While COVID-19 has shaped the priorities of leaders in Cayman and across the world for the past two years, there is hope that 2022 could be the year the pandemic morphs into something more manageable.
Much of the past 21 months has been about crisis management. The challenge for policymakers now is to adapt to the new reality.
The key issues in 2022 are likely to be around how Cayman moves on from the worst of the pandemic and adapts its policies on quarantine and testing, travel and tourism, and its healthcare infrastructure to adjust to the long-term reality of life with COVID.
Equally, the extent to which Cayman’s leaders can begin to broaden their focus to address long-term concerns, unrelated to the pandemic, such as development, climate resilience and economic diversification, should be the critical talking points over the next 12 months.
Here, we looks at 10 themes and trends to watch for in the year ahead.
As COVID-19 swept through the jurisdiction in the closing days of 2021, Cayman’s protective bubble well and truly burst.
The chances of maintaining a zero-COVID environment, on the islands or anywhere else, are now less than zero. Thankfully, vaccines, testing, the imminent arrival of anti-viral drugs and optimistic projections that COVID could become less deadly as it evolves, mean the risks are now likely to be manageable.
People wait in line for their booster shots at the HSA clinic. – Photo: Alvaro Serey
We can no longer consider this virus as a short- or even a medium-term emergency. World health experts project it will become endemic and public health strategy and government policies, on everything from travel and working conditions to mandatory quarantine and testing regulations, must adapt.
Globally and locally, 2022 could be the year that the COVID response switches from disaster management to living safely in the new reality.
That new reality is likely to involve increasing conflict between government measures designed to protect public health and basic human rights.
Efforts to introduce mandatory vaccination policies for some workers were met with pockets of resistance late last year. But, on the whole, a slew of restrictions – ranging from a nationwide lockdown and mandatory isolation for COVID cases to travel bans and business closures – have been tolerated without significant protest.
Basic rights guaranteed in Cayman’s Constitution, such as personal liberty, freedom of movement and freedom of association, can be infringed on, in the interests of the wider community. The Public Health Act includes a ‘catch-all’ authority that provides for implementing any regulation for the purpose of the “prevention, control or suppression of infectious disease”.
Concern over proposed vaccine mandates last year brought protesters on to the streets. – Photo: Taneos Ramsay
However, the extent to which those regulations continue to be necessary and proportionate – the basic legal test for any government action – may need to be reviewed as time passes.
The United Kingdom and other jurisdictions are already seeing lawsuits challenging restrictions, for instance, on quarantine requirements for travellers.
While similar action is not necessarily anticipated in Cayman, the tension between public policy and individual rights is a potential flashpoint, especially if the perceived threat from COVID continues to recede.
Questions are already being asked about restrictions on travel with children, early closure of bars and nightclubs, and mandatory lockdowns that require a negative PCR test before release, for people with the virus.
It is likely that 2022 will bring more intense public scrutiny – in Cayman and beyond – of the appropriateness and sustainability of these types of regulations.
The impact of the pandemic extends beyond health and human rights. COVID-19 has changed our lives in ways we might not have anticipated, accelerating trends that otherwise could have taken decades to materialise.
Working from home was a rarity pre-pandemic; now it has become an essential part of continuity policies for most businesses. Others have abandoned offices altogether and embraced remote working as the ‘new normal’. The Economist magazine projects that the “future is hybrid”.
That reflects the current landscape in Cayman, with many employees splitting their time between home offices and traditional workplaces.
There are implications to consider, for employers, government and workers, if this trend continues:
Who gets to work from home and who doesn’t? How do bosses monitor productivity? What contingency is made for those who can’t transform their living space into a remote workplace?
Cayman’s labour laws and policies may need to adapt to this new dynamic. Debates also loom over the consequences for Cayman of the remote-working trend.
While some have welcomed the concept of ‘digital nomads’ who earn their salaries overseas but spend them in Cayman, others fear these new residents could contribute to overdevelopment and rising house prices. Equally, the flip-side of this trend is the new breed of digital nomad could just as easily be working for a Cayman company, but living in Canada or Costa Rica and contributing nothing to this island’s economy. The implications of the seismic changes that COVID has brought to workplaces will become clearer as 2022 progresses.
How the tourism industry rebounds from a two-year shutdown will likely be the dominant issue for Cayman in 2022.
Globally, the vast public demand for a resumption of frictionless travel, will bring pressure to ease testing and quarantine requirements.
Provided the coronavirus does not throw another curveball, Cayman authorities could be expected to relax restrictions on entry for children early in the year. Testing requirements, airlift and workforce mobilisation are likely to restrict visitation, however, and the realists in the industry are looking to the last quarter of 2022 as the target for a ‘comeback’.
The pace and manner of tourism’s return will be a key talking point in 2022.
What the broader future of tourism looks like has yet to emerge.
What is clear, however, is that that success will no longer be judged purely on numbers. The pandemic – and the cruise debate that preceded it – brought a greater appreciation for Cayman’s natural resources and the extent to which they are threatened by crowds of visitors.
Not everyone views record arrival figures as cause for celebration. So while the immediate focus will be on persuading visitors to return, finding a ‘sweet spot’ that brings income and jobs to Cayman, without overwhelming its natural and physical infrastructure, will be an intriguing long-term challenge.
The job losses associated with the decline in tourism and the difficult post-pandemic debate about how to put Caymanians first, as hotels and restaurants restaff, has exposed broader tensions around workforce development.
While government has been keen to see locals get priority, businesses have argued that their ability to operate also depends on experienced, trained staff that can’t be sourced locally in sufficient numbers.
The focus in recent times has inevitably been on tourism but a similar dynamic exists in many of Cayman’s key industries, including construction and most related trades.
The Chamber of Commerce has argued for a labour analysis and an annual labour forecast that highlights areas where an abundance of jobs exists – or will exist in the future – to be used to inform development of training programmes and scholarship opportunities.
Linking education and training more directly to current and future opportunities will be a growing challenge that points to wider questions about where Cayman is headed in 2022.
Jobs for Caymanians in tourism and other industries continues to be a point of tension. Photo: Alvaro Serey
Will renewable energy be an engine for job growth, as it has been in other countries, and if so, what is happening to give Caymanians the skills to take on those jobs? If development and tourism are to remain pillars of Cayman’s economy, then a culinary school or a scholarship system for vocational training might make sense.
As Cayman’s leaders ponder these questions, the ever-challenging conversation over the right balance between immigration and local workforce development is likely to intensify.
Cayman survived the pandemic with its finances largely intact, thanks, in no small-part, to the financial services sector.
Over the years, tourism and development have played their part as secondary pillars. But the desire for a more sustainable approach, in both areas, is likely to limit their capacity to generate wealth for the government and the jurisdiction at large.
That puts even greater impetus on protecting Cayman’s status as a thriving offshore financial centre. This is not just an esoteric economic issue that impacts fund managers and accountants. A look at the pie-chart of government’s income and spending plans for the next two years starkly illustrates the number of jobs and services that depend on this industry.
The piece of pie for government salaries – more than 4,000 workers, ranging from police officers, doctors and nurses to teachers, vehicle inspectors and trash collectors – is matched almost exactly by the income from company registrations.
In other words, this is the revenue stream that funds almost the entire payroll of government.
Opinions vary over the level of threat posed by G7 plans for a minimum global tax rate of 15% and the ongoing black- and grey-listing associated with anti-money laundering compliance, but it is clear that, while tax evasion and avoidance remain popular issues for electioneering politicians in Europe and the US, Cayman will continue to face pressure.
As the global public relations battle rages on this front, the extent to which Cayman can diversify its economy – branching into tech, renewable energy and medical tourism – and lessen its reliance on financial services, traditional tourism and development, is likely to be a key area of discussion.
The pandemic and the massive job losses that followed necessitated a new approach to welfare in Cayman. The temporary solution to the lack of a coherent existing system was a monthly stipend for tourism workers impacted by the closure of the industry.
But as tourism reopens and some, but not all, of those people go back to work and the stipend programme is wound down, the question of how to replace it moves to the fore. This is an issue that pre-dates the pandemic. The auditor general raised serious concerns, as far back as 2015, about the lack of accountability for how $50 million of public money is spent annually on welfare, reporting that it was not clear that the most vulnerable in the community were being adequately supported.
Financial Services Minister André Ebanks, in his budget speech in November last year, said he had secured significant funding – understood to be an additional $27 million – for what he described as “transformative change” to how social assistance is delivered in Cayman. His progress in developing a system that allows access to sufficient support for those that need it, while opening up opportunities and incentivising work for those who can, will be central to the search for solutions on this critical long-term issue in 2022.
Could this be the year that Cayman gets serious about its green energy targets?
With a new battery-storage system about to come online and regulator OfReg approving an auction system to allow bids for solar and wind farms and other renewable projects, there are encouraging signs.
Could 2022 herald a new dawn for solar energy in Cayman?
So far, progress towards the target of the National Energy Plan, in which Cayman derives 70% of its power from clean sources by 2037, has been slow. Currently we are at less than 5%.
But while opinions differ on the right way to get there and frustrations linger about regulatory hurdles, there seems to be unanimity in the energy industry that accelerating the switch to renewables is a key national priority.
The pace of that change has implications for jobs, standard of living, power prices and land use, as well as climate change targets on CO2 emissions.
While controlling Cayman’s rampant CO2 emissions – among the highest per-capita in the world – is an obvious priority, last year’s ‘Code Red’ report from the United Nations made it clear that some of the effects of climate change are already ‘locked in’. Low-lying islands like Cayman will be the first to feel the impact.
Warming oceans, rising seas and increased numbers of ‘super storms’ are on their way.
While Cayman can do its part to curtail those impacts, the ability to influence the planet’s climate future lies beyond our borders. What Cayman can influence is its adapting and resilience plans.
Many communities in Cayman are impacted by flooding.
The flooding of residential areas, beach erosion, coral reef disease and insurability of coastal property are all growing concerns that can be effectively ameliorated by addressing the other factors that contribute to these front-line impacts of climate change.
From moving properties off the beach, to managing fisheries and putting new rules in place to control development and population growth, debate rages about the best ways to protect Cayman and its people.
It is almost three years since the ‘Plan Cayman’ project was launched, with the aim of rewriting Cayman’s development plan, for the first time since the 1970s.
An initial ‘vision’ document was produced and feedback invited from the community but little progress has been announced since then. The initial concept of area plans that would be completed in sequence, starting with the Seven Mile Beach corridor, and renewed every five years, has not materialised.
Initially COVID-19 and, later, a change of government may have stalled the process. The new administration has emphasised that sustainability is a priority. The continued impact of property development and sales on government’s coffers at a time when the COVID crisis and related tourism decline are impacting the economy, will make curtailing that sector more challenging.
New construction continues apace in the absence of an updated development plan for the Cayman Islands.
But as multi-storey condos and hotels continue to rise along the beach, roads remain clogged with near stationary traffic and bulldozers move into new territory, the need for a new framework becomes increasingly clear. Cayman’s population was under 20,000 when the first development plan was produced in 1978. That number was below 40,000 when it was updated in 1997.
More than 25 years later, with an estimated 71,000 people now on island, the need for a carefully-managed balance between physical infrastructure and natural resources is clearer than ever.
What do you think are the key issues facing Cayman in 2022? Email Issues editor James Whittaker on [email protected]
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