By Raffique Shah
April 06, 2020
When we will have overcome the COVID-19 multi-pronged attack on Trinidad and Tobago, we will face associated problems ranging from the economy under severe stress such as it has never been before, with unemployment at a crisis level, disruption of the education system leaving all stakeholders confused, and possible shortage of foods. Just when the population thought it was safe to exhale, having survived the deadliest pandemic in modern history, the bugle will sound summoning couch-and television-weary troops to do battle again, and likely yet again, for love of country.
I raise the spectre of wars-without-end because I envisage such scenario landing in our laps just when we thought the worst was over, we were safe so we could press “Reset” and resume the national pastimes of liming, drinking alcohol, and feting the way we did when the Coronavirus struck us speechless. No such luck, friends. That virus is so complex, so locked into war with humankind, it has fundamentally altered the civilisation we have known for ages into something different.
For example, before it began spreading, pulling us all into its deadly embrace, it sent a loud and clear warning through the prime players in the critical hydrocarbon-based industries: I’m ready to turn your world upside down! Saudi Arabia, wilting under pressure from oil-producing countries it had once kept in check easily, so powerful were the Arab oil producers, now resorted to engaging in an open price war by turning the drilling taps on open, flooding the market with cheap oil.
Before the virus took hold of the USA, oil prices plunged to single-digits, signaling a collapse that threatened to ruin economies across the world. In fact, because the spread of the virus had brought the world to a halt, from industries and shipping to airlines and education, the plan to ruin Russia had backfired in a big way, leaving Saudi boss Prince bin Salman scratching his beard and wondering where he had gone wrong. He no longer called the shots in global oil.
In fact, US president Donald Trump, who is known to be close to the Saudi rulers, expressed exasperation over the price war that was hurting America more than it hurt Russia. In fact, in a classic case of unintended consequences, the Saudi oil war hurt the kingdom’s friends and allies more than it hurt its enemies. Trinidad and Tobago, which traditionally stays aloof of global geopolitics, and whose oil industry was under-producing long before the war, will probably suffer least as the Sumo-giants battle each other.
Presumably, the Prime Minister has his advisors on the economy working on what strategies this minor player can employ in the face of seriously depressed oil and natural gas prices, as well as downstream product prices. That should be an ongoing exercise that will see us gaining some traction as soon as the country is ready to return to work.
I spoke of the COVID-19 strike fundamentally altering the economic and political orders in societies it has attacked. T&T will be deeper in debt, at least no less than 75 percent of GDP, and that’s only the visible wound it inflicted on us. Depending on how long the virus remains in the attack mode, we may experience fallot from our near-absolute dependence on foreign sources for food. Many food producing and exporting countries will likely cut back on their exports, so shortages can be factored in, as well as price increases.
Indeed, for the first time since the Second World War (1939-1945), we may find ourselves so short of staples—wheat flour and other wheat products, rice, potatoes, meats, dairy products, edible oils, legumes—that rationing could be on the cards. Given the way shoppers attacked supermarkets in the run-up to the crisis, if there are limited supplies of basic foods, in order for the poor to get access to a fair share of basic foods, rationing might be the only option for some fairness in distribution.
It would have been nice to have a robust domestic food production sector, but sadly, agriculture, livestock farming, aquaculture and other modes of food production enjoyed mostly lip-support from successive governments. Hell, even among the farming community, there are many who are involved only to the extent that they can access subsidies, not for love of farming, not for operating sound, rewarding businesses.
Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat is sure to take issue with me for my assertions above. What he cannot deny is that state lands rented or leased are critical to the growth and success of food production, and such titles are difficult for farmers to access. In the eyes of the law, many farmers are deemed squatters. Hence their farms are illegal, so they don’t qualify for state assistance.
Whether or not the minister and I agree on any issue related to local food production, bottom line is we are hopelessly dependent on imported foods for our daily sustenance. Our top 10 imports by value are: wheat, prepared foods, cheese, alcoholic beverages, refined sugar, maize, raw sugar, poultry, non-alcoholic beverages and soybean oil.
We do not know how long this crisis will last, but the nation must be fed. We have limited foreign exchange with which to import foods. The government cannot allow the wealthy and powerful unfair access to whatever their money can buy, while ordinary poor people go hungry. Government should start planning for a system of rationing staples in order to allow a more equitable distribution. To ignore this possibility is to invite chaos at a time when order is required.