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Selby Wilson

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With the announcement on Thursday by Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley of a team to advise the government on the way forward the question is whether this advisory body should focus on getting this country off the COVID-19 tiger or if it should go further and look at how the economy should look post the pandemic.

Stakeholders from the business community and economists are urging the government’s COVID-19 recovery team to focused on reopening the economy and getting citizens back to work.

Speaking to Guardian Media, economist Dr Roger Hosein argued that the terms of reference should be how to bring the T&T economy back to full working capacity or as close to full working capacity as possible in the context of uncertainty surrounding when the pandemic will come to an end.

Hosein added that this discussion should be had in the context of the possible re-emergence of the pandemic in the medium- term.

Former Minister of Finance Selby Wilson felt the focus should be on the measures required to deal with the impending economic, physical and health disruption.

Wilson emphasised the economic impact and articulated that the team would have to determine how the country can move forward – bearing in mind that the entire world will be simultaneously suffering from economic contraction.

For 2020, the IMF recently projected that T&T will register economic contraction of negative 4.5 per cent and the Inter-American Development Bank has also concluded that the fiscal deficit for the country will be between 8 and 10 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The economies of the tourism-dependent countries of the Caribbean are forecasted to contract by -7.5 per cent, according to the Central Bank of T&T, with a potential fallout for T&T’s manufacturing sector.

Wilson said the COVID-19 challenge is a wake-up call for the government, to re-examine how it provides services to the population.

He remarked: “You can’t have a lockdown of the population and then your Minister of Finance is saying, ‘I want you to come and pay your taxes’. That’s a contradiction.”

Meanwhile, Dr Vanus James noted that what the Prime Minister is doing now, should have been done at the very beginning in January, which is “have an expert team guide the economic response to say nothing now of recovery.”

James said this committee should be focusing on what can be done to exit the current crisis as well as having the discussion on how businesses and the society should be structured post-COVID-19.

He said: “We are going to need to make serious decisions about the methods of re-opening the economy and removing the social distancing because of the well-known risk of mixing.”

He noted that if this current situation persists, the more damaging it will be on society as more businesses will go bankrupt.

James argued that in such a case, the country would likely need new laws, or else recovery would become “a long expensive struggle.”

He cautioned that it might be premature to begin planning how businesses and society should function post-COVID-19 as many things can change between the present and when vaccines and therapeutic drugs are released.

Nonetheless, the economists believe that the discussions should be had with the aforementioned in mind, whilst taking public health policies into consideration.

A major source of contention surrounding the PM’s COVID-19 recovery committee has been the question of its members. Managing Director of Agostini’s Ltd, Anthony Agostini admitted that assembling would pose challenges.

“I doubt anybody is ever going to be happy with the committee… but how big could the committee be?”

He continued: “What we would have to do is judge what they come out with at the end of the day and see if it sounds like if they came up with the right thing.”

CEO of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce, Gabriel Faria, said members of the committee are competent but felt they must all act with a common purpose and congruence of goals.

He said: “No one should go trying to achieve their piece. What is required is to move away from individual agendas and egos.”

He said the Chamber is looking forward to working with the members of the committee to do what is right for the country.