From all accounts, this administration handled this phase of the pandemic well. Indeed, the performance of the government has been praised by many and contrasted favorably with the opposition’s incoherent public stance. The public’s response was mature and there were few challenges to the maintenance of public order even in the absence of a state of emergency.
There were avoidable mistakes and policy flip flops, such as “pandemic leave” and the argument over who had the authority to shut down business operations. Or the speed with which the economic assistance measures are being rolled out. But that is to be expected in dealing with a large undertaking encompassing so many moving parts.
T&T and the region have received praise for the handling of the crisis. Results matter. There were few deaths (eight) and the health systems were not compromised in stark contrast to more “advanced” countries. Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 performance will be used as a springboard for the fast-approaching national election campaign.
The first lesson was the communication methodology adopted. The WHO called on all governments everywhere to adopt a communication style based on honesty, openness, and transparency. That approach reassured the public that the problems were being addressed. Politicians relinquished centre stage and allowed professionals to address the issues giving credibility to the process. And there were key performance measures.
A daily report card was presented showing the rate of transmission and the casualty list allowing the public to monitor progress. One felt that yours and the country’s interests were being addressed.
The second key lesson was underlined by Michael Ryan, a surgeon, and the executive director of the World Health Organization’s health emergencies programme, in a March press conference. “Be fast. Have no regrets. You must be the first mover. The virus will always get you if you don’t move quickly,” he said. “If you need to be right before you move, you will never win … Speed trumps perfection.”
A third lesson was the need for innovation and a whole of government approach. New facilities were found to address the immediate requirements for quarantine and holding facilities. Arrangements were made and facilities were pressed into service; in Balandra, Sangre Grande, the Couva Hospital, the National Tennis Centre et al.
However, as the crisis abates the lessons are being forgotten and the communication muddled. Nationals working on cruise ships have begun to return and as they return, the immediate cry is that we do not have enough facilities. Have we lost our can-do attitude so quickly? And why can’t the lessons learnt be institutionalised and become part of our normal administrative framework?
As we move to the next phase of re-opening the economy, we have lost all the lessons of openness and transparency and returned to a communication style of obfuscation and prevarication. The IMF has estimated that the world will be in recession for at least one year. Many countries are publishing estimates which show that the economic damage was greater than first estimated and that recovery will be protracted.
The only statistics available in T&T are unemployment numbers which are conveniently stuck at September 2018, before Petrotrin’s closure. The most recent economic report gives economic estimates for the third quarter of 2019. There has been no midyear financial review and no objective measure by which to gauge TT economic prospects. We know that 35 per cent of the Pt Lisas plants are closed or idled due to the double whammy of a declining methanol and ammonia prices and an uneconomic gas feedstock price. TTNGL’s earnings have been greatly reduced. And the NGC’s chairman says that there is little that he can do to address the situation.
In the absence of clear economic data, the latest Moody’s report has relied on the existence of the HSF which accounts for approximately 30 per cent of GDP and maintained a Ba1 rating (non-investment grade or speculative) but changing the outlook to negative. The rating agency said “The negative outlook reflects increased downside risks to TT economic and fiscal strength stemming from medium term financial challenges that have now been exacerbated by the severe shock to global oil and gas demand…”
In the finance business a Ba1 rating is “junk bond status”. It does not matter that our grade is better than other regional players.
T&T is in its fifth year of economic decline. As with the pandemic, the citizenry knows that we face severe challenges. Rather than tell us a farrago of nonsense about a “bold and proactive policy response”, the country needs to be kept informed about the rectification measures and their impact in same way the pandemic was addressed. What matters is the country’s future, not one’s reelection prospects.