Bermuda and The Locust Years
The period since 2008 has amounted to Bermuda's Locust Years – the scriptural “years that the locusts hath eaten” — for both the Island as a whole and for too many of its inhabitants.
A worldwide recession of almost unprecedented length and harshness combined with a series of internal economic missteps have produced all manner of predictable and sometimes entirely unanticipated consequences which continue to hobble the community.
The rise of what might be termed genteel poverty in Bermuda is now as much a feature of the modern socio-economic landscape as overemployment was in the one which was devastated six years ago. Stagnant wages, sharply rising living costs and high levels of unemployment and underemployment have left many Bermudians operating in permanent crisis mode. Carrying mortgages which are worth more than the value of their homes, burdened by stratospheric amounts of personal debt and not so much living pay cheque to pay cheque as they are virtually hand to mouth, a not insignificant number of Bermudians are contending with genuine and ongoing hardship.
Yet the social disruptions accompanying the economic downturn are generally topics of conversation as studiously avoided in polite (and certainly in political) company as sex and religion. But talking around these various problems does absolutely nothing to alleviate them.
Government's recent self-inflicted injury over the future of the weekly supermarket discount scheme has, rightly, been greeted by disbelief and derision in many quarters. But among those who constitute Bermuda's long-term unemployed, those on social assistance or who are actually disqualified from receiving financial aid because of one technicality or another, the yo-yoing position was received with outright dismay. It caused already low morale to ebb even further. And already widespread skepticism about Government resolve when it comes to such meat-and-potato issues as putting Bermudians back to work and reining in the cost of living will likely grow even more pronounced.
Coming just days after the People's Campaign for Equality, Jobs and Justice issued the first of what it says will be a regular series of performance assessments of both Government and Opposition initiatives to bring popular concerns to the forefront, the timing of the discount grocery debacle could not have been worse.
With its calls for a more equitable taxation system, affordable and accessible healthcare, liveable wages and enhanced economic opportunities, its critics are probably tempted to say the People's Campaign might as well add gold-paved streets and a house-broken unicorn for every home to its somewhat unrealistic wish list.
But dismissing the People's Campaign as the overly idealistic mouthpiece for the ill-informed, ill-educated and easily swayed masses is exactly the wrong thing to do. People are hurting and, as the group's march on Parliament has already demonstrated, they are naturally going to gravitate toward a movement which promises to help alleviate their pain.
While Bermuda has always boasted a fair number of those who might be termed the professionally workshy, those contending with the financial, emotional and familial ramifications of unemployment now includes everyone from downsized button-down professionals to former civil servants coming to terms with the fact there is no such thing as a job for life in contemporary Bermuda. They are your friends, your neighbours and members of your family.
Many politicians in both political parties seem to feel the illusions created by piously worded campaign promises and staged media events are acceptable substitutes for substantive action. They aren't, of course. While Cabinet Ministers may rush to pose with Salvation Army officers at the site of new homeless shelters and the Opposition Leader delivers heart-tugging accounts of the poverty which now exists in the shadow of plenty in Bermuda, such photo op compassion and lip-service commitments to social justice are hardly going to replace actual remedial measures like the discount programme in the affections of the people. Or the People's Campaign, for that matter.
Stabilising and then regrowing Bermuda's economy is going to be a long-term undertaking. No one, not even those most badly affected by its all-too-rapid contraction, is expecting a miracle cure. But when even a minor but welcome step toward restoring the years that the locust hath eaten like the grocery programme becomes subject to clumsy political mishandling and miscommunication, then people can be forgiven for concluding the recovery may be an even longer term business than they had initially feared.