2020 will forever be known as the Age of Isolation — the year the earth took a breather. The year every individual, the entire world over, took to their their private spaces, perhaps alone, or with family members, pets, and personal hobbies, their only connection to the outside world an electronic device. The year where every nation on Earth chose social and national isolation over economics, at least for a time.
This Age of Isolation brings new challenges, and exposes new realities of who we are as persons and as a nation. Those revelations will in turn impact our future in this unfamiliar new world that a mere 100 days ago, did not exist. Even developed nations today grapple with the choices of economic damnation vs individual isolation from economic activity propelled by jobs, consumption, and the delicate financial markets that fuel them. The United States’ approach to its dearth of medical supplies, for example, and whether or not to continue financial support to the World Health Organization, has been with an aggressive lean toward the type of nationalism preached by the American President and previously channeled into their isolationist immigration and trade policies. While this American Isolationism is nothing new, the stark evidence on display brings into focus the fact that in the throes of this pandemic, it may well be “every nation for itself.” Once referred to by Mr. Trump as ‘Shit Hole Countries’, developing nations are reminded of our geopolitical and economic insignificance by the real stories of medical shipments destined for small vulnerable countries being forcible seized by US authorities.
Small Latin American and Caribbean nations like Belize now isolated; symbolically walled off, stuck in our unsustainable economic corrals, disallowed from printing the currency needed to ward off health and economic challenges, must now find our own way to solve a crisis that is not of our making.
Major day to day decisions to close our borders, to close our businesses and our non-essential services, and to quarantine our population, have had to be made post-haste and on the fly. We cannot afford to even let a curve begin, much less to take on the gargantuan task to flatten one, if and when it does start. Even as we stockpile medical supplies in preparation for the storm that could come, we do so cognizant of the fact that removing the livelihood of basic wage-earners through forced isolation will lead to an even greater economic cost as the crisis deepens globally.
For a country like Belize, a balance of those two realities is not even relevant. A flat curve for us may mean that some domestic activity can restart, but it does not mean that we can open our borders for tourism, even if global tourism is somehow revived from its induced coma. As long as people in our source market for tourism and our destination markets for outbound trade remain in isolation, and as long as the threat of even a single infected inbound traveler exists, the opening of borders for visitors or returning nationals becomes a choice that can only be taken with extreme protocols in place for arrival screening, and in-country monitoring. On the domestic front, we may be able to re-open some activity, but only once we are certain that there is no community spread, and that we have the tools to track and trace each and every risk, including asymptomatic but contagious cases that have not yet been detected.
This zero-sum game is global. As we assess our situation in our small, sparsely populated nation, we recognize that our neighbours are faced with the same dilemma, and some on a much greater scale. Mass impoverished populations in neighbouring countries in Central America that have scant access to technology, medicines, and food even in times of normalcy find themselves at the mercy of necessary state-imposed depression and economic ruin. Small vulnerable tourism-dependent island states in the Caribbean may fare off even worse, as drought conditions and the ongoing threat of tropical cyclones loom on present and near horizons to further decimate economies already damaged by the indefinite dormancy of tourism. A recent IMF report shows that major economies in the OECD have announced stimulus packages between 3-10% of national GDP in those markets, while developing countries struggle to afford spending under 1%.
In this Age of Isolation, it means that in our own nation of Belize, we must reinvent ourselves. It means that Government, political parties, the private sector, and civil society must put aside petty squabbles and join hands in crafting a new nation that can operate and thrive self-sufficiently inside our proverbial national isolation ward.
As we wait and pray for a vaccine, and for the rest of the world to normalize, we must take the time to re-design a government that can act quickly, just like we reacted to make the recent tough decisions as the crisis unfolded. We need to favour a lean and efficient government that can continue to operate and communicate in the virtual low-cost environment we currently find ourselves in. We need to develop legislation, infrastructure, and efficient payment systems that can enable eCommerce and eGovernment, even as we ourselves individually remain apart, and as our country remains disconnected from visitors. And we must cut the pervasive bureaucracy that weakens our ability to do business.
Just as our frontline health professionals have become overnight heroes in our national psyche, we also must extend that designation to our farmers and food producers. We can do so by favoring the purchase of fresh domestically produced goods over processed imports, and by making sure that the sector has the capital and the tools to expand production, improve quality and eventually expand exports in a world where commodity prices will rise as economies emerge from lockdown. Not only would we grow our internal economy, but we will also ensure better nutrition, higher immunity, and a healthier nation.
Necessity has compelled us to exhibit an instant proficiency in adopting online tools for distance learning, government service access, financial transacting, business meetings, nascent eCommerce enterprise development and ad hoc delivery networks. This new awakening can be leveraged and expanded to build a digital economy that can be more robust than the paper-based, bureaucratic one that has long held us back.
This digital economy, along with a friendly jurisdiction and business climate, will allow us to sell skill across borders without the need for travel. Already we have made the moves to remove Belize from the blacklist with the EU and the OECD as it relates to taxation and corporate governance. We can now take the next step to repackage our jurisdiction to attract foreign companies that will hire our virtual workforce, that will use our financial and other services, and that will contribute fresh sources of income to our foreign reserves.
Finally, domestic policy and investment must now focus inward, and must be used to bolster the personal economies of our nationals. Cash transfers to replace lost wages for productive citizens will need to be accelerated and expanded in the short term, and programs to ensure proper nutrition, ongoing healthcare and uninterrupted education must be expanded. Support to Small and Medium enterprises and the creation of a housing program, not just for social housing, but for middle class and even foreign second-home ownership, can serve to stimulate new economic activity as we wait for the rest of the world to rebalance itself.
In the Age of Isolation, the truth of who we are is becoming ever so obvious. We are learning the value of relationships, the value of community, and the strength of common resolve. As the bonds of isolation tighten, we must also recognize our past missteps and reflect on what we could have done better for ourselves, our families and our nation. Most importantly we are learning that we have a collective responsibility to care for our world, our nation, and our fellow human beings. Like the Butterfly Effect in Chaos Theory, the smallest things we do, the most insignificant choice, does impact our world in ways we can never conceive.
This Age of Isolation, if we so choose, can in reality become a Coming of Age for our wonderful nation, blessed with resources, and powered by a resilient people, united in our resolve to survive and thrive.