By Raffique Shah
April 19, 2021
There comes a time in the affairs of a nation—and such occurrences are rare, maybe once in a century—when events shaped by the actions of citizens or unleashed by the forces of nature create the conditions for change, sometimes radical change that otherwise would hardly be considered, far less adopted, but which, when measured by the degree of dislocation the nation faces if its leaders fail to act, may offer opportunities that guide us along a path we didn’t think existed.
I have paraphrased in bits some profound pronouncements by eminent statesmen Jawaharlal Nehru of India and Franklin Roosevelt of the US, made at critical points in the histories of their respective countries, because I feel they reflected the spirit we must harness if we are to emerge from this crisis stronger and braver. As I have been writing over the past few weeks, Covid-19 caught us at a time when Trinidad and Tobago was at its most vulnerable, from an economic standpoint. It is pointless arguing which political party got us into this mess. Both will deny they had anything to with the sad state of the economy.
Initially, the regulations led to the closure of workplaces and schools, the scaling back of public transport, limited hours of business at supermarkets and other commercial businesses. Government also closed the country’s borders, but soon realised that because the country imported up to 90 per cent of its consumables, it had to allow vital supplies entry. So the nation battened down to battle Covid, but its economic flank remained exposed. Like many other countries that similarly suffered, we were caught in the trap of lives vs livelihood, with lives taking precedent.
We thought inoculation might tip the scales in our favour, but that has proved to be elusive, even though it’s early days in relative terms.
One thing we can be certain of: Covid is here to stay. And while the many vaccines coming on stream will bring some relief, the safety measures of masking, washing and distancing are here to stay, possibly permanently, so we’d better condition our minds to accepting this as the here-to-stay normal.
But for every cloud, there is a silver lining that we must seek and exploit. What this extended crisis has done is show us that with respect to the national economy, we must free ourselves from the shackles of hydrocarbons and look to new horizons, new technologies, new entrepreneurship. We have resisted this reality for generations. Oil and gas seemed to signal “easy” money, so everyone fell for it, from governments that could best be caricatured as year-round Santa Claus, to the masses who enjoyed the largesse and gifts.
Let’s do some serious introspection here: if late PNM minister Desmond Cartey’s Freudian slip “all ah we t’ief” was cathartic, it was not only those who pillaged the national purse who enjoyed the spoils of Ali Baba’s exploits. The masses who feasted on the crumbs were as guilty as the ministers and their accomplices who made off with the bakery. Deep down, we knew the gravy train could not last forever.
In fact, common sense dictated that we should have used the good times, meaning when oil and gas prices were high and our coffers overflowed, to stem the lawful looting. During those booms, governments should have withdrawn the subsidies and transfers, causing little outcries, and setting more realistic prices and rates for discretionary consumables such as fuels, electricity, water: you waste them, you pay more. Public sector workers whose overtime earnings fattened their bank accounts, those who accumulated more leave than working days in their careers, they who were promoted by years of service rather than performance, should have been long fired: meet me in court. It would have been cheaper that way. I can go on and on. But why cry over the many fattened calves that are rolling and laughing at us, those who have not eaten and drunk themselves to death?
We must welcome new opportunities that Covid has thrown at us. First, factor out energy earnings when planning for the future. Sure, we will get some billions annually, but let us categorise that as “gravy”. For running the affairs of state, spread the income tax net far and wide so that it captures all working-age citizens, from cafeteria and bar owners to CEOs and executive managers, and most of all, dodgers in silk and gowns. And professionals, not the captive few in the public sector, but the dishonest ones who, according to their tax returns, are scrunting more than vagrants.
I shall return to outline how I see us nurturing, then deploying, thousands of innovators and creative nationals in myriad fields of endeavour. If a fraction among them are successful, we shall have no need to be slaves to the US dollar. Our currency will be worth its weight in… whatever.