Best of times, worst of times

By Raffique Shah
March 29, 2020

Raffique ShahIn time to come, when future generations write about us, about our behaviour during the great war against COVID-19, they may well resort to the Charles Dickens’ classic, A Tale of Two Cities, which was set in a tumultuous period in European and world history, 1775-1792. Dickens opened his tale thus: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…in short…some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only…”

I thought of Dickens’ famous opening paragraph as I surveyed the modern-day plague that has struck across the world, defying man’s acquisition of vast knowledge and information, his mastery of technology and science, rendering civilisation as we know it near-impotent. Under siege from an invisible micro-organism that wreaks death and destruction, that shows no regard for wealth and power, man displays character-traits that range from the ridiculous to the sublime.

Forced to face their mortality in a real yet surreal battlefield, citizens of Trinidad and Tobago, the vast majority of them anyway, are willing to cast their fates to the seemingly capable hands of a hitherto obscure medical doctor, Dr Roshan Parasram, and his fellow-professionals who have impressed us in a way no one else has in recent times. This talented team that has been at the helm of our healthcare system for some time, but they bloomed as the Coronavirus crisis crept up on us.

It was their hour to shine—and they have done so with aplomb. They have put the politicians in the shade, although the latter have enjoyed star billing in the daily media briefings. In fact, the Coronavirus stage is so big, the politicians, who formulate policies and strategies based on guidelines from the medical team, have learned when to seize the spotlight, and when to stand in the shadow.

Thus far, in a matter of a few weeks, the political-professional combination that have led the charge to keep the virus at bay, have done a decent job. What we the citizenry have learnt in quick time is this virus moves like greased lightening when it strikes. One moment it has yet to make an entry, in another it is wreaking havoc in the country—as Italy, Spain and the USA have found out.

Fighting this enemy requires generals who can strategise in double-quick-time, field commanders who can execute the orders with similar speed, and logistical support that is adequate and does not dither in the midst of battle. The war machine must move with blitzkrieg-like tactics based on well thought out strategies that ensure that the civilians in the theatre are aware of what is required of them.

It is in this latter phase of the anti-Corona-virus war that the T&T machine has encountered weaknesses in its armour. True, people are now learning about the virus, how deadly it can be, how contagious it is. In many countries that have suffered severe casualties, elements in their populations, in instances tens of thousands of young people, endangered citizens by engaging in unacceptable behavior. In Italy, the USA and South Africa, television reports showed the young and stupid holding “Corona parties”.

Fortunately for us, we did not have such displays. Instead, we were subjected to the irresponsible behaviour of mature adults and retirees, the latter being particularly susceptible to COVID-19 and most other influenza viruses. It defied explanation how a large group of elders could have ignored all warnings and advice about engaging in unnecessary travel, especially travel by air and cruise ships, and saunter off on a week-long cruise that when several international ports had banned such vessels from berthing.

I read one report that quoted a member of the group saying that the trip had been planned and paid for more than a year ago, and that they would lose money if they did not go. I wondered if it did not dawn on them that by going, they could have lost their lives—and that probability still stands. How naïve can we be? What is worse, they became the biggest carrier-group, adding some 50 cases to our infection list, and who knows how many more still to come.

Then there was the utter stupidity of talk show host Ian Alleyne. How does one rationalise his decision to fly off to Florida with his son, whom he professes to love to death (maybe literally), for two days, then return home highly contaminated with the deadly virus? He then proceeded to ignore the quarantine order, move around as if he were an un-cloistered nun, and in the process endanger the lives of scores of people, some of them his friends. With friends like him, who needs an enemy?

It’s a pity there was at the time no law under which he could be arrested and charged for, say, endangering human lives.

In both instances of rank ignorance cited above, the misbehaviour or insensitiveness of hard-back adults will end up costing taxpayers a tidy sum. Fortunately for us, such culprits are few and far between amongst the population. Most people adhere to the laws and regulations, which will see us past this crisis.

Then we can reflect—it was the best of times, the worst of times…

3 thoughts on “Best of times, worst of times”

  1. “The war machine must move with blitzkrieg-like tactics based on well thought out strategies that ensure that the civilians in the theatre are aware of what is required of them……” Spoken like a true soldier.

    In times like these, what people MUST first realize is that ‘we are all in this together together’. This virus is no respecter of race, religion, rank, title, person, wealth or position. It will take down the very best and the very worst among us, so rank and file MUST get in line and learn to follow sound advice with regard to the arresting and elimination of this virus.

    The media has a very important role to play in this regard and just spending time on non-essentials will not suffice or add to a better understanding of this reality.

    In this page, the Guardian told us no less than five times of the Opposition Leader’s letter of condolences to the PM and Minister and only mentions once the PM’s advice on how to fight this war.

  2. Wrong signal by Opposition Leader

    3 days ago
    Fri Mar 27 2020

    This country has never before faced as great a challenge as we do today, to combat a faceless enemy that has already sickened dozens of our citizens and claimed one life.

    To be sure, COVID-19, which has now killed more than 24,000 people globally and sickened more than 500,000, has brought governments and countries to their knees and overwhelmed health systems in some of the most advanced countries.

    T&T has so far been able to cope with this challenge using the long-idle Couva Hospital, Caura Chest Hospital and other facilities to care for those who have been stricken by the virus.

    These are early days but what has been clear is that this virus can only be slowed if we practice social distancing, self-quarantine and isolation if we believe we may have been in contact with anyone who had it.

    Globally and in T&T, this has required the use of emergency powers by some governments to force their citizens to heed the advice of public health officials who believe such actions give us the best chance at success.

    It is with this in mind that the Government has so far received significant support from the country, including this newspaper, for its decisive actions in seeking to limit the virus’ impact on T&T.

    We are therefore deeply troubled and disappointed by a statement from the Opposition Leader in which she alleges a cover-up by the Government in the handling of the COVID-19 battle.

    Are we to believe that this former prime minister is seeking to besmirch the hard work and reputation of people like Chief Medical Officer Dr Roshan Parasram and his colleagues and suggest they would be party to a cover-up in such a life and death issue?

    As if it were not enough, the UNC leader uses a death from the virus to launch a political attack on the Government.

    Is nothing out of bounds for Mrs Persad-Bissessar?

    To be clear, we take no sides in this political fight but at a time when even the fractious US Congress can come together in a bipartisan effort to pass legislation to ameliorate the impact of the virus on US nationals, our Opposition Leader and Prime Minister find themselves in an unseemly squabble.

    Had the stakes not been so high, we would have left it as the cut and thrust of politics in T&T. But if Mrs Persad-Bissessar’s supporters accept her word and panic, what will that do to the country?

    We hope it is not what she is hoping for. But if that is the desired outcome then you, Mrs Persad-Bissessar, will be rightly accused of putting personal interest before national interest and would have diminished yourself and your party.

  3. With all that is happening in Trinidad & Tobago and indeed the wider world community we may be at a juncture in history when the economy of our twin-island needs to reset as we did in 1986 and 2009. From a Trinidad & Tobago’s perspective the oil shock of boom and bust period of the 1980s when the price of the “black gold” tumbled from $129 a barrel at end of 1980 (money eh no problem era) to $28.00 in June 1986 (fete over back to work) demanded a reset in the economy. The so-called Great Recession, which ushered in the CLICO and HCU debacle and other recession driven insolvencies of the time was another reset milestone in the annals of our history as a developing nation seeking to sustain the status as a land of industrious people with a laidback attitude. I would not like to be the one holding a crystal ball to predict where the country might be, say one year from now or even the world for that matter, but if the predicting of past events is any guide it would seem that we are in an era of non-computational probability of consequential rare events. Let it be known however, that whereas the next pandemic may not be a model-able stress tests, the best case scenario is that current pandemic flattens itself out with very little impact on the lives and livelihood of the Trinbagonian people and that the oil price’s free-fall in world commodity markets is merely an abnormality. However, the worst case and more realistic scenario is that financial instability such as the one in 2008 where the Trinidad & Tobago economy and indeed the wider world economy were dragged into some form of contraction seems to be where the wind is blowing.
    Paying attention to what is being said in recent days by the authorities in Trinidad & Tobago the narrative constructed is that, the coronavirus was foisted on Trinidad and Tobago and actions are to be undertaken starting first with the lifeblood of the economy – the financial system. According to this narrative the worldwide pandemic was a black swan event and therefore, different to the event of the 2008-9 Great Recession. Professor Nassim Nocholas Taleb, the Lebanese American scholar who visited Trinidad a few years back, attracted much of the world’s attention when he wrote and publicized his book – The Black Swan: The impact of the highly improbable published in 2007. The black swan metaphor is based on the pre Eighteenth Century belief that swans are always white until at around the turn of the Nineteenth Century when a group of black swans was spotted in the continent of Australia. Thus, before the citing of these rare-colored swans, black swans were deemed an impossibility. The 9/11 catastrophe would be considered a black swan event and from a Trinidad & Tobago’s perspective the oil price bust of the 1980s was outside the realm of predictability when the price of the “black gold” tumbled from a huge $129 a barrel at end of 1980 to $28.00 in June 1986. Just as a point of clarification, the Great Recession, which ushered in the CLICO and HCU debacle and other recession driven insolvencies was not a black swan event, but a regular cyclical contractionary phase in the economy.

    Turning our attention to what is being said in recent days by the authorities in Trinidad & Tobago the narrative constructed is that, the coronavirus was foisted on the country and actions are to be undertaken starting with the lifeblood of the economy – the financial system. According to this narrative the worldwide pandemic was in essence a black swan event and therefore, different to that of the so-called Great Recession of 2009-09. The adjective “great,” which prefixed the 2008-09 recession owes its magnanimity to the kurtosis and the span or platykurtic of the contractionary event. One good thing so far in the current event is that the financial superstructure seems, unlike the Great Recession, to be essentially intact and since the impending contraction seems not to originate in the financial system then perhaps the coming slowdown may be of a relatively short duration. A nifty observation thus far, as we try to make sense of current events, is that he Government is responding with an innuendo of moral suasion toward forbearance on the part of the banking sector. The suggestion to the banking community is that they should reach out to customers and flex the rules and contracts to facilitate those citizens who are more than likely to experience hardships in meeting their financial obligations going forward. Thus, the Trinidad & Tobago Government, in an attempt to shore up the financial sector and by extension the sector’s customer base, is flexing its soft power in preparation for a risk aversion action to manage the leveraged section of the nation’s balance sheet. Such action includes reduction in the repo, prime lending, and credit card rates, and seeking to free up the releases of foreign exchange procedures. The Government itself is seizing the initiative to swiftly pay down its payables to the private sector much faster than normal and, that it indicates that it would approach other near banks such as credit unions and other lending units to “go easy “ on their customers given that a “black swan” moments call for extraordinary responses. Therefore, the Government, being proactive and attempting to manage the apparently approaching liquidity crunch is indeed all good news and fits a populist narrative not to mention that this is an election year after all.
    Leaving the populist narrative aside however, an attempt to stave off a liquidity crisis and if all goes well, then the approaching contraction of the economy will of a short duration. It would seem therefore, that Trinidad and Tobago has two other major challenges that was not given the attention these deserve, thus far. The first is the supply side issues such as production, acquisition, and distribution. Yes, mention was made about the speeding up of foreign exchange releases, which no doubt certain sections of the private sector would most wholeheartedly welcome and that is fine. However, one can only hope that the joy over freeing up bottle necks in foreign exchange is great, but that that these hard currencies we hope will be applied toward invoices in the purchase of necessary raw materials and intermediate goods and not so much to restock an inventory of foreign finished goods. The point here is to boost domestic value added which will not only conserve foreign exchange, but boost employment of labour. So really, the bottom line is that the supply side must not be neglected or deemphasized or else lots of money would be spent with little to show for it other than too much dollars chasing too few goods. I will not mention agriculture and agricultural processing for these have long been ignored, but what about the hundreds of other small businesses? The small contractor, neighborhood vehicle repair garage, indigenous wholesaler and retailer, the restaurateur? Yes, you may free up and ease up the faucets of the financial plumbing in the economy, but this would not be as effective unless the business or supply side of the equation is also addressed. Thus, if business is not taken care of we are not taking care of business.
    The second major challenge is the current free-falling of commodity prices especially for petroleum in the global market and the ensuing dipping into a very finite and meagre heritage and stabilization fund. These occurrences will only touch the tip of the drifting financial iceberg. The government should not be hollering about how they did not lay off a single government employee despite the hardship due to drop in oil prices in the recent past, rather they must take the lead in identifying efficiencies in public policy, which implies trimming down the bureaucracy, innovative cost cutting, early retirement incentives, and so on. I shudder to add that Trinidad & Tobago could be having a black swan+ event, the plus sign being that the hydrocarbon-based economy is confronting a steep downward spiral of prices in the futures market. Thus there is a double whammy if you will – a sweeping coronavirus pandemic and plummeting petroleum prices with natural gas prices not too far behind.
    Indeed, the coronavirus and plummeting oil prices are two events that can be visualized metaphorically as finger and ring or double whammy on the Trinidad & Tobago economy. The virtual worldwide stay-at-home policies and with little automobile driving around oil producers are barreling toward unprecedented glut in the supply of oil in world markets. The scale of the impact is in itself a part of the black swan event for Trinidad & Tobago in that, perhaps the boom and bust cycle of the 1980s is rearing its ugly head again and we all know how that went with an NAR government at the helm.

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