T&T’s Political Culture Affects COVID-19 Response

By Dr Tye Salandy
September 08, 2021

Dr Tye SalandyI certainly empathize with the government as it is navigating difficult decisions in the management of the economy and society during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, the issues facing the society are mostly not due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but deeper social issues that have never been properly addressed by any of the governments in power. These unaddressed issues of inequalities, flawed models of development and governance have undermined our ability to be resilient, to cooperate in nationally beneficial ways, and to contribute to the decisions that are taken at a national level.

I also empathize with the challenges of the government encouraging safe behaviours within a society where many have demonstrated that they will be indisciplined and irresponsible. The government should be at the forefront of sharing medical knowledge and ways that people can be safer. They have done this, to an extent. At the same time, both the government and opposition behaved irresponsibly by breaching health protocols in the run-up to the 2020 general elections. Encouraging the population to act one way, but disobeying your own guidelines when it is beneficial to you weakens the calls for responsible conduct.

Not Leading By Example

The general model of leadership and governance in T&T not only hampers dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic but also breeds deep mistrust. Leaders moralize and talk down to the people, but shy away from leading by example. Dr Keith Rowley spoke about making do with less, referring to the challenges of our current economic situation by using the example of a person usually having two bananas now having just one. Despite these obviously challenging economic times, both the government and the opposition have continued to take advantage of massive tax exemptions in their purchase of luxury vehicles. The tax exemptions on vehicles for members of parliament were obscene before the harsh realities of a COVID-19 economy, yet both the government and the opposition passed upon the golden opportunity, during the pandemic, to lead by example as citizens were being called upon to make sacrifices and make do with less.
(Government Gets Millions In Vehicle Tax Exemptions facebook)

In 2017, Colm Imbert expressed concern that citizens were using concessions for hybrid vehicles to buy luxury vehicles, and the government increased the duties for vehicles between 1600 and 2000 CC by 25%. While citizens were forced by the tax regime to buy lower-powered, more fuel-efficient vehicles, those who were encouraging this via tax laws were utilizing their tax exemptions to buy luxurious, gas-guzzling vehicles. While millions of dollars have been spent trying to get citizens to transition to CNG, how many of our political leaders have led by example and used a CNG vehicle as their personal or official vehicle? While Colm Imbert had an issue with ordinary citizens making use of tax concessions, he used his tax exemptions to buy three luxury vehicles between 2015 and 2019. According to an investigative report by Tv6, Attorney General Faris Al Rawi bought 3 luxury Porsche Cayennes in 5 years while opposition senator Wade Mark also treated himself to 3 Toyota Prados in the same period. In a rare show of parliamentary unity, both the government and the opposition rejected the Salary Review Commission’s recommendation to reduce the exemptions available to parliamentarians and other officeholders in this bracket.

Political Culture of Avoiding Accountability & Rewarding Blind Loyalty

One of the most disturbing aspects of our local political culture is the lack of accountability and the refusal of our leaders to take responsibility for when they are wrong or have erred. Instead, when political leaders are called to account, blame is often cast upon the opposing party, often in the most childlike ways. If you oppose the decisions of a major party (in power or opposition), the accusation is, many times, that you are anti the party or you have sympathies for the opposite political party. Citizens who may have legitimate concerns are even branded as being in the way of progress. This tendency forms part of a wider political culture of avoiding accountability. (PM blaming foolish people for the country not achieving diversification).

There is no culture of the party in power listening genuinely to the people to see how to harness the power and potential of the people as part of a development thrust. At best, we are mamaguyed by many fake consultations that appear to be more about public relations and the appearance of going through the motions than about wanting to benefit from the insights of the people. We have so many brilliant grassroots thinkers who continue to do work, yet, how often do you see such persons being leaned upon to improve national decision making? I remember going to a consultation on crime in NAPA a couple of years ago, led by top persons in the national security apparatus including then Minister of National Security, Stuart Young. There were some very important contributions from the floor but those at the head table were very defensive. It was clear that those with the responsibility to tackle crime were woefully lacking in their understanding of the sociological and historical underpinnings of crime. Needless to say, the consultation came and went and there was zero evidence that what was put forward from the floor was considered in any serious way towards improving the approach to crime.

Instead, political leaders appoint their political people to key decision making positions, thereby ensuring that the decisions toe the party line. State boards are overloaded with party loyalists who are quite aware that their longevity and progression are linked to them not disturbing the status quo. In this political culture of blind loyalty and subservience, challenges and alternative views are not encouraged. When persons are given important positions in various governments it is usually when they have demonstrated that they are willing to stay within the norm of governance and leadership, even if it means making or supporting decisions that are not in the country’s best interest.

Daddy Speaking to his Children

The model of communication being presently employed by the government does not lend itself to cooperation and dialogue. Talking down to the population, berating citizens and using threats is not useful when you are trying to rally a society and to foster understanding and better behaviour. In a colonial context, colonial authorities would have viewed the masses as inferior and childlike in need of strict fatherly discipline and control. It is unfortunate that the government leaders have borrowed this approach and thereby talk to citizens as if they are children.

Even talking in terms of possible forced vaccinations is counterproductive as there has been little acknowledgement that persons who may be against COVID-19 vaccinations may have valid reasons for their position. Instead of engaging persons in a respectful manner, there has been the tendency to take the most outlandish anti-vaccination argument and make that the centre of attention. The lack of dialogue and discussion has led to misinformation on both sides of the vaccine spectrum. In the context of Caribbean societies where force and coercion have been major tools of social control, it is distasteful to even contemplate forced vaccines. Forcing vaccines on the population, or even the threat of it will make persons resist in various ways. If people are anti-science or distrustful of authorities we should ask ourselves why. Certainly, it can be argued that our leaders have worked hard to earn the distrust of the population.

How Political Elites Underdevelop the Country

In the realm of politics, talk is cheap, and PR spin doctors have a central space in strategizing about the image of the party. The party frontliners are often glib, slick-talking persons which easily lead to governance where PR and making things look a certain way is given precedence over substance and honesty. Stopping crime, integrity, saving the youth, service to the country, diversification and sustainable development have become buzzwords behind which elites drain the treasury, give lucrative contracts to family and friends and maintain political power through state patronage. To anyone following our local history, this should be no surprise as this society was not created to support the self-actualization and development of diverse peoples but more so for the benefit of elites. The governance structures support the rich getting richer. <PM Keith Rowley: Encourage the rich to get richer to create opportunities for the poor facebook)

If the PNM or the UNC come up with a good idea or initiative, there will be a cross-section of the population who will automatically counter and even undermine it just because it came from the other party, without even addressing the issue on its own merit. The main political parties encourage their supporters to have ‘UNC/PNM till I die’ attitudes where the truth can easily get sidelined for a political party. In this sense, politics can often operate like a religion: uncritically accepting that which comes from your party while dismissing what comes from opposing parties. What this means is that political parties have a vested interest in an uncritical blind loyalty mentality in which race and ‘we against them’ ideas are depended on to rally support. This high degree of political polarization, added to long standing racism, distrust and classism, gets in the way of cooperation and national development. The irony is that the major political parties used and fomented these realities for their political agendas, yet appear distrurbed when the other side demonstrates these qualities. As such, there have been no major initiatives to encourage the dialogue needed to address these issues.

There is no urgency by political leaders to make any fundamental changes to how they operate or to the dominant structures of the society as they benefit politically and economically from the status quo. They are part of the elite, they drive luxury cars, (funded by taxpayers) when they are sick they don’t go to Port of Spain General Hospital, but go to high-end local and foreign medical institutes. Their children go to private or ‘prestige’ schools and security details protect them from the everyday realities of crime and violence that many people have to live with. In other words, the consequences of poor governance choices do not affect them the most. In many ways, these realities have led to a lack of sensitivity and a disconnection from the experiences of ordinary people by our political leaders.

History will not be kind to the two major parties in this country. Yet, the leaders we elect represent where the general population is at a point in time. I think that if most persons were in political office, they would not depart significantly from the decisions taken by various governments. The day people wake up and children go to school and learn history, and embrace genuine education is the day that our political leaders will be in trouble. Now more than ever, we need bottom-up, out of the box, transformative and paradigm-shifting ideas to take us out of where we are; however, it is highly unlikely that this will come from any of the main two political parties, or other elites.

Tye Salandy is a sociologist residing in Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean. He can be reached at tyesalandy@gmail.com.

11 thoughts on “T&T’s Political Culture Affects COVID-19 Response”

  1. What a well- balanced, honest analysis Dr. Tye Salandy. We appreciate your pleas for good governance and accountability from both parties. I really enjoyed reading this article. Loyalty is an admirable trait but blind loyalty to leadership is dangerous and many sell their souls and their consciences become seared. May God help us to find that balance and be brave enough to stand up like you and call out these important issues for what they really are. Let us also pray for those in authority that God will bless them with wisdom and integrity and help them to lead our nation through difficult times. Bless our government Lord. Amen.

  2. Dr. Tye Salandy’s objectivity and impartial analysis of the political and social situation should be “must” reading in T&T, especially for politicians, political hacks and in particular , the PNM Women’s League, one of the most racist organizations in the country which blindly defends everything PNM.

  3. Tye brave thoughts! With 3 oil booms and money flowing like water you would think the fundamentals of development has been achieved. Not so.

    The PNM governed TnT for 40 plus years out of the 59 years since independence. Why does TnT have a deficit of over $130 billion and the Finance Minister is still allowed to take loans of over a billion dollars mostly from China. Does he not understand that at some point those loans will have to be repayed? Or does he care?

    This current PNM is functioning at a level that creates the climate of uncertainty and failure. Why the lack of fiscal prudence? Over $13 billion wasted in 3 failed Petrotrin projects. The way these projects were handled with WGTL alone over 100 cost over runs. But I leave it there…

  4. When writers write about our social problems and lean the onus one hundred percent on officialdom to solve them, they cant be serious about correcting them. As a matter of fact I find this article to be an act of cowardice in using the “both sides” idiom towards finding a solution to any given problem. We have an ill-disciplined society. Many in our society believe that “freedom of speech” means that they can do and say anything they want and should not be held accountable. OUR PROBLEMS DO NOT START AND END WITH POLITICIANS. Politicians echo our vulnerabilities, weaknesses, bad habits, ignorances and prejudices. There are facts that we CANNOT AND SHOULD NOT IGNORE, yet we do. You know why? because we are NOT EQUIPPED to resolve them adequately. Government should not be our ‘go to’ resolve for each and everyone of our problems.
    Whats lacking in our society is lack of candidness and honesty.
    Lets start with our educational system. Who can answer the question ‘what are we being trained for?’. The answer to that is ‘I dont know’. It is so because, the reason most people send their children to school is to see them come out with ‘high grades’.
    What kind of society do we want to build? Do we want a society where we develop toward self development and self-sustainability? Do we want to concentrate on our ability to feed ourselves and be less dependent on processed foods that causes our emerging republic to be free of cancer and illnesses that are caused by our lifestyle? The fact of the matter is that we do not have a defined goal and our educational system is not designed to lift us toward any given path forward. As we stand now, if Dr. Rowley says that he is going to develop a program to help the people of Beetham work their way out of poverty, do you know what the people of Barrackpore or Oropouche will say? The answer is obvious and I do not need say it. We do not have a majority christian society, muslim society or hindu society. The people of these different communities have different goals and aspirations and we are definitely not sure that all of us want to contribute toward national goals and priorities. It is for these reasons, I find this article lack the courage to face our liabilities headon, that we know is a stumbling block towards national unity. The truth is the answer to these questions may not lie with the resolve but with the acceptance of the resolve. Therefore, we are not lacking in answers, expecting politicians to work miracles in an acrimonious society is dishonest when you ignore the realities.

    1. Reply to Kian.
      This response sound very much like an apology for the failure of government to perform over the years. Placing the blame on an “acrimonious society” seems like a rationalization for the failure of our politicians to perform effectively in the best interest of the nation. Politicians have enormous influence on the population which over generations since the colonial era is accustomed to being told what to do and when to do it.
      The hope and glory of Independence have faded away with our “educated leaders, like Dr. Eric Williams. Since then we have been led by “trained politicians”. The educated ones are few and far between. They do not last in government.
      Here is a chart from the Education Institute which should be of interest. We need more educated individuals in our society. Too many are well trained.

      Key Differences Between Training and Education
      The significant differences between training and education are mentioned in the following points:

      Training refers to an act of inculcating specific skills in a person. Education is all about gaining theoretical knowledge in the classroom or any institution.
      Training is a way to develop specific skills, whereas education is a typical system of learning.
      Training is completely based on practical application, which is just opposite in the case of education that involves theoretical orientation.
      The concept of training is narrow while the concept of education is comparatively wider.
      Training involves hands-on experience regarding the particular job. On the other hand, education involves learning in the classroom.
      The term of education is longer than the duration of training.
      The training prepares a person for the present job. Conversely, education prepares a person for future job and challenges.
      The purpose of training is to improve the performance and productivity of employees. As opposed to education, where the purpose is to develop a sense of reasoning and judgement.
      During training, a person learns, how to do a specific task. Unlike Education, which teaches about the general concepts.

      1. TMan, with all due respect, my use of the word ‘training’ was never meant to be used as an exclusive term. Training in a developed society, is almost always preceded by education. Training, by all practical purposes is the application of what is learned and the practice of it improves performance and competency. Education is the core ingredient needed to expand the untrained mind towards given disciplines. My response was not necessarily an edit on education or training for that matter, it was a response to Dr. Salandy’s naivete’ as a social scientist. In my view, he approached the situation as not knowing or understanding the terrain (management of the country) that he is addressing. You do not get to the top of the mountain without being prepared for the trip upwards.
        You cannot successfully make the trip depending on two hands and two feet. You need sustenance, equipment, knowledge of the terrain, accessories, safety tools, medical supplies etc etc before planning the trip. Conversely, Dr. Salandy writes as though he expects everyone (leaders) to understand that all they have to do, is be of goodwill to solve
        our problems without understanding the nature of the governed. We are a complicated people. What might be considered good for one segment of the society may considered bad for the other. There is jealousy and competition in the population that may not be easily overcomed by ‘good governance’. As a social scientist, he seems ignorant of the pitfalls that are inherent within the society that will always challenge the best of ideas towards solving our problems. He appeared to have ignored those realities in his deliberations. In my view, Dr. Salandy’s analysis cannot be considered valid while ignoring the nature of our fractured leadership (all leadership), that most certainly can never agree on anything. That is the gist of my response.

  5. So here is the comment that the T&T News blog seems to want to censor and repress: I don’t see the connection between some people’s vaccine hesitancy and the credibility of the Government, which is Salandy’s main point in his article. He is using vaccine hesitancy to point out there are flaws in the model of governance. “I certainly empathize with the government as it is navigating difficult decisions in the management of the economy and society during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, the issues facing the society are mostly not due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but deeper social issues that have never been properly addressed by any of the governments in power. These unaddressed issues of inequalities, flawed models of development and governance have undermined our ability to be resilient, to cooperate in nationally beneficial ways, and to contribute to the decisions that are taken at a national level.” The positions taken by the Government on the Covid 19 pandemic are determined by the WHO, and medical science globally. So it is really the credibility of medical science that is at stake. When people are asked about their skepticism now, after the initial dialogue between skeptics and medical science, their answers revolve around the credibility of medical science driven in large part by conspiracies concocted by right wing conspiracy theorists. People’s skepticism about vaccines has been answered in tremendous detail and openness by scientific research around the world. So let’s call it what it is, vaccine skepticism is really now dogma, and dogmatic vaccine skepticism is driven in large part by right wing social media conspiracy theorists who are engaged in a political war with the state in America, they are fighting the civil war all over again and Covid deaths are collateral damage. That has little to do with “flawed models of development and governance” Here in Trinidad and Tobago when you listen to the medical health specialists who answer questions about Covid 19 and the various Covid 19 vaccines, you wonder how they can have such patience in answering, with such openness and empathy, the questions posed to them.

    Salandy further contradicts himself when he writes, “If the PNM or the UNC come up with a good idea or initiative, there will be a cross-section of the population who will automatically counter and even undermine it just because it came from the other party, without even addressing the issue on its own merit.” So if there is questioning of a “good idea or initiative” is this a fault of the model of governance or is it a fault of the people who respond this way, or are people not capable of thinking on their own? Because that is what that assertion implies. Can the people not think on their own, or are they just led by their noses by political parties? Because if Salandy implies that then he is displaying a real disrespect for the ability of people to think. Isn’t democracy itself built on the idea that people can think for themselves? And if people seem to be not thinking for themselves, isn’t it more respectful to let them know it because you expect better from them, rather than to flatter them about it and make excuses for them?

    Salandy say further, “What this means is that political parties have a vested interest in an uncritical blind loyalty mentality in which race and ‘we against them’ ideas are depended on to rally support. This high degree of political polarization, added to long standing racism, distrust and classism, gets in the way of cooperation and national development”. So finally we get to Salandy’s point. The problem is the race and distrust and classism are used to rally support and loyalty, so when it comes down to the crunch, our problems are racism and classism. So let’s see what that means in the present situation of a Covid pandemic. If the Government comes up with a good idea or initiative (say like vaccination) then it can be opposed because of racism and classism. To me I would call it stupidity. So if Salandy weren’t so concerned with grinding his particular political axes, he would have said, the Government has come up with a good initiative, vaccination, to deal with the Covid pandemic, but it is not being followed as much as it should be because of stupidity. Isn’t that really what Salandy should be saying?

  6. I guess all Tye Salandy wants to hear is blase and flattering comments about his article. Why else would he try to repress and censor critical analysis of his article, like the one I sent which has not been printed? If you want to put your opinion in the public sphere, then be courageous enough to be open to critical analysis.

  7. Nicki Minaj put out a tweet on Tuesday that caused a firestorm of reaction and put Trinidad smack down center of the global news. This is what she tweeted. “My cousin in Trinidad won’t get the vaccine cuz his friend got it & became impotent. His testicles became swollen. His friend was weeks away from getting married, now the girl called off the wedding. So just pray on it & make sure you’re comfortable with ur decision, not bullied” 5:44 PM. Sep 13, 2021.
    Medical scientists and specialists in the field immediately countered that misinformation, saying essentially that it was nonsense and unsubstantiated. Dr. Fauci, the well known physician-scientist and immunologist who is the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in America, “responded to Minaj’s vaccine skepticism during a CNN interview on Tuesday, saying that it was a “resounding no” that vaccines cause reproductive issues.” “Dr. Fauci, is there any evidence that the Pfizer, the Moderna, or the J&J vaccines cause any reproductive issues in men or women?” Jake Tapper asked Fauci. “The answer to that Jake is a resounding no. There’s no evidence that it happens,” Fauci responded. —Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) September 14, 2021
    However while the medical and scientific fraternity rubbished her claim, Republicans, right wing extremists, white supremacists and QAnon followers praised and glorified Minaj for her claim. Tucker Carlson of Fox News for example, who has the number one cable news show in America, and who has been described by the Southern Poverty Law Center in this way, “Carlson probably has been the No. 1 commentator mainstreaming bedrock principles of white nationalism in [the U.S.]”, praised Minaj’s tweet. Carlson has pushed a number of extremists views on his show including, the “white replacement” theory, the need for voter suppression of blacks, browns and immigrants, and racist views in general. He is, one may argue, the most influential purveyor of white supremacists views. He also thinks the coronovirus and the vaccines used to prevent it are big hoaxes. Recently he has admitted that he lies on his shows to further his ideas. Carlson has praised Minaj’s tweet.
    Tucker Carlson said on Tuesday: “Before we get to the next segment, we haven’t been able to figure out whether this show is broadcast in Trinidad. But if Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend is watching, or his former fiancée is watching, we want to hear your story. We’ll come to Port of Spain to see you.” On his Monday night show, Carlson praised Minaj for her tweet, saying her view “seems sensible.”
    The white nationalism that Carlson propagates is a global ideology that has become almost mainstream in Europe, America and in many other countries, it has been taken up by right wing extremists. Surprisingly they have allies among black, brown and other “non-white” folks. How can we understand this? White supremacists think that they are fighting a rearguard action, a war really, against the rising tide of “non-white” peoples who are literally replacing them in Europe, America, Canada, Australia, etc. (the replacement theory), countries that were well established white countries. Immigration, both legal and illegal, has put an end to that. They are fighting to establish policies that will return those countries to white majority, in fact to ideally white only countries. They believe that the demographic trends will lead to them being minorities. So they are fighting a war against those policies that encourage or at least don’t prevent those demographic trends. They believe that liberal policies, multiculturalism, immigration, voter rights for blacks, browns and other non-white peoples encourage those trends. So they are engaged in an all out war. Their mission is to weaken liberal and progressive governments everywhere. They want to recreate the Weimar Republic of 1933, the state that existed before it was weakened and eventually taken over by the fascist Nazi state. So they want to weaken liberal and progressive states. They have hit upon what they think is a foolproof theoretical strategy to accomplish that. They want to use the Covid 19 crisis to weaken the state. They want to sabotage the state in its attempt to manage the Covid crisis. Get your supporters to refuse the vaccine, spread false information about the vaccine, and the state, although it has the medical instruments (i.e. the vaccine) to get the pandemic under control, it will not be able to do so. The economy will suffer, businesses will suffer, workers employed by those businesses will suffer, and the state will be helpless to do anything about it. You will essentially paralyze the state. If they talk about mandates, then accuse them of dictatorial behavior, of authoritarianism. Of course many people will get sick, many people will die, but that happens in all wars. There are the generals and there are the ordinary folks, the cannon fodder, frontline troops who go into battle and die, willingly. The generals are protected, they don’t die; in this scenario, they take the vaccine themselves but encourage the front line troops to refuse it. But that is the cost of war. The frontline troops believe in the war, they die for a cause. So that is the nature of the Covid war. Weaken the state, bring down the state, extremism in the cause of what is good is justifiable. And what about their allies, the black, brown and other non-white people who support them? Ever since white supremacy started its march towards domination of the world, way back in 1492 (remember that year?), they have courted allies in the non-white world. That is how they defeated their non-white enemies. They could not have conquered the advanced Inca, Aztec and Mayan civilizations without their allies from among those very civilizations. Divide and rule, that has been their motto. There are those who seek their own interests only and care little about their fellow citizens, they will sell them out for their personal advancement. There are those who even sold out their brethren as slaves simply for their own personal advancement. It is still happening. So the right wing extremists, the supremacists, will heap praises upon you when you do things that harm your own brethren. Nicki Minaj is just the latest in that long line of sell outs. Did you know that the spread of infectious diseases was one of the main causes of the conquest of the indigenous civilizations of the Americas?

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