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Opinion & Analysis

Pride: It’s no party

By Felix Alvarez
Which is it, then: an endangered economy due to inflation, the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and Brexit, with sudden constraints and still unresolved grievances affecting those on Community Care and irredeemably accompanied by belt-tightening all round? Sure enough, spiralling inflation, increasing energy costs, rising interest rates, the threat of recession, and the overall very real cost-of-living crisis all hover menacingly over our heads right now. That much can be understood. And we have.

Or is it instead, ‘don’t look’? For what you’ll see is spend, spend, and more spend, with money awash from both the public, private and semi-private sectors! If the economy is in this bad a shape, how come there’s so much money freely moving throughout business and public sectors to afford all the street partying being planned (Cavalcade, National Day, Pride and no doubt others to come)?

Which of these two visions of reality are people to believe?
The Chief Minister faces a test in demonstrating his concern for the disabled, the elderly, and the economically vulnerable in our community. The test for Mr. Picardo will be in his forthcoming Budget. He must address their needs in a major way, without ifs or buts. (And for that he can reflect on Rishi Sunak’s May package of measures to ease cost-of-living strain on the poor).

He should put forward plans to subsidise food and energy for the low-incomed, exactly as the Head of the International Monetary Fund has urged. IMF boss Kristalina Georgieva’s words should be taken as seriously by the GSLP/Liberal administration as they are by Equality Rights Group (ERG)/Action on Poverty (AOP). Because, otherwise, there is no definition of the word that can turn our evolving policies into ‘equality’.

Out of solidarity with Gibraltar and its vulnerable, low-income people young and elderly, we cannot support government’s double-speak of ‘tighten your safety belts’ on the one hand, and public partying on the other.

Because they imply expense not only in terms of money, but in the use of resources (which also cost the taxpayer). It just does not tally with the message that government has no option but to cut back on medicines, services, as well as other areas no doubt still to be rolled out. And why? Because they all disproportionately affect those on low incomes. An extra few pounds on a household budget means nothing to the well-off. It unfairly piles on the anxiety for those who can least afford to also suffer physically and psychologically.

Additionally, on the broader front, government for the past few years has failed to deliver on one of the most basic of people’s rights: to belong to and be collectively represented by a trade union; this despite having issued a Command Paper introducing promised regulations for the recognition of trade unions. This absence of a firm trade union recognition law places Gibraltar on a footing with a good number of countries in whose company we would prefer not to be seen.

There is a risk in all this which, in all privacy, we have cautiously asked government to avoid; being that there is already a sense of inequality happening in our midst. And that is, that there’s every likelihood that unless government is seen to act justly, that sense will only sharpen. Action on Poverty (AOP) has been ringing this bell for three years now.

But the public is no fool. The dissonance is now showing, and it doesn’t escape them. And they have a right to know how elected leaders plan to justify it all. ERG/AOP has tried its best to advise but, admittedly, failed. Perhaps because this circle cannot actually be squared. Because while some will be dancing and partying the night away others will be having great difficulty in having enough. Enough to eat, enough to pay tomorrow’s bills, or enough to go to the supermarket without fear of facing the price of essentials for their children and families. It’s shocking to contemplate what would happen without the work of local food banks and free meals, and were it not for the charity of family, friends and community groups working against the political grain.

ERG/AOP has taken a view on government’s plans to support the celebration of a number of partly or fully supported events henceforth. We have been discreet in taking steps to discuss our concerns quietly with government, away from headlines; but to no avail. As a committed human and civil rights organisation for this community, our responsibility does not fluctuate: an obligation to act rightly and coherently is what legitimises human and civil rights work; and it’s the reason why we have maintained a forthright public stance of support for government in its negotiations towards a post-Brexit Treaty for Gibraltar.

Yet it is also why we are fully independent-minded and politically impartial. We dance to no politician’s tune. And that is precisely what Gibraltar must demand of any effective human and civil rights organisation such as ours . No amount of patronage can buy our moral commitment to justice, and we will continue to speak truth however inconvenient to some. Our twenty-two-year record of achievements is attributable only and exclusively to this. Because Gibraltar cannot progress its democracy in the interest of citizens (not Parties) without fully independent organisations consistently acting without fear or bias.

Messaging from government that things are difficult in Gibraltar, that we need to be sensible; in short, that we must accept the narrowing that’s to take place has already led to the de-listing of certain medications from prescriptions which, though not life-threatening if withdrawn, have a significant and even severe impact on the quality of life of the elderly and most vulnerable. They, however, may now be reduced to scrambling for understanding that their pain qualifies for relief. Having now to face the argument that their disability may be disabling, but not disabling enough, it seems; requiring them, in effect, to become defence lawyers for their own pain; as if the elderly didn’t have enough to contend with already. Yet again, the most vulnerable will face the rough end of the fight against the narrative of abuse and abusers. It is difficult to believe that this is the outcome the Chief Minister envisaged.

Those in the know understand that perennials such as Sudocrem, Lidocaine plasters, Paracetamol and other similar medications play an important role in easing the life of those who, unfortunately, are mostly sedentary, and whose mobility is limited; who, therefore depend on adequate, not limited supplies of lotions, creams and pain-relieving plasters to avoid pressure sore ulceration from long hours of immobility, to make life a little less torture. And who, precisely because of help with pain control, are oftentimes able to continue care in their own homes rather than in an institution, saving government money and providing the comfort and happiness in the later years of life that this entails. Instead, health and social policies in their many details unconsciously tend to the normalisation of the institutionalisation of the elderly, rather than to minimising it.

Belt-tightening must not have its greatest impact on those who are least able to bear it. The disproportion means low-income individuals become more vulnerable when, in addition to all other pressures on their scarce economics, they must now add the insensitive and casually worded ‘over-the-counter’ expenses for what, for them, are essentials; thus more accurately holding them ‘over a barrel’.

Partying on the streets of Gibraltar this year on this basis does not make us proud. The situation calls for a heightened sense of responsibility from all of us, but especially from government.

One thing is certain: there’ll be many unseen who won’t be dancing to the tune. They can’t afford to.
Felix Alvarez is the chair of the Equality Rights Group/Action on Poverty

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