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Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley.

Did the above headline jump out at you? Do you see it as referencing the performance of the current Administration? What if I tell you the headline is an exact replica from my column dated May 23, 2013 which was under the term of the last administration. Seven years ago almost to the day. Can the same headline still be applicable? That should get you thinking.

Let me quote from the opening of that 2013 column.

“Chance has never yet satisfied the hope of a suffering people”—Marcus Garvey.

T&T is underachieving because we lack basic governance systems. Actions should be guided by concise plans that have broad public acceptance. These plans should be the subject of consistent and coherent action until the objective associated with the plan is achieved. Success comes from deliberate action targeted towards a clear objective but instead Trinidad and Tobago is faced with “governance by vaps.”

At the time of writing this week’s contribution we are on the lookout for the report from the Covid-19 task force; the 23 people who have been appointed to shape the way forward for the T&T economy. The measure was announced with much fanfare. There was public disclosure of the opening address by the Prime Minister. There was a disclosure of an update session where the co-chairs and different participants spoke. All disclosures have since dried up. So at the time when proposals are being determined and public feedback before finalisation a must, the information flows to the public has dried up and in the end we are left awaiting a final report.

If you don’t yet see the problem then go back and read over the paragraph that precedes the one above. Hopefully we can avoid a repeat of “governance by vaps.”

In writing this week’s column I had to decide on a headline. Instead of the one above I had another option. That option was “Irresponsibly Responsible” and it was a headline that I used in April 11, 2013 also under the term of the last Administration.

You may be wondering how plausible is it for things to repeat. I will leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Quoting from the April 11, 2013 piece I said at the time:

“This sums up life in T&T and the examples are too numerous to mention. The irresponsible action to avoid something seemingly more irresponsible gives us the illusion of progress, it suggests at a superficial level that something is being done about a problem and the alternative to the current path is much worse.”

“Yet we should be mindful of the words of the British Economist Josiah Charles Stamp who said, “It is easy to dodge our responsibilities, but we cannot dodge the consequences of dodging our responsibilities.”

Our responsibilities can best “be defined by Winston Churchill in the following statement made in 1936 on the cusp of World War II: “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.”

This week the majority of the country went back out to work following the COVID-19 shut down. We are now entering the period of consequences. Let’s see how we fare.

The science

The population has been told repeatedly that in dealing with the Covid-19 situation we have been “guided by the science.” Yet there has been no clear definition of what that science is. If the science being referred to is epidemiology then I have a serious question mark over our approach.

To the best of my knowledge epidemiology is driven by data. In the case of COVID-19 a significant portion of our data is supposed to come from testing. Apart from testing there are efforts to derive causal reasoning that taps into a number of different disciplines. Testing remains a key component of the science. Without testing we are making inferences and those inferences can have greater margins for error.

The bottom line point is without a Government people would in the majority stay at home, practice social distancing and use masks because it is in their best interests to do so. The most important role of the State over the past couple months, apart from the delivery of health care to anyone affected was to conduct a testing program that is adequate enough to allow the science to make meaningful and timely decisions.

To date while officials are quick to pat themselves on the back and praise their own actions they have offered very little explanation, accountability or taken responsibility for the low levels of testing that has been conducted. Our testing levels are probably the worst in the Caribbean and it is testing that should present the benchmark by which our success should be judged.

Without adequate testing we are left with causal reasoning in an attempt to figure out how to proceed. This leads along the path of what in simple English involves “waiting it out”. So even after there were no cases discovered we waited over the perceived fourteen day cycle of the virus before opening up the country in phases as per multiples of the fourteen day waiting period.

The self proclaimed successes despite the abysmally poor testing rate may have created the environment to dodge the responsibility for a lack of “ramped up testing” but we cannot escape the consequences of dodging that responsibility. Waiting on multiples of the fourteen day cycle has a cost. That cost is to become apparent in the weeks and months to come.

To again repeat the words of Churchill – “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences”.

Consequences

So when the Ministry of Education told us in 2016 that the school laptop program was “revised, refreshed, reinstated”, the consequences of that measure should be apparent today. If it is not then it has to go into the category of “half measures and baffling expedients”. It was in the October 2016 Budget debate that the Minister of Education spoke about the “inadequate ICT supported infrastructure in the schools”. The goal of the new post 2016 structure was “to ensure that students and teachers are equipped in the classroom to keep up with international best practices in education”. Four years on and we are now at the point of consequences. Just like the promise of “ramped up testing” where are the results to go with the promise.

Let me repeat – “Chance has never yet satisfied the hope of a suffering people” – Marcus Garvey.

What are the results from all or any of our attempts at diversification over the past five years? What has for example an entity like the International Financial Centre achieved during this period? How much money is spent on that facility and what has it delivered to T&T over the period of its existence?

Now we await the upcoming roadmap as another event except that the real events are the positioning of identifiable and accountable milestones upon which we can gauge success or failure. We are in an era where consequences matter.

To appreciate this point let me bring it home to you. If Trinidad and Tobago’s outlook has been tagged as negative by Moody’s then your collectively personal outlook has a similar connotation. Around half of T&T’s population is within 20 years to retirement or retired. This means that the timeline for a significant portion of the population to recover from the financial impact of a prolonged shut down and any continued economic challenges is relatively short. This is especially the case if you had to draw down on your savings during the lock down period and if your debt burdens have increased as a result of deferred loans.

Take the time to express this situation in terms of “lost years”. Assess the difference between where you expected to be at retirement pre Covid-19 and where you are now likely to be based on the new trajectory. That will give you an idea of the personal cost of the lock down and the personal cost of not being able to execute on “ramped up testing” as promised. Try to estimate the cost to your long term quality of life and your lifestyle in retirement if faced with a period of prolonged unemployment.

All this points to the importance of not just the recovery plan but the ability to execute on that plan. Recognize that implicit in everything that has been said so far the on shore economy is going to become more important going forward. Yet as people are concerned about their financial affairs they may spend less which therefore requires a bigger impetus to get the onshore economy moving. That requires a greater effort than we have ever extended so far.

Like it or not we are at a time of consequences. It is now time for deliberate and consistent action.

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