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August 25, 2020
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August 25, 2020

Not yet breathing easily

A monthly column

by Dr Marlene Attzs, Economist.

Email: marlene.attzs@gmail.com

The elections are over, and T&T begins another chapter in the new normal.

A government is in place to treat with some of the old and new challenges we face.   While the elections and ensuing uncertainties are over, there still are some realties we face that make it difficult for the country to breathe easily, at least not just yet.

First, the spike in COVID-19 infections and the additional loss of lives all point to an emerging public health crisis which makes it difficult for T&T to exhale—literally and figuratively.

Despite exhortations from public health officials for individual responsibility in this pandemic, daily I see the uninformed or uncaring not wearing masks and talking up in each other’s face—Trini style.

If we as citizens shirk our responsibility to individually manage this crisis, the cost will not only be in loss of lives but enormous expenditures which are not easily available.

Managing COVID-19 requires dollars AND more so sense. We witnessed gay abandon as many flocked to bars, beaches and other social gatherings that required, by virtue of the activity, no wearing of masks.

The cost of the rise in infection rates, apart from the obvious COVID-specific heath response mechanisms, is that the country now has to hold its breath—other health services are compromised as our hospitals are stretched, staff are exposed to more persons with the virus, persons have to self-isolate and ultimately, there could be further lockdowns, impacting individuals and eventually, the economy.

The United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres recently warned of a “generational catastrophe” that might emerge as COVID-19 creates a crisis in education.

Guterres sounded the alarm that globally several million children have missed out on pre-school. He also noted that “…disabled students, members of minority or disadvantaged communities, as well as refugees and displaced persons, are among those at highest risk of being left behind…”. For me this is the second reason T&T can’t yet exhale.

Our national reality is that we already had challenges in our schools, particularly with increasing displays of indiscipline which would naturally have affected teaching and learning.

The videos that many on social media relished and shared without hesitation, pointed to young men and women who, under normal circumstances, had little interest in learning what was on offer from the teaching curriculum.

These youngsters have now had an extended ‘holiday’—some in home environments not conducive to learning or in community environments where negative behaviours would have been inculcated, with dire results to come.

The newly appointed Education Ministers will have their hands full in treating not only with defining the ‘new’ school year but also recalibrating the education system.

A third consideration is the wider economic reality. The returning Minister of Finance and his team of technocrats will have their hands full as well. I anticipate that Budget 2021 will document the challenges we face and hopefully share with the population a clear roadmap—speed bumps, potholes and all—for moving forward.

I maintain that we have, literally, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape our economy. Among other things, the issue of consolidating what we earn and what we spend should be high on the agenda especially in the context of lower oil and gas revenues.

Economic diversification and transformation also should be a priority with clear timelines for the transformation we wish to accomplish. Many businesses and sectors suffered as a result of the necessary measures to manage COVID-19. Attention now has to be turned to address the increased unemployment that resulted from the closures and also support those sectors that are trying to recover.

Now is an opportunity to focus on Small and Medium Enterprises as a potential engine of growth.

We also need to ward off inevitable financial sector problems as both individuals and firms will find it hard to meet their obligations and look at mechanisms to boost private sector investment.

I was asked whether there is any hope for T&T in light of the dark clouds circling.  I am an optimist if anything. At these times we should hold fast to the maxim that ‘Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning’. We have many ‘nights’ ahead of us but as Black Stalin told us “We can make it if we try, just a little harder”.

That’s just my point of view.