By Raffique Shah
March 29, 2021
Last week, dealing with the new vaccines that are unfolded almost daily to fight the Covid19 pandemic, I unfairly targeted the World Health Organisation and the Pan American Health Organisation as having betrayed countries like Trinidad and Tobago that have adhered to the rules of engagement, quietly awaiting their turns to the first allocations of whatever brand of the vaccine the global and regional health organisations have secured.
The Government said it had paid up a few million in US dollars towards research and development through COVAX, and even as it awaited the first shipment, it was checking other vaccine manufacturers to see what may be on offer. It also had an arrangement with an African Union group of nations to secure more of the now-precious vaccine. I now know that like the PAHO member-states that had signed on to the COVAX agreement, when the initial production-run began with what must have been hundreds of millions of the vaccine, Oxford/Astra-Zeneca didn’t have us in mind.
And there was nothing that PAHO or WHO or whoever could do about it. This was a case of naked power-display. So I apologise to the two organisations I headlined last Sunday. But the bacchanal over this vaccine controversy has only just begun. As I argued previously, the politics of the pandemic and now the vaccines is where we shall see the true colours of politicians, of nations that are well-placed to secure vaccines by the millions of doses, of ‘smart men’ who see the opportunities to rake in loud cash—millions, maybe billions of US dollars—rear their ugly heads.
Mark my words: if you think you have seen politicians dribble in anticipation of using any aspect of this pandemic to steer them to power, watch their unrehearsed circus acts closely over the next few months. Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley and the PNM harvested the first crop when they retained power in the 2020 general election, and stayed in control of the regional corporations and city councils, albeit with reduced majorities.
There can be no doubt that their handling of the crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic worked in their favour. They had faced a huge challenge when they took office in 2015. The economy was in decline that could have turned into a disaster, what with the Kamla Persad-Bissessar partnership government having spent handsome oil, gas and petrochemicals’ earnings on more and more freeness rather than rein in all unnecessary expenditure, hence move to less dependence on the energy sector, more realistic prices of goods and services that were already subsidized, and so on.
The rule of thumb in economies like ours that enjoy most of their revenues from volatile product-prices, as was always the case with oil and gas, is to cut excess spending, excess fat, when the going is good. The PNM in office for long spells before 2010, and the UNC for some years, expanded transfers and subsidies from millions to billions, in almost reckless binges. Persad-Bissessar, in her term, took wild spending to another level—quite literally: she raised government’s budgetary expenditure above the 60-billion-dollar mark, casually dismissing voices of reason that called for reining-in the gravy train.
Anyway, by the end of her first term, the fifty thousand or so electors who decide what party will govern, booted her out of office and installed Rowley. As his Finance Minister, Colm Imbert tells the story, almost with relish, two days after he took control of the Treasury, the then governor of the Central Bank informed him that he had two days’ money left to run the country.
He was forced to do some fancy footworks, chip here, chop there, borrow, etc, to survive. Grassroots freeloaders and up-high contractors—this country has the most contractors per capita in the world, I swear—had to have nothing to do and fees or wages to collect every month. The Rowley government also resisted chipping and chopping expenditure in spite of serious shortfalls in revenues and advice from eminent economists and other experts appointed to advisory committees. The moaning and groaning continued and election approached: not good portents.
Then came Covid-19, a threat of uncertain proportions that required all hands on deck and a good general to lead the troops. By some mystery, a dream team that resided in the Ministry of Health, captained by ‘General Ice’ in the person of Dr. Roshan Parasram, materialised. Somehow, Dr. Rowley was inspired, became the general who took control of the battle, which, by then, had exploded as the biggest crisis in a century. He and
Dr. Parasram, seeming to work together well performed magic in a population that normally would panic, or erupt into Carnival-like revelry that could torpedo the country into a wasteland. In general, the masses reacted responsibly. They saved the day. And they saved
Dr. Rowley when elections came around in the peak period of August 2020.
To be continued: what happens next….