Could Covid-19 infiltrate our porous borders?

A chance encounter with a Spanish-speaking person in the croisee in San Juan has prompted ‘una crisis’ of my own amid the Covid-19 pandemic. A young man from Venezuela was trying to find his way to Port of Spain to meet someone. He had only arrived in the country a few hours before our encounter and was transported to the croisee. I gleaned these details from my limited knowledge of Spanish peppered with lots of sign language and abundant ‘Spanglish’.

What if the Venezuelans who continue to come in through our porous (i.e. unwatched, unguarded) border areas are asymptomatic carriers of the dreaded Covid-19? How would we trace them and, more importantly, what is my personal responsibility at this time?

Photo: Venezuelan refugees have poured into Trinidad by boat.

The Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) reported that Venezuela’s health system is not prepared for the pandemic. While they have confirmed at least 42 cases, this figure is likely to be unreliable because 70% of hospitals do not yet have access to test kits. Additionally, in 2019, the Global Health Security Index ranked Venezuela among the least prepared countries to respond to the pandemic.

My concern is that our officials often refer to borders as being ‘porous’, and I have not seen any communication about how we plan to mitigate this risk. It might just be that I don’t have the information, but when the minister of national security, in a June 2019 Express article, announces that our borders are now closed, I understand it in terms of official ports of entry—airports and maritime. But who is patrolling the numerous other points of entry; especially since 50% or so of our coastline faces Venezuela?

According to the June 2019 Express coverage of the sod-turning ceremony to mark the building of the new Carenage Police Station, Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith said: “Because of where the station would be, I would now take this opportunity to let you know that we can now use the opportunity for this station being here to deal with the problems we have with criminal activities coming along the seafront.”

Much of this language is phrased in the future tense; I have not found any commentary speaking about our current approaches to patrolling these porous borders. At that same ceremony, the prime minister is quoted as saying: “… the TTPS Marine Branch was removed some time ago and replaced with nothing.”

The TTPS Marine Branch was closed in 1989 under the then National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) government. The government is well aware of the high risk we face with limited or few methods for patrolling our borders. The worry used to be guns and drugs; it has escalated now to an invisible threat on the bodies of some uninvited guests.

Photo: Downtown Port of Spain, Trinidad.

What is happening to contain the spread of Covid-19 by illegal immigrants, especially from Venezuela? My chance encounter in the croisee is just one example of how exposed we are as a population. And it is not comforting.

Social isolation and physical distancing by the citizenry will work only to the extent that all other containment strategies are in place and observed. All that is needed for an explosion is one asymptomatic case to be on the loose.

I await the announcement of strategies aimed at really policing our porous borders. But the silence is deafening.

Covid-19 demands leaders collaborate across party lines …

Social media lights up every time Dr Michelle Trotman speaks about Covid-19, although she admits that she is not a ‘Facebook person’. The authenticity with which she delivers is endearing at a time when our officials just don’t understand how to engage the population. Dr Trotman spoke to us with no frills, no pretensions and in easily understood man-in-the-street language.

Monday’s news conference by the prime minister and his loquacious minister of health was going very well until the PM allowed himself to be distracted by his angst with the leader of the opposition. In responding to a legitimate media question, he dismissed her letter with the caustic remark: “I have serious business to do for the people of Trinidad and Tobago.”

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley (left) and Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar SC.
(Copyright Power102fm)

He further commented that on the previous Friday, the opposition voted to prevent him from addressing parliament on the Covid-19 issue and asked the rhetorical question: “Is that the same one who is writing me now? To tell me what?”

Well, Mr Prime Minister, an overture by the leader of the opposition is serious business for the people of Trinidad and Tobago, including the hundreds of thousands who voted for the UNC.

The history of our response to Covid-19 is that it was first raised in parliament by opposition member Dr Tim Gopeesingh on 30 January. His attempt to raise it as a definite matter of urgent public importance was rebuffed by the Speaker of the House Bridgid Annisette-George. The matter was subsequently raised in the Senate where it was also not allowed for discussion.

History will judge the decisions of the Speaker and the president of the Senate when the fallout from the coronavirus is finally recorded. Just maybe, if the matter was discussed since 30 January, Trinidad and Tobago would have been in a far better place.

The more important issue to my mind is the lost opportunity by the prime minister and the leader of the opposition to demonstrate to your employers — the taxpayers — that you can collaborate and work across party lines for the greater good. Both leaders in parliament need a good spanking (‘cut arse’ in TT vernacular) for allowing this issue to degenerate into a tit-for-tat public spat.

Photo: Kamla Persad-Bissessar and Keith Rowley.

They are saying to us that they neither trust nor respect each other to be able to come together when the nation is in crisis. Our leaders should not be encouraging the population to view this and other issues through partisan filters. Issues should be addressed by their level of importance to the population.

Covid-19 will not discriminate, nor infect according to ethnicity, social status, geographic location or party affiliation. Given the demonstrated small-mindedness of our leaders, citizens need to find ways to support each other and find the leadership amongst each other to act in our best interest.

This pandemic calls for self-restraint, self-directed learning and the willingness to heed the global calls of social distancing, hand washing and sanitisation. We need to take leadership and look out for each other because it is clear to me that those people in parliament are only looking out for themselves.

May we take the lessons of surviving COVID-19 to make a difference to our country. Our politicians seem to lack the capacity to take us to that mythical place where the Tajo, the Loire, the Nile, the Thames, the Yangtze, the Euphrates and the Ganges all meet.

Will a woman take the fall in Piarco airport corruption scandal?

It’s been more than 15 years since the Piarco Airport corruption scandal, and the once high-flyer Renee Pierre is before the court to answer three corruption charges. My late mother from behind–the–bridge used to say: “Friends will carry you, but they won’t bring you back.” This is still stellar advice—especially for women.

In the lead–up to the celebration of International Women’s Week, the local press reported that Pierre was initially charged alongside Brian Kuei Tung, Ishwar Galbaransingh, Steve Ferguson and several other men and companies. The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) dropped those charges against her in 2005 and laid new charges.

Photo: Businessmen Steve Furguson and Ishwar Galbaransingh (via the Trinidad Guardian)

She is now on $250,000 bail, which was taken by her husband. The irony of this situation is that the Piarco II preliminary inquiry has not yet been completed.

The system has done well to bring one of the perpetrators to answer charges before the court. But what about Kuei Tung, Ishwar Galbaransingh and Steve Ferguson? Hopefully, they too will soon have their day before the court, as stark reminders that this country must address white-collar crime and crimes of corruption wherever they arise.

I find it intriguing that after 15 years, the fisherman’s hook has caught the gill of the smallest fish in that sea of corruption.

How is it that this woman has not been able to establish an impenetrable ring-fence to protect her from being hauled before the courts? Is it that she just cannot afford to dish out the huge sums required to keep the wheels of justice turning in another direction? Or is it that she is the only guilty partner?

My impression is that she was just a small fry in ‘big fish business’. From all the anecdotal evidence, some big boys know how to play the game. (Recall the cleverness of the First Citizens IPO issue where the actors paid a fine, held on to the majority of the proceeds and boldly declared that a settlement was reached without the ‘admission of wrongdoing, guilt or liability, whether civil, criminal or otherwise, on the part of Bourse Brokers Ltd (BBL) and/or its managing director’.)

Photo: Former government minister Brian Kuei Tung (via newsday.co.tt)

Sisters, we are often guilty of facilitating criminal activity by associating with wrongdoers. Let us learn from Renee Pierre and say no, both to the proceeds and to associating with the perpetrators.

As a matter of fact, for equity to prevail, women must have the courage to stand up for what is right and just. This is a good time to understand that when things go wrong, as they sometimes do, women seem to lack the capacity, and/or courage, to pitch the ring-fence, so we end up on the wrong side.

Let’s find the courage to do what is right because it is the right thing to do.

Demming: Caring for our helpless; to ignore them is to risk your humanity

There’s a human who walks in small tight circles on the pavement in Champs Fleurs in front of a successful company. His fingers on one hand are visibly rotting, his smell is putrid, he made me think of the personification of the ‘creature from the black lagoon’.

I first saw him three months ago and he has continued on his daily pilgrimage in his own hell while commuters like me drive past, taxi people hustle their passengers and employees walk by to get to their stations.

Photo: A homeless man sleeps on the pavement.
(Copyright Business Insider)

I am told that the aforementioned company has reached out to the Police, the Ministry of Health, The Ministry of Social Services and even sought legal advice; but everyone is constrained by the laws—so unless he agrees, he cannot be removed against his wishes.

The conclusion is that, as a society, we shall observe his slow death on the pavement in the name of human rights. Little by little we shall preside over the decay of a human being until he dies in front of us and little by little the memory will fade.

What is unfortunate is that there are several of these cases on our streets and in our parks, though many of them are in the early stages of deterioration.

This particular case is a thorn in my side. We simply cannot throw our hands up in the air and do nothing. This case is a crisis which requires state intervention. Someone has to be bold enough to come up with a strategy to heal this human being. He ought not to be allowed to fester and die on the pavement.

In the larger context, the issue of vagrancy and homelessness has to be solved. It not only impacts the persons who are sleeping and defecating on the streets but it affects each witness to such abnormal behaviours. In the early stages we may be nauseated but little by little we turn away until we no longer notice; and that is the point at which we begin to lose our humanity.

Photo: A homeless person makes a sleeping place on the pavement.

It was American writer and novelist Pearl Buck (winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1932), and recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature who wrote: “Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilisation is the way that it cares for its helpless members.”

This case is yet another example of the extent to which our institutions are failing and it is also an opportunity for collaboration amongst our politicians to deal with this humanitarian issue.

The Parliament website points the researcher to the 2017 inquiry by the Joint Select Committee into the effectiveness of the State’s intervention programmes aimed at socially displaced persons. There is a well presented report with more than 20 recommendations for both short and long term action. The report even mandates that the specific recommendations be implemented in time frames between 3 and 24 months.

However the follow-up report is not available to track which of the recommendations have been implemented. Again there is an implementation deficit. Had we conducted a comprehensive survey of the socially displaced in Trinidad and Tobago as recommended in the report, we would have been able to track each person as is done in other countries.

We continue to defer opportunities to prevent the deterioration which is occurring before our eyes. We know what to do because the reports which we have paid for provide solutions. Implementation is the problem.

Photo: A portrait of a homeless person.
(Copyright Lee Jeffries)

Will we continue as we are? Or will we begin to acknowledge that every human is worthy of our efforts to care for them and put the systems and procedures in place to make a difference?

It is time to change and we must collectively make the change.

Thanks, but no thanks Mr Prime Minister; George St is no place for Despers …

Desperadoes Steel Orchestra is in no position to refuse the generosity of the prime minister, but the population can. We can tell Dr Rowley that the reasons Despers left the ‘Hill’ are still with us and may even be more deeply entrenched as we count the daily shootings, killings and incidents of violence being perpetrated on some innocent citizens.

The population can tell the prime minister that the property at the corner of Tragarete Road and Victoria Avenue is an ideal location for the theatre concept he is espousing. We can tell the prime minister that gentrification cannot occur simply by placing one icon in a prominent location. The population can tell the prime minister that based on our history, his time frame of a Christmas present is unrealistic.

Photo: Panorama 2020 winners Desperadoes Steel Orchestra (via trinidadexpress.com)

Despers’ departure from the Hill is symbolic of the deep decay eating away at the core of our society. Crime is a problem that has evolved around the poor judicial infrastructure that has developed over decades and has influenced society’s mindset to accept it, further escalating the spiral.

We accept that there is no single root cause, so an array of solutions will be needed. But crime will not be solved until the population perceives that there is equity and justice.

On one hand, we refer to the ‘criminal elements’ and are comfortable referring to human beings as ‘elements’. Meanwhile, our white-collar criminals use their office, access and money to buy their way into the good graces of politicians, and it is perceived that they can even manipulate the justice system.

I am personally still smarting from the First Citizens’ IPO issue. Recall that a settlement agreement was arrived at without any ‘admission of wrongdoing, guilt or liability, whether civil, criminal or otherwise, on the part of BBL and/or its managing director.

The players were able to pay a fine, hold on to most of the profit they derived from this deal and continue their lives of luxury. Do you not think that the ‘elements’ can read and understand the extent of this inequity?

Dr Keith Rowley

If the prime minister had made an ‘incognito’ visit to Despers at the corner of Tragarete Road and Victoria Avenue, he would have felt the love that existed in the panyard this year. From the day of the judging of Youth Panorama right up to the night before the Panorama Finals, there was peace, friendly banter and a communal spirit.

I saw persons in that panyard whom I used to see regularly ‘up de hill’ and some commented that they felt safe enough to return. It is hardly likely that they will visit Despers on George Street because it’s too far from main transit access, locked in by buildings on all sides, and in an area where some might consider their personal security at risk, justified or not.

The plan to redevelop the city of Port of Spain by providing entertainment and exposure of the country’s culture to citizens and tourists alike is a great one. But building a Pan Theatre for Despers in the heart of a decayed part of the city will not stimulate that redevelopment.

You cannot hope to change the character of a neighbourhood by placing one icon there and hoping that everything else around will magically improve. For one icon to make a difference, there has to be a plan that includes access, foot traffic, other activities and security. Gentrification from the bottom is destined to fail.

I understand the graciousness of Despers to say thanks, but as a citizen I am calling on the prime minister to reconsider his decision. The 12th Panorama victory of this band deserves giving them a fighting chance to become sustainable. And, right now, George Street is not the place.

What if Tribe ran the country? T&T needs leaders with grit and imagination.

Another Carnival is here again, and we are seeing examples of excellence in performance, delivery and customer service. If these things work in one area of society, why is the performance in other areas so dismal? The answer lies in the proliferation of square pegs in round holes.

Visit Rosalino Street and you will feel the presence of Tribe (the carnival band) and their commitment to the delivery of an excellent product. Contrast that with a visit to the Immigration Office and it is almost like a visit to the twilight zone.

Photo: Tribe Carnival CEO Dean Ackin (via newsday.co.tt)

There are pockets of excellence throughout this country and all that is needed is the political will to engage differently to achieve fantastic results.

If Carnival entrepreneurs can deliver quality products on-time, within budget and according to specifications, why can’t we engage them in national service to re-imagine how key products and services are delivered?

If I had the opportunity to dream differently, there are several persons who deliver carnival products whom I would engage to impact our systems.

Imagine Yuma creator Danielle Jones-Hunte as the Chief Imagination Officer responsible for Carnival Transformation!

Derrick Lewis is one of the early transformers of the on-the-road experience with carnival bands so I would appoint him Chief Transformation Officer to reimagine our transportation products.

Photo: Tribe revellers let loose on Carnival Monday in 2015.
(Courtesy Allan V Crane/Wired868)

Carla Parris is presenting a new product showcasing the Business of Carnival so she would be appointed my Product Development Officer responsible for diversification.

This is a short wish-list but taking a helicopter view of T&T reveals that we are clearly stuck in the insanity zone. Philosopher Albert Einstein described that as doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result.

To transform this country, our politicians need to reimagine a future of Trinidad and Tobago that is exciting, bright and sustainable. The politicians have failed miserably so why not try with the people who have used grit and imagination to bring different realities to being on some of our traditional products.

Okay … so you think this plan is ‘outrageous’ and may not work, but think of it a little deeper and ask: what do we have to lose?

There is no denying that each of the persons identified has delivered a product to new audiences. It is evident that they understand their products and have been able to successfully align their product to the audience and even create new audiences and experiences. They have mastered the art of delivering their product on time within specifications and at a profit.

Photo: Yuma creator Danielle Jones-Hunte (via ttfilmfestival.com)

There is no question that this country has the talent.  We have demonstrated competence in many areas.  And we are passionate about the things that excite our imagination.

Let’s use our huge reservoir of talent to make a difference in the everyday lives of our people.  Let’s use the people and lessons of Carnival to show the world what Trinis can do.

What steel bands can teach us about goals, leadership and teamwork …

I have been mulling over the lessons of the panyard experience and continue to feel that the panyards are on to some yet unexplored management concept in the way they organise themselves for Carnival.

Mind you, there are as many systems as there are bands, but what is common is that they deliver a result over and over. That result is a well-crafted piece of music executed with precision. On judging night, each band delivers something magical.

Photo: Arranger Carlton “Zanda” Alexander (left) leads the Despers Steel Orchestra.
(Copyright Steelpan Authority)

Oftentimes, two nights before the preliminary judging, the sounds emanating from both shiny and not-so-shiny oil drums are more noise than music; even when the tune is recognizable, the performance is lacklustre. Yet magically, 48 hours later, your pores raise in response to the musical genius manifested during the judging.

My annual journey of admiration leaves me asking the question: can our public service and state enterprises emulate the systems, processes and procedures that bring out the best in Panorama bands?

I think we can, but we must invest resources in understanding those systems, processes and procedures. We need to understand what makes the 5,000-plus pan players deliver the excellence we experience year after year. If anyone is aware that this is being studied, please let me know.

I see the following three concepts replicated in each panyard:

  • Being goal-oriented
  • Teamwork
  • Strong leadership

If you ask any player in any panyard what their objective is, you will get a variation of ‘we plan to win this year’, ‘we are placing in the top three’ or ‘we are placing one better than last year’.

Photo: The Marsicans Steel Orchestra beat a tune.
(Courtesy Annalicia Caruth/Wired868)

Those responses check all the boxes for how a goal is articulated. If you get into a deeper conversation, the goal will be explained further.

A brilliant example of how teamwork happens is seen in how the music is taught to the players. In one instance, the section leaders arrive early and are ‘given’ the music, which they learn and subsequently teach to their colleagues. Person by person, the music is shared until each person can play the piece. There is patience, love and mutual respect in the teaching.

My third observation is about leadership; the arranger and the drillmaster epitomise the qualities of exceptional leaders. They demonstrate that there is no question about what needs to be done. Once they have decided about a particular aspect of an arrangement, there is no changing their minds and, finally, their passion is infectious.

I continue to ask the question: what makes pan unique in its product delivery? What brings players back to the panyards every year voluntarily? Our pan sides continue to deliver structures, systems and processes without heavy-handed management. What is the inspiration?

Deep in my consciousness, I see an opportunity for this phenomenon to be analysed. How can we set up a laboratory to cull the lessons and make them replicable across our organisations and systems?

Photo: The Chord Masters Steelpan Orchestra let loose.
(Courtesy Annalicia Caruth/Wired868)

Apart from an academic application, we can begin by asking each of our politicians to spend some time in a panyard of their choice and sit quietly and observe. These players, who are often disregarded, can teach us a thing or two about how to treat each other.