will probably feel more important.

It is a good idea to spend some time on a budget. No, budgeting is not fun for most people, but it can significantly reduce stress. Start with your income, then assess your necessities including your mortgage or rent and payments on debt. Keep in mind that every monthly bill is not a necessity. Yes, this is a direct attack on cable television, Netflix, and other subscriptions. These are luxuries and they belong in a separate column so you can identify them easily if and when you need to make adjustments to your spending.

Negotiating and eliminating expenses

What can you spend less on? If you usually buy lunch, figure out how many days you need to take lunch to work instead. You can not negotiate necessities, but how can you reduce the cost? Maybe it is time to move into a less expensive apartment or get a roommate. We all need grocery and sometimes we need to get that hard-to-find ingredient, but we do not need to buy everything from the most expensive store.

One of the ways we can begin to work around VAT, eat better, and live more sustainably is growing our own food. We may not be able to produce everything for ourselves, but we can at least grow fruit, vegetables, and herbs. It does not have to take up a lot of space, and there are even options for people living in apartments with no ability to plant in the ground. A few years ago, I bought a hanging garden from a friend who put them together for clients. The twelve plants included green pepper, onion, Bahamian spinach, and rosemary. I hung it on a fence, watered it as instructed, and watched my food grow. The next year, I sourced my own seeds and seedlings and set about it again. There is really no satisfaction like eating food you have grown yourself, VAT-free. We all know people who garden. Talk to them, ask for a little something to get started, and get to work.

Let’s make a deal

On the same day the 60 percent increase in VAT was announced, bartering became a serious topic among groups of friends and acquaintances. Bartering is not over. Many people barter all the time without realizing it. Civil society organizations often exchange meals for hours of service. People do not mind spending an hour or two at a booth or packing welcome bags if they get lunch and a networking opportunity in exchange. People in the beauty industry exchange services among themselves — a massage for makeup application, for example. No money is exchanged, but two parties exchange products and services of equal value. This is bartering, and it is time to be more intentional about it. What do you need, and what you can provide in exchange? Check out the bartering groups on Facebook, start the conversation within your own networks, and reduce the amount of money you spend on services when you can trade skills.

Sacrifice to save

Saving money is difficult under any circumstances. No one really wants to set money aside for short-term or long-term savings instead of spending it on immediate desires. Many of us are living hand-to-mouth with little or no room to save. Where saving is a possibility, it definitely requires lifestyle changes. If you can afford to buy a hot beverage every day on the way to work, you can save. If you can drive to and from work every day, you can save. It may not been convenient, and it may cramp your style, but you can do it. Make your morning beverage at home, put that café money in a jar every day, and deposit it monthly. Carpool with your family members, friends, and coworkers. It could be part of a go-green initiative at the office, or a way to catch up with the cousins you never find the time to meet. This may not be something you do all the time, but it is an option for reducing spending on gas.

There are a number of saving strategies that come up with a quick online search. A popular one is never spending five dollar bills. Any time you get a five dollar bill in change, you put it in a separate section of your wallet or a different pocket, then deposit it to a container or account. Do this for a year, and see how much you save. If you are inclined to open a savings account, check out the credit unions. They offer far better interest rates and service than commercial banks, and the asue accounts are definitely worth consideration.

Community

We are all paying the same VAT, but we all have different income levels. No matter how much we would like to think we are all in the same boat, we are not. Women and approximately twelve percent of people in The Bahamas living below the poverty line are disproportionately affected. Some can not even begin to think about budgets or saving. Look out for them.

This unfortunate increase is coming, but maybe a better sense of community and willingness to help one another can come with it. Can you help someone start a business? Maybe you have raw material to help them get started, a space they can work from, or money they can pay back in service. Check in with your loved ones. Make strategies for dealing with the VAT increase a community effort. Grow food together. Exchange goods and services. Start a savings challenge. Let’s get creative.

Published in The Tribune on June 27, 2018.

, ,

Culture Clash: The Lessons We Can Learn from the Budget

The world of partisan politics is never dull. The Budget Communication certainly makes for a lively few weeks, full of debate, pontification, and a range of emotions. It is probably the time we are most attentive to the government and political maneuverings aside from election season. It gives insight into the real agenda of administrations and reveals values like nothing else. In their contributions, our representatives show us, in practice, what is important to them. They speak to specific parts of the budget as we listen for signs that they are just another cog in the wheel, or thinking representative giving due consideration to the everyday realities of our lives before taking a position.

More information please

The 2018-2019 budget could keep us talking for days on end. The controversy and confusion that arise from the budget debate often lead to conversations, arguments, research, and critical thinking, increasing our knowledge and understanding of governance and government. Other events — like the vote of no confidence by the rebel seven in 2016 — become practical teaching tools and open our eyes to what was previously unknown. Many of us only recently learned that the official Leader of the Opposition in Parliament is not necessarily the opposition party leader. We are learning as we go.

How is that working for us?

Sure, there is always more to learn. Yes, it is great that we are able to start and sustain conversations in the aftermath of political events that lead to an expansion of individual and national knowledge, but are we figuring it all out too late, and too piecemeal?

We are in desperate need of a national civics lesson. Yes, some schools have civics class, but not all of them. It should be a requirement at every school in The Bahamas. If we can give five-year-olds projects on the governor generals of The Bahamas, we can offer civic education to school-age children. There should be educational programming on television and radio, supplements in newspapers, open online courses, and resources in public libraries. If political parties and candidates can go door-to-door with their paraphernalia, they can make information about the Westminster system, political history, and governance easily accessible to every Bahamian resident.

Voting against party position

Over the past few days, we have been talking about the four FNM Members of Parliament who voted no on the bill to increase Value Added Tax to twelve percent. Golden Isles MP Vaughn Miller, Pineridge MP Frederick McAlpine, Bain and Grants Town MP Travis Robinson and Centreville MP Reece Chipman did not support the VAT increase, and seven other FNM Members of Parliament did not show up to vote. This came after Attorney General Carl Bethel said “the whip is on” and suggested to anyone voting no, “you may as well tender your resignation at the same time that you vote with the opposition.”

Many people of varied political allegiances expressed disdain, shock, and disappointment at the Prime Ministers actions yesterday. Robinson and Miller were terminated from their parliamentary secretary positions at Ministry of Tourism and Aviation and Ministry of Social Services respectively, and McAlpine was terminated from his position as chairman of the Hotel Corporation. Their termination letters referred to Part III, Section 21 of the Manual of Cabinet and Ministry Procedure.

Following their budget contributions, it was made clear to these Members of Parliament that they had a decision to make. They could support the budget in its entirety, including relevant bills, and keep their appointments or they could represent their constituents by not supporting every aspect of the budget and be terminated. They chose to stand for the people, knowing the consequences stipulated by the Westminster system.

The Minnis mistake

Minnis is obviously trying to look strong. He is opposed to compromise. He is not interested in engaging the press, or communicating with the Bahamian people. He wants to eat lunch. He disappears and goes quiet, pushing other people to the fore. Maybe he thinks we will not see him as the bad guy. Maybe he thinks if he is not the one to deliver the bad news, we will not know where it came from. One thing is certain — he does not take kindly to being opposed, questioned, or criticized. That is too bad, especially since opposition, questions, and criticism could be instructive, especially for someone so clearly out of touch.

Minnis does not seem to understand the implications of the budget. He has not grasped the fact that the Bahamian people are not interested in any of the spins being offered. We are especially not going to accept the idea that we have to suffer now to benefit later.

Minnis said, ”My budget is not necessarily about VAT. My budget is more about a better tomorrow for the young people of this country, the future.”

In two sentences, he took ownership of the budget, demonstrated his lack of awareness of the general understanding of the budget and the most dominant component, and suggested that there is a focus on youth and the future. There is too much in that statement to refute here and now, but young people are not buying it; especially not after Robinson’s termination yesterday.

The Robinson effect

Many people are confused by what has taken place. Some are likening Minnis to dictators and fascists. There have been numerous questions about the validity of this move, whether or not it was necessary, and possible loopholes. More than anyone else, Travis Robinson has the attention of the Bahamian people — especially young people. For many, his termination feels like a punch to the gut. We have to remember, however, that he remains the representative for Bain and Grants Towns, that was what he wanted at the beginning, and his current situation is the outcome of fulfilling his duty to the people of that constituency. He has done what many others have failed to do. He consulted with his constituents and spoke on their behalf, even when it was to his own detriment. He has proven that a young person who is new to politics and has been courted by a major political party can truly represent the people.

What will this do for Bahamian politics? Maybe we will see a wave of more inspired leaders and leadership emerge. There could be new boldness. Perhaps we can expect present and future Members of Parliament to give careful consideration to everything put before them, consult with constituents, and truly work for them rather than the party. We may get representatives who care more about our communities than their own titles and salaries. Didn’t this seem unrealistic a short time ago?

Whether or not we see change, incremental or substantial, in the practice of politics depends on more than one person. Travis Robinson, at the very least, took a risk. What about us? What is our response going to be? Beyond the initial social media posts and paraphrasing of what others have said, what are we going to do?

At this point, our action is just as important as his. If we want to see more representatives truly representing us, we have to show it with our support. That means resisting the urge to make jokes about his lost income, and going beyond the lazy explain-it-away method of posting a screenshot of the relevant Westminster rule or section of the cabinet manual. Okay, the system brought us here. What now? What of that system? Is it serving us?

We talk about democracy in very general terms, and most of us have done very little to learn more about it. We go through the motions of a specific part of democracy. We vote every five years, and spend all the time in between making threats about what we will do with our one vote when the time comes again. Democracy is and must be more than that. We have to be able to talk about what it has and has not been for us, and co-create a better functioning democracy that goes beyond a vote. We can have our say on any day at any time, if only we learn to tap into the power of the collective. When we do, as Progressive Liberal Party Deputy Leader Chester Cooper put it, “The day of reckoning is going to come. And that is the beauty of democracy.”

Published in The Tribune on June 20, 2018.

, ,

Culture Clash: Why VAT rise hits hardest for the people who can least afford it

Bahamians tuned in to the Budget Communication in Parliament last week Wednesday with great interest. After laying out a number of supposed benefits to the Bahamian people, Minister of Finance Peter Turnquest showed the price tag. The FNM administration intends to increase Value Added Tax (VAT) by 60 percent, taking it up from 7.5 percent to 12 percent on July 1. It expects this tax hike to increase revenue by $400 million in the next fiscal year.

In a press conference, Turnquest suggested this is the best way to pay off arrears left by the former administration of approximately $360 million. He insisted that the government is doing the right thing by being honest with the Bahamian people as opposed to presenting a misleading budget and delaying pay day.

Under-budget or increase taxes. These are clearly not the only options. This administration is depending on us to play into the stereotype of “lazy” and “D-average” so it can do as it sees fit with little to no pushback.

Even if VAT is the best option for The Bahamas, it would have been more transparent — a term the FNM enjoyed using before May 2017 — and shown a commitment to more participatory governance to share the details of its financial concerns with the people before this point. It would have been easier to understand this decision if we had been provided with this information before the Budget Communication and had the opportunity to offer ideas. The people sitting in Parliament are, after all, our representatives and not a collective dictatorship.

Flip-flop

Over the past few days, many people have quoted the 2016 version of Dr. Hubert Minnis who said, “I don’t believe in increasing taxes, I believe in decreasing taxes and increasing opportunities. Increasing taxes is a lazy way out. When you don’t want to think, you just tax.”

In 2013, Dr. Minnis said the PLP should share its economic studies and analyses as well as alternatives it considered with the Bahamian people. Today, the Bahamian people are making the same request. We want to know how this administration came to the conclusion that a 60% increase in VAT is best for the country. We also want to see the other options that were under consideration, why they failed, and how the administration arrived at this conclusion. Hearing from the Prime Minister on his change in position would be welcome as well.

VAT and Customs Duty

In the Budget Communication, it was announced that Customs exemption would be increased from $300 to $500, twice per year. There is also a reduction in Customs duty on new small cars and excise duty on new electric and hybrid cars under $50,000 in value. Neither of these benefit the poor.

We learned that VAT will not be applied to bread basket items. These include rice, flour, grits, cheese, butter, cooking oil, milk, evaporated milk, soups, and mustard. Concerns have been raised about the lack of healthy options on the bread basket list, and Minister of Health Dr. Duane Sands suggested more items, including fresh produce, will be added. VAT is also being waived from electricity bills below $100 and water bills below $50 impacting 30,000 and 43,000 people respectively — close to the 40,000 reportedly living in poverty. This measure, clearly meant for the poor, still does not bringing balance when we are looking at 12% VAT on everything else. The 2013 Household and Expenditure Survey showed 12.8% of the population in The Bahamas is living in poverty — on less than $5,000 per year.

What is poverty?

We need to understand what it means to be poor. Poverty is not the inability to purchase a particular brand of cellphone. It is not making the decision to attend a community college instead of a well-known university. It is not driving a 2010 Honda Civic. It is not being a college student and living with your parents. It is not a situation you can see your way out of at any given time. It is not a decision or series of decisions you consider prudent or responsible. It is having $5000 per year, and being unable to make decisions that do not fit that budget. Poverty is not a choice, and it is not about choices. It is not the result of working less, or working less hard.

Poverty is a systemic issue, and a monster we continue to feed with unilateral decisions like VAT and VAT increases and discriminatory practices. It is an issue we trivialize and makes jokes about when we hear about VAT going up and declare ourselves “poor” because we may not be able to go to crossfit any more. Not being able to benefit from the elimination of duty on airplanes does not make you poor, and jokes about it are lazy and D-average. Dine on the Line — an awareness campaign in which participants spend $4 on food every day — was last week, and maybe we should we have an exercise of doing everything else on the line for a month. Can you live on $11.64 per day? And no, 12% VAT is not likely to force many of us below the poverty line, but think about what it means for those already living in poverty. The reality of the over-burdened Bahamians living in poverty is not a punchline, and we do not need that kind of comic relief.

Equal, but not fair

The general conversation about the increase in VAT has revealed what we do and do not understand. It has been made clear, repeatedly, that the privilege some of us enjoy helps us to ignore or be completely unaware of the challenges other people face.

VAT is paid by all, but our experiences are not the same. We are not all in the same situation. VAT is a regressive — as opposed to progressive — tax. It is not higher for people with higher income. VAT is flat, so everyone pays the same rate, but it is not equitable. Middle class and poor people pay a larger proportion of their income in taxes through VAT. Though everyone is paying the same tax on individual items, the effect is different.

There is a popular pair of images used to show the difference between equality and equity. There are three people of different heights trying to watch a game over a fence, and there are three boxes they can stand on. In the first image, they each get one box. The shortest person still cannot see the game at all while the other two can. That is equality. In the second image, the tallest person does not get a box, and the shortest person gets two. In this image, they are all able to see and enjoy the game. That is equity.

What if taxation was equitable? What if the government found a way to alleviate the burden that has always been on the poor? What if we, as citizens, cared enough to look for alternatives to the quick fixes our representatives find and implement?

What we need

Fiscal responsibility is critical. We know the government needs money to provide services, from education and health care to road repairs and waste disposal. None of this is free, and the government needs a source of revenue. It does not, however, need to disproportionately burden the poor to meet its needs. It does not need to keep financial records and decisions out of our reach.

This administration needs to recognize that while the people did not necessarily vote FNM as much as it voted anti-PLP, there were expectations. Expectations of accountability. Transparency. An understanding that the Bahamian people are not interested in being blissfully unaware of the government action and inaction. We expect to be involved, and to have the opportunity to contribute, critique, co-create the systems and programs we need and demand.

We need to have a conversation about wages. Over the past few days, many have talked about the need to increase minimum wage, but that comes with its own effects. Even so, it is time to talk about a living wage so every working person can afford adequate food, shelter, and other physiological needs.

VAT is in the spotlight. No one wants to hear about taxes, much less increased taxes. We can agree on taxes, bills, and poverty. We do not want them, but they exist. Let’s be honest with ourselves and each other and not only these issues for ourselves, but use our power as a people to call on our representatives to stand with us, regardless of class or color.

Published in The Tribune on June 6, 2018.