Two Fridays ago, I visited my neighbourhood’s favourite food store. I had gone to pick up one item. I saw an older man being helped by a woman as I entered the aisle.
Nothing appeared unusual, just a younger person helping an older one with his purchase. However, everything turned ole mas when the man approached me to request two dollars. I was confused. I looked at him, appropriately clad for shopping—this was no vagrant.
He explained, in standard English, that the price of the product he desired had risen beyond what he had expected. He was two dollars short!
Stunned, I got out my wallet and handed over some change, more than was requested. My spirit was deeply disturbed. How could we have robbed this man of his dignity?
We could unfairly disparage the mothers with the hungry children and chastise them for their sexual decisions. What do we tell him?
He appeared to be a man who had worked all his life, based on the condition of his hands. Worn with calluses, his hands told his life story. How do we process this situation? Do we wish him away? Did I find myself in an uncomfortable situation that should vanish? Or should I deal with what this represents?
He was the face of the lack of food enabled by inflation in our country. An April 2022 World Food Programme and Caricom study reported an astronomical rise in a lack of food among our households. It is now estimated to affect one in every four households—30 per cent of our people are skipping meals or eating less than usual.
This hunger situation deepens inequality in our society; it discards and dismisses some into invisibility and elevates the Benz-driving elites. The tragedy is that the rich among us flaunt their wealth and do not feel inclined to help the less fortunate.
We promote the ‘work harder’ myth without realising that there are structural barriers that inhibit social mobility and the capacity to feed oneself. Theirs is an uphill task at which they never succeed.
Not all pensioners are equal: some have had no significant loss of income and can surf the internet. Others are finding it very difficult to keep body and soul together.
One in eight of us is over 60 years old. We cannot accuse this man of being profligate. Nothing about his demeanour or dress spoke to a careless lifestyle. How is he expected to make ends meet?
He returned with the product and asked me to ascertain if it was the correct one. It was not, but more significantly, it was a tiny size on which super margins are made. Based on a casual examination of the shelf prices that evening, it appears that the price paid by the poor has risen more quickly and higher as a percentage than those enjoyed by the more fortunate.
It may seem that the difference is mere cents, but cumulatively it adds up and can tip a low-income family into hunger.
I got angry at his plight, even while he was effusively thanking me for ensuring that he got and could pay for the right product. I was annoyed that while two publicly listed supermarkets and grocery distributors had recently disclosed profits that were 25% up compared to a year ago, we have our elderly on fixed incomes struggling to figure out how to eat and buy much-needed medication.
How long do we believe that their savings will last under these conditions, which affect every aspect of their lives? What then? Homelessness?
If they have a medical emergency, what will they do? Is this what we, as a people, want for this group? They have worked, and now will we wish that they curl up in a corner and die?
The usual line to justify the recent rapid price increases is that our inflation is imported. But that is only part of the story.
The lack and unequal distribution of foreign exchange negatively impact the cost of importing food (we do not grow what we eat) as the food importers price their goods using the black market exchange rate. Who benefits from this arrangement?
There is the political argument that devaluing is a worse fate, but if the merchants act as though the nominal exchange rate is not the actual rate, what is the fairer arrangement?
Inequity is built in since the larger businesses are more likely to get whatever funds are available and do so at better prices than smaller competitors. Reduced competition and greater concentration of control over our food supply will inevitably lead to higher prices, which fall disproportionately on the poor among us. How do we balance this scale?
But it is not just higher prices; we are also witnessing a decline in food quality. Take oxtail, a poor man’s meat, for example; the price has skyrocketed while the quality—the meat to bone ratio—has plunged. To cut corners and provide an inferior product to make more money but not serve customers is to do injustice.
In this scenario, we do not even have to consider the enervating invisible tax imposed by corruption on our daily lives; we all know it is there.
As a country, we are in a veritable box since we cannot simply raise the level of pensions or old age grants. We have already been irresponsible in that way. There is a need for urgent overhauling of our pension systems.
We know that we have an ageing population, so what are our plans to support them? We should not dilly-dally with the need for structural reform; the country cannot afford to postpone this reckoning. Do we have the gravitas to discuss this sanely, or will we seek to score points?
Failure to address this situation with our elders threatens our future. How we vote in our next elections will determine our country’s future. Traditionally, the seniors are the ones who vote. Will they come out in three years’time or will they withdraw?
The talented young who have benefited from our hard-earned money migrate with every opportunity. When they witness the fate of these elders and the crime vortex, who can blame them?
So on whose vote will our country’s future depend? Misguided, barely educated, impulsive youth who are egged on by narcissists?
When our country’s future is to be decided on who is better dressed or who can talk more eloquently and those charlatans do not even pretend to have a manifesto, what do we think will be the end of that madness? Do we genuinely believe there is a free lunch? How will we change the culture of corruption that robs us of much-needed funds for our schools and hospitals?
When we consider how we treat vulnerable children, batter our mothers and harass our young women in the workplace, what are we expecting to be our future?
I am not suggesting that the present administration is not trying. But are these efforts targeted or is money being thrown without a sense of efficacy? Who is checking? Does anyone care where the money goes?
It is time for us to take stock of ourselves and our country. We have to mobilise our neighbourhood. We have to do what is critical for success since to wait on others is a fool’s errand.
Nelson Mandela reminds us: “A society that does not value its older people denies its roots and endangers its future. Let us strive to enhance their capacity to support themselves for as long as possible and, when they cannot do so anymore, to care for them.”
Pope Francis said: “A society which abandons children and the elderly severs its roots and darkens its future.”
A word to the wise.
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