by Wendy C Grenade, PhD
As we try to understand the broad context, it is necessary to discuss how the nature of work is being affected. Measurements of productivity are changing.
Workplaces are instituting flexible working hours and there is an opportunity to transform the world of work by changing mindsets; adopting technology to digitise work processes; restructuring businesses for online platforms etc. A major re-orientation is necessary as the pandemic has literally zoomed us into new horizons within the global workplace. To become and remain competitive, small businesses, firms and the corporate and banking sectors, have to re-make themselves. Public sector organisations have to engage in strategic resilience to undergird national development. Leadership in the context of uncertainty has become the new normal for the private and public sectors alike. Strategic leadership is taking on new meaning. This means, the ability to see beyond the obvious; having an instinct for adaptability and nimbleness. Given the demands of the new environment, leaders do not have a choice but to become transformative in their thinking and skillful in their actions.
Many of us long to return to ‘normal’ but we have to grapple with some ways in which ‘normal’ has failed us. For instance, ‘normal’ generated gender injustices. You may ask, what did Covid-19 meet? It met a world that was characterised by the feminisation of poverty, which is the concentration of poverty among women, particularly female-headed households. Covid-19 also met a gendered division of labour and the sticky floor syndrome, where many women are stuck in low-paying, non-unionised jobs; unable to make ends meet. Many of them are underemployed, overworked and underpaid. The pandemic unmasked the unequal relations of gender, which surround domestic work; women’s unpaid care labour at home; their labour in health and social care sectors; and their over-representation in the informal sector.
Research has shown that although women are over-represented in the health sector, female health workers are often paid less than men. In 2020, data from 104 countries revealed that the gender pay gap in the health sector was 28%. The research also found that gendered arrangements of power, affect women’s representation across different occupations within the health sector: with men working as doctors, dentists and pharmacists, while women tend to work in nursing and midwifery roles. So ‘normal’ has failed us in terms of gender injustices, which are being exacerbated during the pandemic.
‘Normal’ also meant that neoliberal policies and Structural Adjustment programmes had long damaged the vital organs of many developing countries. Four decades of neoliberalism, which focused on fiscal discipline; redirecting public expenditure; privatisation, trade liberalisation etc., meant, in effect, that as governments tried to balance their budgets, they were often off-balancing the people. What resulted in many cases was low growth, high unemployment and high debt. In many countries, insufficient attention is often paid to building and sustaining the public health infrastructure. In fact, in many cases, healthcare is not viewed as a right but as a privilege for the few who can afford it. Therefore, the Covid-19 virus found broken health systems, a welcoming host: with under-resourced labs; limited ICU beds; non-existent funding for health research etc. This situation is compounded by unequal power relations, uneven development and unfair trade.
For instance, what we are witnessing is a vaccine war and the tension between global cooperation to promote vaccine equity, on the one hand, and vaccine nationalism and protectionism, on the other. Many developed countries have made advanced purchasing agreements to source vaccines sometimes more than 5 times what is required by their populations. There is a proposal currently before the World Trade Organisation, tabled by South Africa and India, for a waiver of patents that would allow developing and emerging economies to produce vaccines to increase supply, so that there could be synchronised recovery – a kind of global herd immunity. This proposal is being blocked by the pharmaceutical industry, which continues to lobby powerful governments. A positive development is the kind of regional cooperation around vaccine acquisition. Countries like Barbados, Dominica and Grenada have been able to secure supplies from India and Russia for distribution throughout the region. There is an African proverb that is often cited these days, which says: “If you want to go fast go alone but if you want to go far, go together.” And we are our best Caribbean selves when we attempt to go far. Indeed, this moment of disruption requires that we go far.
That was the broad context. Now, what are a few of the key lessons for the Caribbean and importantly what may be some possibilities as we seek to re-set the button on the way forward? I must say upfront, that there are several areas where we have been doing very well as Caribbean people. However, we do not sufficiently celebrate our successes. I am not suggesting that this moment of disruption will automatically create new societies. What I am arguing is that there is an opportunity for us to adapt old ways of doing things within the current context. Importantly can we too also engage in new thinking and bold action for new times.
While Caribbean countries have made enormous strides since independence, a major lesson is that we have to disrupt the DNA defects in our political economy. “An elephant in the room is the Caribbean’s overdependence on tourism and the implications of the pandemic for Caribbean economies.” For tourism-dependent economies, like ours, the paradox is this. One of the root causes for the spread of the virus – i.e. global travel and tourism – is the route to recovery for Caribbean economies. That is the normal we cannot afford to go back to! The challenge is to disrupt the almost total over-dependence on tourism, given the extreme fragility and vulnerability of the travel and tourism industry. How do we do this?
Since independence, tourism has been the main driver for Caribbean development. There is an urgency to overhaul the philosophy that guides policy-making with respect to tourism. There is need for a kind of sustainable tourism as part of a larger developmental agenda. The challenge is this, if our Caribbean economies are vulnerable and if the global travel and tourism industry is vulnerable – vulnerability plus vulnerability is what Guyanese would refer to as “ole house pon ole house.”
Let’s imagine a hypothetical case. A young woman who was born in 2020 has now grown up and she is a research student in the year 2040. Her name is Hope and she is curious about how things were before Covid-19 struck. Suppose she asked me, “well, if tourism was such a positive driver for development, why were the hospitals and labs so under-resourced during the pandemic? Did the years of investing in tourism not translate to boosting other sectors, like health, education and manufacturing?” I would try to explain to Hope that tourism has a multiplier effect, in that it provides jobs for taxi drivers, craftswomen and men; tour operators, hotel workers – such as managers, accountants, event planners, cosmetologists, bartenders and chefs etc. I would also explain to her that farmers and entertainers have an opportunity to sell their produce and services to hotels and restaurants, which support economic activity in the domestic economies within the Caribbean.
Importantly, much needed foreign currency circulates within the banking sector to allow Governments to purchase goods and services for consumption; pay debt and so forth. I would also explain to her that many of our young women and men can be employed as pilots, flight attendants and on cruise ships. They are then able to send remittances back home to support their families.
To address Hope’s concerns, I would use data from 2020 to support my point. For example, I would say to her, based on World Trade and Tourism Council, data, the industry supported 330 million jobs worldwide in 2019 while generating 10.3% of global GDP. The UNWTO said “1.5 billion international tourist arrivals were recorded in 2019,” representing a 4% annual increase and the tenth consecutive year of growth. Similar growth was predicted for 2020 – “confirming tourism as a leading and resilient economic sector.” Hope may retort, “but a main economic driver, is not supposed to drive other things – other big things?” “What were some of the big things tourism was driving?” “How many Caribbean persons owned cruise liners or airlines?” “Who owned the hotels and guest houses?” “Every time a tourist spent a dollar, how much of that dollar remained in the economy?” “If tourism was such a resilient economic sector, why was it not better able to drive Caribbean transport?” By then I would say, “boy, this young woman too bright for me.”
Wendy Grenade is Senior Lecturer in Political Science, Department of Government, Sociology, Social Work & Psychology, Faculty of Social Sciences, The University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus.