Life after Covid-19

Imagine the day when the minister of health announces that we have not just flattened, but broken the COVID-19 curve, and no new cases have been reported for the required number of days.

For some, it will be a joyous attempt to return to life as we left it before the pandemic. For others, it will be the sober reflection that the world as we knew it has changed forever. And for a few, it will be the moment for which they were planning, ready to roll out new plans and hit the reset button.

Photo: Uncertain future with Covid-19 (by cottonbro from Pexels)

One thing is certain, the road between here and that ‘freedom day’ is going to be long and treacherous, and not all of us will make it to the end.

When our country emerges from this pandemic, we should have reflected on the inequities that exist in our society and contemplated the reduction of these inequities for the common good.

Governments have been schooled that the way to reduce inequities is to increase transfer payments, create make-work projects and support an unproductive and bloated public service. This has been funded by the gains from the energy sector. We know the model is unsustainable, but we continue to try to make it work for our respective tribes.

The blessing of energy resources generates a curse of laziness, keeping us from thinking of different ways to craft a new society forged on the principles of equity and justice. Our leaders seem to believe in the maxim, ‘if it isn’t broken, then don’t fix it’. They have forgotten the chapter that discussed the benefits of innovation, which might have led them to a place where they could see that ‘it’ was in fact broken.

While we are on lock-down from this coronavirus, we should be engaging in some scenario planning to work out our revival strategy. It is an opportunity for a bipartisan approach to crafting a new future vision of our country.

I dream of a joint communiqué that announces a think-tank, comprising nominees from both the prime minister and the leader of the opposition, tasked with the responsibility of developing and detailing a national recovery plan and strategy. Such a think-tank would be able to leverage technology and demonstrate to our people that a team of collaborators can work towards a common goal that is beyond individual interests.

Photo: Then Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (left) shakes hands with her successor, Dr Keith Rowley, en route to Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa.
(Courtesy News.Gov.TT)

It would signal that the Yellow and Red can work together for our common good. That is the kind of leadership we expect and hope for in times of crisis.

This pandemic provides us with an opportunity to rebuild a Trinidad and Tobago that is better and more humane. If we lose this opportunity and continue a business-as-usual attitude, we run the risk of descending into full-state barbarism where inequities prevail and ‘tenderpreneurship’ facilitates the rich getting richer while the Mighty Stalin’s ‘sufferers’ continue to care only ‘whey de nex’ food comin’ from’.

We can change this narrative and consequently change our reality, but we need the courage to be different and to act differently.

COVID-19 has presented us with an opportunity to leverage our human resources to develop new ways of feeding ourselves and to design different approaches to working from home, therefore reducing our carbon footprint and congestion. We can change the import/mark-up business model and reshape our reliance on government.

COVID-19 is an opportunity for Prime Minister Keith Christopher Rowley to be the prime minister who brings the country together to craft a vision of the future that is inclusive and sustainable. Let’s do this!

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

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.