CREATIVE SPACE #23 OF 2022 – INFLATION, WE FEELING IT

CREATIVE SPACE #23 OF 2022 (Uploaded November 15th 2022)

CREATIVE SPACE is an award-winning series spotlighting local (Antiguan and Barbudan/Caribbean) art and culture. As a brand, it dates back to 2009, published exclusively in LIAT’s inflight magazine. It was revamped in 2018 as a blog series and syndicated as of 2019 on Antiguanice.com. Its publishing partner, as of 2020, is the Daily Observer newspaper. It has its first print run in the paper every other Wednesday, with the online extended edition with EXTRAS running here on the blog and full interviews and extras on AntiguanWriter on YouTube. In 2021, the twopart CREATIVE SPACE mini-series on marine culture placed third in the OECS clean oceans journalists challenge. CREATIVE SPACE is created, owned, and written by Joanne C. Hillhouse – Antiguan-Barbudan/Caribbean authorjournalist, producer, and freelance writer, editor, and trainer. 

Here’s a link to the issue as it appeared in the Daily Observer newspaper on November 16th 2022:

Below is the extended online edition (not a duplicate of the edition with publishing partner Observer Media) with EXTRAS. 

CREATIVE SPACE: INFLATION, WE FEELING IT

If you find yourself humming former Antigua and Barbuda calypso king Fiah’s “de poor man feeling it/in the pocket/ah feeling it/ah feeling it”, it’s a sign of the times.

This Antiguan and Barbudan meal from #ratemyplate on Facebook featured in CREATIVE SPACE #14 OF 2022: WHETTING YOUR APPETITE. It shows up here as this column – and people – ask, can we still afford to eat like this.

Keynote in mid-October 2022 at the Antigua and Barbuda Conference, Donald Charles, former banker in Antigua and Barbuda and current managing director of the WOCAP Fund, an investment fund based in Jamaica, presented on the impact of global inflation on the Antiguan and Barbudan economy. What caught my eye, and landed us in conversation here in my art and culture column of all places, was his presentation’s focus on inflation’s real impact on the streets, i.e. how it’s hitting the people.

“Inflation does have an impact on what persons eat and what persons eat is going to have an impact on their health…[and] the whole entire support system,” Charles told me.

His presentation tabled price-controlled items – visibly brand rather than product specific and, food-wise, filled with so many of the things we are told to avoid to stave off or manage lifestyle diseases (like diabetes; so rampant in Antigua and Barbuda and the Caribbean).

Charles told me, “it’s reflective of what the society is eating and the society is eating what they can afford and what they can afford is a lot of processed items… it has an impact on their health and then it has an impact on society and on the government … increasing medical costs…so everything is interrelated.”

Discussing the home-cooked items you might find on an Antiguan plate, Charles said, “when you look at pears or the potatoes to make the ducana, is that readily available and is the price reasonable so that persons can say ‘I’m going to be switching from this item to that item because the prices are more competitive and I can eat better to improve my health’?”

The collective bad diet that contributes to society’s lifestyle diseases is, of course, not just the fault of inflation, and we have had a backyard gardening push in recent years to grow more of what we eat. But budget issues are at play, for instance, in the example Charles gave of a man breaking for a lunch of greasy fast food and a small soda. The appeal, he pointed out, of the Kraft macaroni and Libbys peas and carrots found on the list of price-controlled items is they’re not only cheap but quick and easy, and for some, time too is a luxury.

“It’s a very serious dilemma and you can imagine that dilemma on persons who are at the lower income levels that are living on a very tight budget; they don’t really have any options …as it is now, the most people can do is look for where they can get the best deals.”

Never look a gift horse in the mouth, they say, but we should look some of these deals in the mouth, according to Charles. Moving beyond food, he speaks of the lack of quality control around some items, the fact that some products lack translation; cheap is not always safe.

But what can people do, weathering this current economic drought. If you don’t have it, you don’t have it. Adjust budgets and priority spending, said Charles. But what does that mean to someone barely keeping up with the price-fixed – thanks to government subsidies (in the form of 10 vouchers per week for 35% off fuel purchases at the pump for buses, as explained by Don) – bus fares, and to the drivers who receive no such subsidies. Because, you see, oil is another thing that’s been spiking.

(a slide from Don Charles’ presentation)

The spike has been global, he explained, and eventually what’s global is felt locally. “Every major peak of inflation over the last 30-40 years has been directly impacted by the increase in oil prices.” Gas going up affects other things as it drives up, Charles gave as an example, distribution costs which dominoes to operational costs which dominoes to the cost of items on the supermarket shelves and/or services provided.

Discounts – incentives to drive sales notwithstanding, it is a feature of inflation that what goes up very rarely comes down, even when the things that drove it up calm down.  

So he suggests budget adjustments/priority spending not just in the short term but in terms of lifestyle, and community-level planning. 

“There needs to be a real development of our communities in terms of community organizations, parish councils: are we going to plant more natural local food within our communities so that the people in the community can buy them…to improve their health? That’s the level we need to be at.”

Researching his presentation, Charles found himself listening in on some guys in town. One said, “The size of everything is coming down – the bread is coming down in size, the weed is coming down and the quality is getting worse.”

(Another slide from Don Charles’ presentation)

Things brown, indeed.

The impacts of inflation are too numerous to mention, from the young man who “had a plan to get in to business” but can’t “because of the inflationary impact” on his wages, to the folks still feeling the social impact of COVID, “on edge” because “they don’t have enough food to feed their family”.

I asked Charles when things will improve. He said, “It’ll be a while.”

Watch my full interview with Don Charles, covering oil prices, fuel subsidies, how price control on one item can lead to higher prices on unrelated items, and what caused the inflation.

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EXTRAS

This round of inflation, Charles explained, has been driven by things like the war in the Ukraine which has impacted food prices and “the pandemic, for some items because there was scarcity due to production being disrupted…and once you have scarcity there is going to be an increase in prices”.

Price control is one government measure meant to cushion the blow of inflation by controlling the mark-up on select goods – this, Don reminds, does not mean it’s costing less to procure, and with fuel and shipping costs going up, he explained, the base price of the item is going to increase.  Some pass on the costs to non-price-controlled items. “If you’re running your business and there are certain areas you can’t mark-up due to competition or price control, you may say, okay let me mark up this one…because businesses are looking to make money”. Yes, predatory pricing “can take place in an inflationary environment,” he said, but he suggested that “market forces balance it out”.  

Antigua and Barbuda doesn’t directly benefit from market forces as relates to oil, though. “In other countries, it goes up and down, depending on the base price of oil,” Don explained, but here “we may not have the benefit of the decreases in oil prices…they’re not going to make the adjustments when the price comes down because …they want to keep the revenue” – and perhaps recoup the subsidies used to cushion oil increases. 

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Re food, it should be noted that there has been a push toward backyard gardening, to grow more of what we eat, which increased (or seemed to anecdotally) during the pandemic as covered in CREATIVE SPACE #4 OF 2021 – HOW DOES YOUR GARDEN GROW?

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