To understand the challenges faced by the authorities to control community spread of Covid-19, it’s important to understand the migration patterns that impact every facet of Belizean life. The dynamics of migration in this region includes migration from Central America into North America, and migration within Central America into developing economies. The inequality in the larger populations centers of Central America has forced this migration in search of better paying jobs, and in our region, in search of easy informal trade at higher prices.
Belize falls smack in the middle of these dynamics. Our small mainland nation is blessed with a small population, and in the context of the region, our higher salaries and commodity prices make us a prime target for inflows of immigrants seeking work and seeking sale of products. Add those realities to the long unguarded guard borders, the age-old territorial dispute with Guatemala, the growing familial connections in our border communities, and the insatiable Belizean appetite for lower-cost regional goods, and we have a perfect breeding ground for cross border contamination of commerce and criminal activities. This recipe, consisting of a deep informal interconnection network that brings with it the scourge of smuggling, tax avoidance, illegal narcotics, is the perfect fuel for cross-border transmission of the novel Coronavirus.
In the normal course of life, most Belizeans other than legitimate importers/producers who face competition, hardly cast a second glance at the out-of-season Haas avocado at stalls at the Michael Finnegan market, or at the middleman selling a case of Modelo, Gallo, or a bottle of Black Label at less than the formal import market prices. While these instances have long been condemned by the business community as unfair trade practices, the illegal trade has continued unabated for decades, using a well-developed network of transportation providers, facilitators, compliant customs officers and protected distributors.
The same holds true for the migration that moves humans into the lucrative market of higher wages in construction, bars and nightclubs, domestic work, farming and unregulated street vending. Somehow, this merging of culture, convenience, and corruption seems to function well; Belizeans get readily available and cheap goods and an abundant supply of labour, while a few unscrupulous customs, immigration, and labour officers pocket a few dollars in exchange for casting a blind eye, and everyone goes along their merry way.
This informal human flow is also bi-directional. In border communities, where services such as medical and even telephone services are too expensive or not available, it is customary for Belizeans to cross the border, often informally, to see a doctor, to buy medication, and even to purchase airtime from Guatemalan telecom providers like TIGO, whose signals are stronger and rates are cheaper than our local providers.
The informal migration flows and the flow of goods and services that accompany them are of particular interest when we consider why the community spread has been most hard-felt in the Western Orange Walk District and in San Pedro in the early instances of this recent rising wave of Covid19 infections.
The Western Orange Walk District, as fate would have it, is perhaps the largest source of skilled construction workers in the entire country of Belize. These workers are accustomed to traveling long hours to construction sites throughout Belize, with a large number making the weekly pilgrimage to San Pedro. Hidden among these Spanish speaking population are many immigrants from across the border, often posing as Belizeans, but closely intermingling with workers in marriage and other civil relationships. In San Pedro, for example, that there is a Guatemalan Association that comprises of over 5,000 members. These are mostly construction workers, gardeners, domestics and other seemingly invisible workers which most Belizeans and Expats (aka, wealthier immigrants from North America and Europe) can hardly distinguish their nationality among each other. Along with this symbiotic relationship between labour demand and supply comes a wide range of products that transit the same corridors, and now this dreaded virus.
This exodus of transient workers has been long tolerated. The army of suppliers of illicit people and products have fallen below the radar, even as we have shifted our consumption patterns to pupusas, and tacos, and even as our markets have become more and more inundated with cheaper vegetables and fruits that never crossed official channels for inspection or assessment. In the South, the purveyors of plastic wares and cheap trinkets flow from Guatemala and Honduras via Punta Gorda into Placencia and Hopkins into the lucrative tourism markets, while mangos, avocados, and cheap Mexican beer find their way from the Mexican settlement of Bótes, in specially designed canoes that cross the Rio Hondo. There, they are loaded into convoys of trucks, from where they magically disappear into the heart of the vast distribution channels of wholesalers, retailers, street vendors and marijuana dealers. As the recent bust of immigration officers with bales of ganja shows, that particularly lucrative cross-border trade knows no bounds, and has highly connected allies.
The recent legislation introduced into the House on Friday was designed to stem this flow of goods as a means to slow the flow of humans that traffic in them. It seeks to penalize not just the trafficker, but also the possessor of un-customed goods with high penalties and harsh bail conditions. The hope is that if people become afraid to consume illegal imports, the flow will stop and so will the flow of the virus. The opposition it seems, feels otherwise, as they argued that the measures will punish innocent small consumers that had no hand in the illegal imports. This debate is purely academic, and the goal of reducing illicit imports as a means to stem the flow of the virus in Belize is aspirational at best, as operationally the capacity to do so is extremely difficult by any measure.
Like the war on drugs in the US, the war on contraband in Belize needs a fundamental change in general consumption, public behavior, and the development of myriad of government and private sector interventions to compel the citizenry to take on a meaningful partnership with government to stamp out illegal border crossing of people and goods. The official facilitation of these practices adds a deeper dimension that will not be solved overnight, even though Covid19 has brought it into the spotlight, and provides an opportunity for crisis intervention.
The recent overnight explosion of Covid19 in Belize is no accident. Just as local residents of Belize felt at ease to go back to business as usual and to take a long last bite of the leisure cherry before the feared opening on the PGIA and schools, so did the contrabanistas, human traffickers, and individual consumers that saw an opportunity to profit from that next illicit supply run across the border.
The seemingly harmless case of Corona (beer), has unfortunately led to the far more dangerous case of Corona (virus), traveling on a well-worn path from Orange Walk to San Pedro on the backs of migrant workers; and now; angling its way back through the mainland with a fury we never imagined. This crisis has brought to the forefront the urgent need for a new modern National Migration Policy that will promote national development, fair business practices, and a balance between immigration, social welfare and protection for all Belizean Citizens.