Do not squander this opportunity

By Raffique Shah
May 26, 2020

Raffique ShahIf there is substance to the saying that in every crisis there are opportunities, then the COVID-19 pandemic has delivered spectacularly, if only we the inhabitants of the twin-island republic of Trinidad and Tobago would recognise them for what they are, grab them, and infuse them into the post-pandemic recovery narrative and action plans, just so we understand they may never be on offer again.

The collapse of oil and gas prices was humiliating in the extreme. COVID-19 choreographed a chain of events that culminated with the near-total shutdown of the world economy, which in turn dampened the demand for gas and oil to a point past ridiculous. A civilisation that was hooked on hydrocarbons, especially societies like ours that all but prayed to the Oil God, watched with horror as the price for the commodity drifted into negative territory, meaning you had to pay a buyer to relieve you of cargoes that were mostly stored in ships sailing aimlessly across the oceans.

Absolute humiliation for the energy czars and assorted sheiks who strutted around the globe as if they were themselves gods.

But the crisis put squarely on the front burners of global economies, especially ours, the imperative to diversify. Before COVID-19, we would just talk about diversification. Now, we are compelled to act, to find new ways of earning foreign exchange, and even more fundamentally, as far as is practical, to cut our reliance on foreign goods and services.

Even more necessary is the stark reality that diversification is not “ah govament t’ing”. While government’s inputs in the process are important, and it must provide the enabling environment for a realigned economy, the creativity that will drive change must come from individuals, from gifted, resourceful and daring people who, molecule by molecule, dollar by dollar, will fashion the mosaic that is our future much the way Peter Minshall designed, built, and breathed life into “Tiger, Tiger burning bright”, or any of his other masterpieces that set us apart from other pretenders to the Carnival throne.

While the post-COVID world will stagger around punch-drunk as it seeks to recover from the flogging it took from the pandemic, it will eventually find its footing and move on. In our case, the energy and petrochemicals industries will continue to be the main contributors to gross domestic product (GDP) and government revenues. But we will need to find other contributors, many more I should add, that will not merely fill the breach left by the declining dominance of hydrocarbons, but will stimulate growth and more importantly, either earn or save foreign exchange,

It will be interesting to see just how resourceful and innovative we are when we need to find at least an additional US $5 billion per year, which is approximately what we will need to continue to enjoy the standard of living we have grown to expect almost as a birthright. I shall add my two cents to this debate soon.

Today, however, I address another “gift” COVID-19 has tossed us, and expand on how we can use it as a growth pole in the new economy. Have you noticed how many people have used the “lockdown” to engage in growing food? As someone who had all but given up on encouraging Trinis (here I include ‘Gonians”) to engage in home gardening at the very least, and possibly in larger-scale food production, I was pleasantly surprised when reports filtered in about people puttering around their homes and in other available spaces planting a range of produce that can be classified as food. For me, that was amazing.

There are reports that topsoil has been sold out, as are seeds for certain plants, ready-to-use troughs and gardening tools and equipment. Via social media, people are proudly showing off produce they have actually sown and reaped (six-weeks crops like lettuce, seasoning), and thriving plants that are yet to mature.

I am sure that children in many such communities are witnessing such processes for the first time in their lives—seeing something grow from seedlings to bearing pods or fruits. I am sure, too, that they are excited about it. I won’t be surprised to hear that they have actually set aside their electronic appendages if only for brief periods to witness the miracles of photosynthesis. I must commend those who have used their confinement to their homes to re-bond with the soil, to produce things they can eat.

This development is of great significance because it comes at a time when we shall likely need to produce more of what we eat than we have done for generations. Thus far, we have yet to hear another frightful “F-word”—famine. But depending on how COVID-19 proceeds over the next few months, there will be shortages of staples. Up to this point, South America and Africa, as well as critical Asian countries that comprise a chunk of the world’s breadbasket have remained unscathed. If they face an onslaught of the virus, that could alter the picture.

Whichever way the virus goes, we’d be fools to allow this opportunity to go to waste. The Government, through the Ministry of Agriculture and all the other agencies that have thus far had little to show for campaigns conducted wooing people back to tilling the soil, must seize the time, do whatever it takes to keep the passion for growing food healthy.

I have heard David Mohammed (of the Nation of Islam and The Black Agenda) tell the people of Laventille that if 1,000 households there grow foods that are valued at $1,000 dollars per year, they will have generated (or saved) one million dollars on their food bills. Multiply this equation however you wish, and apply it across the country, capturing as you do the surge of enthusiasm, and you get an idea of the possibilities.

We cannot afford to squander such opportunities.