Recent stricter lockdown measures brought on by dramatic increases in the spread of COVID-19 have brought out the best and the worst of us.
On the one hand, there have been many heartwarming acts of generosity by ordinary citizens to help those who have been hardest hit by the closure of all but essential businesses.
Over the past few weeks, with some families affected by a sudden loss of income, some individuals, groups and businesses have been selflessly providing monetary and food support to the less fortunate.
A powerful reminder that there are many good people in this country can be found in the rural community of Mon Desir, where residents have pooled their resources to set up a food hub at the community centre, where anyone in need of basic food and personal care items can pick up what they need, no questions asked.
A few businesses around the country have also set up areas where those much-needed supplies can be collected.
Others have been packing and dropping off food hampers for families struggling to make ends meet.
These gestures supplement the various grants for salary and food relief provided by the state. They go a long way in battling the hunger and poverty made worse by the pandemic.
In contrast to these efforts that are so worthy of applause, there are, unfortunately, those unscrupulous individuals who are exploiting the dire circumstances with price gouging and other unsavoury practices.
There are reports of some retailers taking advantage of a shortage of cement and charging double the usual price. That means that a bag of cement which usually costs around $46 is now being sold for as much as $150 a bag.
Cement supply issues are due to a halt in operations at Trinidad Cement Ltd (TCL), while Hard Rock Cement has temporarily stopped sale and distribution.
There have also been complaints about unconscionable increases in prices for other hardware items.
Fingers have been pointed at some smaller hardware stores since the big operators, such as Dansteel and Bhagwansingh’s, have temporarily closed in response to rising COVID-19 numbers.
It is disappointing that the Consumer Affairs Division (CAD), the protection and advocacy arm of the Ministry of Trade and Industry, which has as its main mandate safeguarding the interests of consumers, says it can do nothing about the increase in cement prices.
The only words from the CAD so far have been an appeal to citizens to pay attention to the products they are purchasing and the prices they are paying. This is of very little help to people who are dipping deeper into their pockets.
There is a need for an immediate investigation and much more robust response, with consequences for businesses indulging in this blatant profiteering.
Last year, Trade Minister Paula Gopee-Scoon reacted to reports of price gouging with a warning that there would be severe penalties for businesses guilty of such “corrupt and unprincipled behaviour” during a public health emergency.
Hopefully, there will be swift and decisive action to halt this practice, which only adds to hardships at an already difficult time in the country.