T&T's Political Culture Affects COVID-19 Response
Posted: Thursday, September 9, 2021
By Dr Tye Salandy
September 08, 2021
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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