Great power begets great responsibility
“While an emergency does not create power, an emergency may furnish the occasion for the exercise of the power.”
That statement was made by Charles Evans Hughes, Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court during the Great Depression of the 1930s, but it is just as relevant today.
Bermuda is seeing some remarkable changes as it gets to grips with the coronavirus crisis, often with little opposition and a high degree of compliance, even when these changes would lead to fierce debate and even uproar in normal times.
Businesses have closed their doors, either voluntarily or at the direction of the Government, borders have been closed, people have voluntarily remained in their homes, police and army checkpoints are stopping people around the island, schools are closed and many government services have been scaled back dramatically, all in the name of preventing the spread of a deadly virus.
Other changes have been even more dramatic. Bermuda now has a form of unemployment relief, which is being implemented with little or no debate or discussion, when previous efforts had foundered.
Likewise, David Burt effectively privatised garbage collection in Bermuda this week when government trash collectors essentially refused to work; such a move would have caused uproar and an island-wide strike in the past — and still may — but so far there has been almost no public outcry.
More changes are likely in the days and weeks to come, and this is not meant as a criticism of the Government, which has delivered steady leadership through a crisis that has gone deep into uncharted territory.
But, as the axiom goes, with great power comes great responsibility and it is important that, even when decisions need to be taken quickly, they need to be taken deliberately, and care needs to be taken that they are appropriate to the crisis.
This newspaper has already criticised national security minister Wayne Caines for his ill-judged and discriminatory threat to remove the work permits of non-Bermudian arrivals who breach 14-day, self-isolation rules.
It is vitally important in these times that we come together and avoid dividing people on any basis, including nationality.
It is vital for the Government and the island’s other leaders to strike the right balance between ensuring the country’s health and wellbeing, and not overstepping on people’s liberties.
Perhaps even more importantly, every effort needs to be made to returning those rights as early as possible and avoiding enjoying power too much.
History is replete with examples of leaders who have overreached or assumed that a lack of opposition amid a crisis is the same thing as approval for all of the actions taken.
In the meantime, Bermuda must still plan for the recovery and a return to normal, whatever that looks like and whenever it occurs.
It is obvious that our finances, already precarious before the crisis, will be now even more stretched and it is far from clear where the financing will come from to fund things such as the unemployment benefit, which could well run into the tens of millions very quickly.
It is likely that the pressure on so-called tax havens will increase, not decrease, as other western governments grapple with similar fiscal problems — the eye-watering sums of money being pledged in the US and in Europe to support their economies dwarf what was spent in the 2008 financial crisis and will also have to be paid for somehow.
This makes it all the more important for Bermuda to have a plan for economic recovery. As stated in previous editorials, both the Bermuda Tourism Authority and the Bermuda Business Development Agency need to have marketing plans and advertising budgets in place to get Bermuda working again as quickly as possible.
It is worth remembering that after 2008, Jamaica’s tourism industry grew — because it expanded marketing at a time when most of its competition were cutting their budgets.
This newspaper supports the temporary unemployment relief for employees who have found themselves out of work or laid off, especially those who normally would be just starting to see their earnings rise after a difficult winter.
But there has been very little about small businesses who may be heavily dependent on cashflow and have limited reserves.
When Bermuda comes out of this crisis — and it will — there need to be employers still standing and able to hire people back right away. To that end, they need support or reduced demands now to achieve that.
Certainly, it is heartening to see many businesses adjust and innovate to new circumstances, but this should not be mistaken for a robust economy.
To use a standard car-engine metaphor, if Bermuda’s economy was in third gear before the crisis, it is in first gear now — moving, but only slowly and always at risk of stalling.
Moves by the banks to relax requirements and penalties on debt are helpful, as are the relaxations by telecommunications companies and utilities on disconnections.
So, too, are the moves by the Bermuda Economic Development Corporation to assist small businesses. But this may not be enough; this is an area where the Government needs to step in with tax relief or delays on filing, for example of payroll tax, where the April 15 deadline is looming.
Economist Craig Simmons has rightly said that the Government must be prepared to step in as a lender of last resort or guarantor, not just for businesses that are “too big to fail”, but in some cases for small businesses, which are the engines of economic growth. Bermuda is truly in uncharted territory.
The Government has done an effective job of managing the risk from Covid-19 — although the island’s health services have not yet been truly tested — and the road ahead is full of unknowns.
When Bermuda does emerge from the crisis, we need to be ready.
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