COVID-19 has made 2020 a rather disconcerting year. Social activities like eating out and liming with friends have all but ceased. Laptops have replaced in-class learning for primary and secondary school students; for those who have them. And nationals remain stranded abroad due to our closed borders. Eventually, they will be allowed to return… and will join other citizens who are being forcibly quarantined, whether it’s at the state’s expense or their own. But don’t worry—there is a light at the end of the tunnel. And that light is the LED bulbs that are currently being distributed.
Yes, LED bulbs, the solution to a problem that didn’t exist. Let me be clear—I support programmes that aim to reduce our energy consumption. Even a small change like this could have positive effects on the environment and our economy. However, as is typical of all our governments, not only is the execution of this plan being handled poorly, it shows how misplaced their priorities are when it comes to our addressing our country’s existing problems.
Firstly, these aren’t “free” light bulbs; they have been paid for by the taxpayer. Secondly, having citizens collect them, in the midst of a health crisis, seems counter-intuitive to the safety precaution of social distancing. And thirdly – four light bulbs? Really? My bedroom alone has three light sources. This sounds akin to a drug-dealer giving someone a free sample of their product to get them addicted. It’s left to be seen if this “little taste” encourages Trinbagonians to switch to LEDs, which, if they do, would undoubtedly benefit local businesses that carry them.
Which brings us to the rub in this arrangement. Why didn’t the government procure these bulbs themselves? And how much is Nova Lighting making out of this $8.8 million deal? This is a common practice regardless of whichever party is in power. A private business entity does the government’s work and gets paid handsomely for it. We saw this with Novo Technology for the airport kiosks, and with Amalgamated Security for the tracking anklets.
Putting these concerns aside, are LED light bulbs really a priority for our country? Granted, this was a plan stipulated in 2019’s budget, so it could be argued that it is better to distribute now before they are “eaten by rats”. But there are more pressing matters that require the government’s immediate attention.
In my last column, I wrote about Barbados’ progressive moves to maintain its tourism-dependent economy. It is also worth mentioning that, at the start of September, they announced a delivery service for renewed passports. Coincidentally, last week our National Security minister announced that the Immigration Division will be implementing a similar plan as part of a revamped process for passport renewals. While not progressive in scope, it is nonetheless a common-sense initiative, one that should have been implemented years ago. Before you accuse the minister of copying Barbados, he did say that the plan was presented to him in April when the stay-at-home measure was in effect. It’s good to know that the time was used efficiently. But that begs the question —why didn’t the government use the opportunity to come up with other common-sense solutions to our COVID-related problems?
Just look at the examples I mentioned in the introduction. Regarding the lack of laptops for students, the government has been aware of this since the closure of schools in March. Average citizens, religious bodies, and NGOs have since stepped up to arrange donations. Yet it wasn’t until the start of this month that the Finance Minister announced the removal of taxes on such devices. The government had months to source and, if need be, purchase a sufficient number of laptops. It’s more than likely that they could have brokered a special price from the manufacturer. Either way, it’s a necessary expense for the good of our nation’s schoolchildren.
Now, let’s examine the quarantine procedures. Quarantining citizens will not curtail the spread of COVID-19. In the absence of sufficient testing, it is unknown how many people are infected. And the negative public sentiment associated with being quarantined has probably dissuaded people from doing so. Therefore, focusing on returning nationals makes no sense. As Dr David Bratt has repeatedly advocated, only serious cases should be hospitalised. At-risk members of our society —the old and infirm—should be isolated at home. The same goes for people who are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms, as well as returning nationals. And to ensure they are indeed staying at home, contract security companies (like Amalgamated) to conduct random checks. This might end up being cheaper than maintaining the quarantine facilities.
I’m not claiming that these are definitive solutions, just suggestions based on common-sense thinking. Most importantly, they address the problems our country is facing right now. LED light bulbs are a good idea, but the government shouldn’t tout it as a grand accomplishment. Not when some children are being deprived of an education for want of a laptop. Not when there are still nationals stranded abroad. And not when the economy is tanking due to the prolonged shutdown. Now is the time to come up with new plans to meet these challenges. Then again, I suppose we shouldn’t expect bright ideas from a dim government.