We are approaching the one-year anniversary of the largest pandemic since the Spanish Flu of 1920. It is an understatement to say that the world was woefully unprepared. Intellectually, ideologically, physiologically, economically, emotionally, infrastructurally & technologically… some nations more so than others… I live in one of those nations.
The current and prevailing conditions in Jamaica are uniquely difficult due in large part to the socio-political culture of the island. Two of the gravest challenges have been found in the gross lack of discipline of a significant proportion of the population and the unavailability of modern technology in our public systems.
The discipline needs an entire series of its own…
Let’s talk about Technology
Let’s talk about the lack of technology. This is not an issue that should exist in this country at this time for several reasons. The first one is proximity. We are approximately 1000 miles from the United States, with a strong migration relationship and open borders. Ideally, this should mean that as the US advances technologically, which they do at a high rate, we should too… Right? Apparently fucking not. As at the year 2000, our police stations were still taking reports by hand, our large central postal agency was not equipped to do electronic payments & our government offices were using outdated technology and required people to physically show up to do most transactions.
We are just now earnestly discussing Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM) as a focus for the education system and the majority (yes, the fucking majority) of the population remains unbanked. Our schools struggled with online classes in the midst of the pandemic because tablets that had been promised to the public school system by the government years ago had still not been delivered and with the increased social expenditure on health care, they could not afford to address the issue meaningfully. All of this while scandal after scandal reveals that billions of dollars of public sector funds that could have been used to modernise the economy, public service, infrastructure and technology that all the citizens utilise and depend on, has been systematically misused, misappropriated and mismanaged for decades on end.
The second reason, is open borders. We have had open trade with the US for many years and have good relationships with other producers of tech. That should mean that we would be able to import almost at will to facilitate keeping pace with innovations…? Eh? Yes? Ha. No. No, we can’t, because it is too fucking expensive to bring in most tech gadgets because Jamaica Customs is a succubus that feeds off the middle class and disenfranchises the poor with their double-digit duties on items that we do not produce here but have needed for years now if we truly intended to become more digitised and innovative and increase our capacity for electronic access and transactions.
Other than Jamaica Customs being used as a cash cow for the government coffers (yes, the same ones being systematically raided so the money doesn’t actually get used for much public benefit anyway) there is no rhyme or reason for some of the charges being as prohibitively high as they are because they largely act as an obstacle to acquiring items that are needed for personal, academic and professional development, items that we do not produce here. Customs tariffs and duties should be used as a mechanism to protect local industry. But with many of those industries dead from mismanagement and failure to develop the capacity to compete in the global economy, importation is literally the only way many persons gain access to certain things.
The tariffs are therefore little more than another hindrance to development even as they collect billions of dollars of revenue annually, that let me reiterate, does not often get used for public development because money keeps going missing.
Wasted Human Capital
The third reason, and the one that grates on my fucking nerves the most, is that we have the intellectual capacity here and it is being wasted. One of our premier tertiary institutions, once called the College of Art, Science and TECHNOLOGY, has since been renamed the University of TECHNOLOGY… So why the fuck exactly aren’t we using the locally bred talent to produce and innovate? Why aren’t we competing with our neighbours or at the very least establishing ourselves as market leaders in the region for the production and distribution of tech? The same graduates of that institution, when they are unable to find work here, migrate to the US and are found to be high-performing employees at some of the top tech companies in the world.
Even here on the island, some of our greatest minds are employed to and working remotely for, tech giants, using their expertise (expertise that the government and to some extent even the private sector refuses to adequately remunerate them for) for the development of other countries. And what do we do when we need that same expertise…? We import it. We import it and pay millions, sometimes billions, of dollars, for knowledge that is available locally. And now, whilst the pandemic continues to take its toll on the country, a new tech related issue has emerged, raising many concerns regarding the government’s ability to protect bio data.
The issue is cyber security and is linked to the use of yet another agency of foreign origin that majorly dropped the ball regarding the cyber security of the JamCOVID app and got the attention of a few overseas tech publications. Out of that issue has come this enraging article outlining that the government contracted, to the tune of $4 billion, the services of an Israeli firm, to harden our cyber infrastructure…. The firm has since been hacked… So not only is it a firm that is headquartered in a country that was recently highlighted for having professional scammers, but the firm itself has been breached… You literally couldn’t make this shit up. This is expertise that resides right here. Trained. Experienced. Credentialed. Cyber security experts are already here. Instead of using that money to invest in IT security infrastructure and hire qualified Jamaicans (and pay them well) to build out and manage it, we have opened the hen house and let in a company from the home of some of the world’s most cunning mongooses to run amok. What could possibly go wrong…?? **slow blinks in Amber Group and THREE JamCOVID vulnerabilities discovered by a third party**.
What is in the dark will come to light
So, as the Prime Minister speaks about the creation of and momentum towards a digitised society, pardon me if I am completely underwhelmed. A largely unbanked population means many transactions will still need to be done in cash and in person. This is unlikely to change as Know Your Customer (KYC) requirements are extremely stringent because of local money laundering and scamming concerns, and the government agencies that would benefit the most from incorporating and using tech are slow to do so. Deteriorating confidence in our capacity to secure bio data has put a dent in the plans for the National Identification System (NIDS).
The revelation of who has been contracted, coupled with the government’s response to the JamCOVID breach, has eroded much of the little goodwill and faith some had. The take up of tech and innovation in our government ministries and the public sector overall, continues at a snail’s pace. This means that even for those in the population with access to tech, we are still forced to do in person transactions because the government services cannot meet us where we are, where we need to be, especially in a pandemic.
For all the impact that COVID-19 has had worldwide, it has been extremely revelatory in a number of ways. Many issues that were a nuisance, just below the surface, have been brought the point of life, livelihood and future threatening. Most of this can be clearly attributed to the lack of foresight of multiple administrations. Many of the policies that would have contributed to our infrastructural development and technological advancement would have been significantly helpful in mitigating the effects of this pandemic. The questions now remain: Will we be prepared for another such or similarly impactful event? Will we learn and improve from these pandemic revelations?