By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Government exhausted the $13.9m budget it had provided to feed hungry Bahamians for the full 2020-2021 fiscal year within just three months, it was revealed yesterday.
K Peter Turnquest, deputy prime minister, confirmed the disclosure contained in the "fiscal snapshot" report for the three months to end-September 2020, and acknowledged this has forced the Government to repurpose scarce funds from elsewhere to maintain its $1.3m per week support for the National Food Security Task Force.
"We're not surprised, but it's certainly not what we had hoped for," Mr Turnquest said of the increased demands on the Government to fight hunger. "We had hoped tourism would come back at the end of September, and that we would have some abatement in the level of infections.
"As a result, we have suffered a second wave and a second lockdown, which is having the deleterious effect we are seeing." Philip Smith, the Bahamas Feeding Network's executive director, last week said 50 percent of The Bahamas' population - representing some 220,000 persons and 55,000 households - are now being fed with assistance from the Government and non-profit organisations.
He added that he had never seen the extent of hunger explode as it has in the last seven months due to the mass unemployment caused by the tourism industry's closure and widespread COVID-19 restrictions. While one in seven Bahamians had suffered from food insecurity prior to the pandemic, this number has increased three-fold due to COVID-19.
Out of a total $126.9m allocated for COVID-19 support to individuals and businesses in the 2020-2021 Budget, some 45 percent or a total $57.1m was spent during the first three months of the current fiscal year.
With the COVID-19 pandemic showing no signs of slowing down, and uncertainty continuing to surround the timing and strength of tourism's rebound, further demands are likely to be made of the Government beyond the financing envelope approved by the House of Assembly.
Some 55.3 percent, or $8.3m of the $15m business support budget, was spent during the three months to end-September 2020. Just over one-third, some $6.3m or 36.6 percent, of the Government's unemployment assistance allocation was spent during this period, while $18.8m of the $51.6m provided for the extension of NIB jobless benefits was also used up.
On the Government's capital spending front, subsidies to state-owned enterprises (SOEs) leading the COVID-19 fight were increased during the 2020-2021 first quarter while those to perennial loss-makers such as Bahamasair and the Water & Sewerage Corporation were cut.
"Subsidies, which include transfers to government-owned and/or controlled enterprises that provide commercial goods and services to the public, were boosted by $11m (12.5 percent) to $98.8m for 26.6 percent of the budget," the "fiscal snapshot" said.
"Reductions in subsidies to Bahamasair of $2.3m and Water and Sewerage Corporation of $5.5m were outpaced by higher transfers to National Health Insurance of $7.7m and the Public Hospitals Authority of $10.4m to cover COVID-19 related health initiatives.
"Social assistance benefits - in cash or in kind - increased substantially by $40.7m to $46.5m, being driven COVID-19 related hikes in outlays for unemployment assistance ($25.1m) and food assistance and meal vouchers ($13.9m)." This was described as an eight-fold increase compared to prior years.
"The Government is making sizeable outlays to respond to this crisis, and we are doing so in areas that can make the largest impact on the welfare of people: Unemployment assistance, social support and small business assistance. In keeping with the budget plan, we have had to pull back on subsidies to state-owned enterprises, with notable exceptions like our higher transfers to NHI and the Public Hospitals Authority,” said Mr Turnquest.