I don’t want to die.
I don’t want any of my family to die.
I don’t want you to die.
I don’t want anyone in the broader society to die.
Now that we are clear on where I stand let us also be clear that there are elements of those outcomes that we face every day that we can control and there are elements that are entirely outside of our control. Yet every day all of us manage the risks between what we can control and what we cannot control and do so normally. It is part of life. We do not fear this and for many we rely on faith when circumstances get the better of us.
What we do fear is the risk of many of us dying at the same time. We are wired to fear such outcomes because in our social evolution a number of persons dying at the same time within a tribe or sect posed a risk to the very existence of the group itself. That therefore was something to avoid as much as possible.
The role of the leaders of the tribe is to stand above the fear and to strive to find the appropriate balance. If unscripted deaths became unavoidable the leaders of the tribe has a deliberate responsibility to protect the continuation of the tribe by making judgement calls. So long as multiple deaths do not put at risk the continuity of the tribe the role of the leader is not to “save lives” but to “ensure well being” over the long term. A skewed approach to the former is misguided and a mischaracterization of one’s role. A leader of a tribe cannot allow the fear of death to leave the tribe in a worse place than before because that also places the tribe at risk. A leader will send troops into battle but the objective is always to secure longer term objectives at the expense of short term fears.
It is a moral obligation on the part of each member of a tribe to try to exercise individual responsibility on behalf of the collective. The tribe will be better off as a result. It is the ethical responsibility of the leadership to minimize the fallout for all members of the tribe, to do so equitably and most importantly to ensure that the net harm that comes from his or her chosen course of action is minimised. The key word here is “net”.
It is estimated that 3.9 billion people were at varying times this year on lock down as a result of attempts to stop the spread of the Covid-19 virus. That is more than half of the world’s population. Now that the peak wave of infections have passed in many cases the discussion has moved to how to reopen the economies of the world. Reopening is necessary so as to ensure the continued and future well being of these countries.
T&T is at this juncture. Our objective was to decide on an infection curve that we are willing to tolerate and then balance the risks associated with that curve to ensure that the “net” harm is as low as possible.
The Government has established that a phased re-opening is appropriate, which for many, represent a more than two month hiatus from having access to an attempt at a livelihood. The reality though is that our livelihood will not return to pre March 13 levels anytime soon.
It seems lost in the narrative that in the absence of a Government most people faced with the spread of a virus of unknown contagion and deadly effect would have taken steps to protect themselves. The surveys and anecdotal cell phone tracking data available globally shows that most people did that voluntarily. Those that did not was ostensibly because they could not have afforded to.
The State use of moral suasion such as “we are trying to save lives” was and remains unnecessary hyperbole. The majority of citizens would be interested in preserving their own lives and that should be obvious. Where Governments did function was in taking decisions to close schools, bars, restaurants and places of congregation. Our Government has done so effectively. Those activities would have reduced the opportunity for the virus to spread and provided a mechanism of support to the citizens who were minded to protect themselves.
The challenge of course was that having taken the decision to suspend certain economic activities the State has a responsibility to support the fallout from those suspended activities. Everyone has an equitable right to life and also to property and to earn a living. So having taken a decision to prohibit activities for the “greater good” there was also a requirement to provide for those affected. This is a principle of equity. It is not something that citizens and residents needed to qualify to obtain. Way back in early March I suggested that the delivery of economic relief had to go hand in hand with the timing of any lockdown provisions. The truth is that we have failed miserably both in understanding the principle and in executing on what was the basic responsibility of the State.
The argument regarding the cost to the State to provide such support is spurious. In every situation there are competing needs and the role of leaders is to weight the competing needs. The medical concern would be to understand both the incidence and the prevalence of the virus. The economic concern would be to provide support while the medical construct is being determined. Delays in establishing the prevalence of the virus carries an economic cost and this cost should not be borne by the citizens. A decision to weigh on the side of the medical concerns requires the State to accept the economic cost associated with their decision without complaint. It is in fact their decision and their assessment of how best they are able to balance the competing needs.
It is unconscionable to address the medical concern while also failing to recognise and call to account the lack of ability to establish the prevalence of the virus through adequate ramp up in testing. The medical officials cannot get a free pass on this at the expense of the economic and social fall out of thousands of citizens. It is incongruent that one can boast of advanced planning for the pandemic since January and still tolerate such an outcome.
Now we are on the verge of re-opening the economy, the awakening reality from the lack of accountability on the medical side is the untold financial cost that we will now begin to count. In avoiding the desperation that goes with a lack of sufficient hospital beds we have embraced the desperation of not having enough food and the mental anguish of diminished savings and the loss of livelihoods. Not to mention that the balance of probability is that we may have to do this all over again when “flu season” hits later in the year.
This desperation will be reflected in a level of anxiety once a reopening takes place. It is human nature. We see this anxiety in the form of “the hustle” around Christmas into Carnival. A window during which people try to maximize the economic opportunity.
Starting since Monday, each phased reopening will present such a window and that also presents a risk of unwinding all the attempts to shore up the medical side of the equation as people try to offset their economic circumstances. The challenge into next week is that we need to establish a system of voluntary compliance based on what is required to maintain our personal safety. There is no way that the State can police the requirements for the next eighteen months without rolling back democratic rights and freedoms. That in the context of a failing economy is a recipe for disaster.
Our protracted timeline carries the risk that voluntary compliance can be overtaken by desperation. If that were to happen it would represent another policy challenge as it has the potential to undo all the sacrifices of the past two months.
The bottom line is that T&T is in a very precarious economic situation. We cannot sacrifice the lives of major segments of society and their next generation because of a decision framework that is skewed. Attending to the well meaning voices of doctors and disease specialists and those with independent wealth results in decision making that is out of touch with significant segments of the population.
We are embarking on a new economic road starting with significant numbers of unemployed in a highly leveraged society and with a highly leveraged Government working though a grossly inefficient public sector. We have come out of similar in the past via energy booms. Another one is unlikely. We have no demonstrated capability to take ourselves out of this position. We should be anxious to get back to work all the while assiduously trying to increase our medical capabilities.
I do not want anyone to die from C-19. But I also pray that your future lives, those of your children, your grandchildren, your neighbour, your friends, co-workers are not destroyed in the process. You can’t go back in time and do it over. Think carefully about where you stand right now.
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In avoiding the desperation that goes with a lack of sufficient hospital beds we have embraced the desperation of not having enough food and the mental anguish of diminished savings and the loss of livelihoods.