Compassion and consumer power

By Raffique Shah
May 12, 2020

Raffique ShahBased on comments I’ve heard or read in the media on the likely economic realities that will confront us when Government eases the COVID-19 “lockdown”, I am worried about the future of Trinidad and Tobago. No one disputes that the country faces enormous problems, what with the near-collapse of the oil and gas sectors, the closure of several petrochemical plants in Point Lisas, and the absence of other export-driven industries that could earn substantial foreign exchange.

There is consensus that post-COVID-19 T&T will be different to what existed before. But the degree of dislocation I envisage seems not to have registered on a lot of people. Mostly, they accept the changes in social interaction that are linked with contagious diseases. But to hear them talk about spending money wildly the way two generations have done for almost all of their existence is to sit and wonder: these people must be living in “La-La land”.

Those of us who lived through the first oil boom in the 1970s, and witnessed the bust that followed, when thousands of upwardly-mobile people forfeited their homes to banks that held mortgages on them, and countless others from all strata in the society parked their cars on banks’ premises, ignition keys intact in surrender, know the pain and trauma that so many citizens suffered, some of them never recovering, seeking solace in the fog of alcohol or marijuana.

It was pitiful to see people in the prime of their lives wasting away, victims of an economic meltdown that was scripted into capitalism when it was first formulated. Fittingly, the Mighty Sparrow captured vignettes of the era of plenty and the ensuing crisis in his song “Capitalism Gone Mad”.

In the melee, thousands fled to greener pastures in North America or Britain, where they rebuilt their lives. Yet others gritted their teeth, “band dey belly” as Trinis would say, and survived to fight another day. Bear in mind we had to cope with only a recession that affected T&T and a few other countries. There was no virus-driven global pandemic that had reduced much of the world to rubble the way COVID-19 has done.

In the current scenario, as I write, 33 million Americans have lost their jobs. Millions have been rendered homeless. Destitution is of epidemic proportions in the United States, so, to paraphrase Sparrow in another song, “…bottle and stone and no place to shelter…” In other words, resettling in the USA is not an option. In fact, there are few countries that look more attractive than T&T at this critical juncture in the history of the world.

Ironical, eh? The stone that the builders rejected, or perhaps more aptly, the country so many of its own people scorned, has become a sanctuary in a world that reeks of death, destitution and hopelessness.

For better or for worse, we are all fated to ride this out together, so we’d better get it right. Failure is not an option:

I fear that the politicians will not have the fortitude to implement harsh measures that are necessary to save us from total collapse, from the anarchy that could erupt as we try to save the country. It does not take genius to determine that with limited foreign exchange available, we should prioritise allocations, with food and medications being at the top of the disbursal list. Even if we finally get some local food production going on unoccupied agricultural lands, it will take at least a full year to impact our food imports in any meaningful way.

In allocating foreign exchange, people’s craving for what are called “fast foods”, from “doubles” to “chicken ‘n chips”, burgers and pizzas, will not be priorities. If the owners can source foreign exchange outside the system, then they could continue operations. Government will hardly impose any such restrictions. It will be up to consumers to impose their own, which will mean cooking more home foods, and using local foods more often (such as are available). It’s a tough call on a people who are hooked on such foods, but it’s absolutely necessary at this time.

In fact, working on the assumption that Government will not touch other unnecessary spending on goods and services, consumer power will be critical to realigning the nation’s import spend. We must have the strength to resist impulse-buying, to buy only what we need, not what we want. Do you really need a television set in every room in your home? A tablet or laptop for everyone in the family? Designer clothes? A virtual stable of shoes? Foreign ice cream?

I have already made a case for selling surplus vehicles you own, not buying new or foreign-used cars to add to your fleet. People must now cut back on the usage of electricity and water: rates for these two essentials will increase over the next few years, so reduce usage now.

My parting shot is a word to Government on the inevitable crisis that will strike homeowners whose properties are mortgaged. I painted a picture above of thousands such families having to surrender their homes to the banks, and except for the wealthy who could purchase the properties almost at “fire sale” prices, many of them remained unoccupied for years.

Do not let that happen this time. People make immense sacrifices to buy homes. They service their mortgages well…then disaster strikes in the form of them losing their jobs, then their homes. Once it’s a first home and the owners have a good track record, allocate some money to pay off the lenders who are about to foreclose on them, purchase the mortgages through, say, the Home Mortgage Bank, and allow the poor owners one or two or even three years’ moratoriums, to enable them to get back on their feet, resume payments that include what lapsed, and finally own that dream home that turned into a nightmare.

If we emerge from COVID-19 with one positive attribute, let it be empathy, compassion for fellow human beings in distress. It’s the most beautiful quality a human being can possess.