As the last two weeks have passed and the number of positive COVID-19 cases increased significantly and sadly with it the deaths of nationals, people appear to be surprised by what is happening. Often, the daily question after the numbers are released, is how did this happen? Well, this happened because this is T&T.
Of course, it is easy to blame the Prime Minister for encouraging people to go to Tobago in their thousands, but still tell them to behave themselves, as a parent would tell a child. But to blame Dr Keith Rowley is to refuse to accept that, as a people, we have not shown the character to do the hard things and the disciplined things.
We have to admit that perhaps this constant need to physically distance, avoid liming, adhere to the protocols and not encourage and facilitate the illegal entry of non-nationals were perhaps beyond us. Beyond a people who like to take it to the edge, hoping we don’t fall off the cliff.
So we thought that COVID-19 may cause some discomfort, some people who were old and had co-morbidities may not have made it. However, we apparently also weighed this with the fact that we had an entire parallel healthcare system that would provide care, including new hospitals, built by the past government for which this Prime Minister told us up to last Saturday we were lucky to have but wasn’t gracious enough to acknowledge that it was another administration’s work.
You see, it is this inability to stay the course, to do the hard work that is necessary to get to the finish line that is exactly the Trini trait and one that if we only had the never say die spirit of some of our neighbours, would have served us right today.
T&T is a country that for all of its small size and regardless of the constant narrative that all is lost, has considerable resources and but wasted a lot of it.
Per capita, this country is one of the wealthiest in the Americas. It has sold billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. Its infrastructure is easily superior to anything in the English-speaking Caribbean. It has invested heavily in healthcare, national security and education but has been reluctant to do the difficult things that will reap the kind of rewards the people of this country deserve.
Just as we trifled with COVID-19 until it has brought us face to face with a healthcare system bursting at its seams with record deaths and infections, we ignore or fail to deal with our economic malaise at our own peril.
A day of reckoning will come and I am afraid it is not too far off from now.
For the last five years, there has been the constant warning that the current exchange rate parity was not sustainable and that the Government’s notion of a soft landing would not work.
We had that conversation as a nation before in the 1980s and it did not work, as we burnt through our foreign exchange in a matter of a couple of years and found ourselves at the doorstep of the IMF. The challenge of the economy then, as is today, is that the energy sector was the engine of the economy and without it there was little that could stand on its own. Today, our economy is different, there is some diversification within the energy sector, so oil is not the only product. There is now gas, petrochemicals and some limited services. Manufacturing is stronger, but even that is not a net earner of foreign exchange and depends on the forex from the energy sector to survive.
The Government, in 2016 to 2018, did not make the move then. Had it done so there would have perhaps been benefit from it. Instead, it defended the TT dollar, using limited US dollars and overseeing the reduction in our official reserves by billions of dollars.
Doing the hard work of removing the bottlenecks in the ease of doing business, encouraging and working with companies to invest their capital here for a fair return is too much hard work, and respecting the population to bring them on board and lead them to a better place required humility, leadership and country first. It was too much for the administration and its supporters.
So we did nothing and when the unsolicited, free advice is offered by others, we have the spectre of the most junior of junior ministers seeking to besmirch the reputation and gravitas of someone like Dr Terrence Farrell. After all, it’s easy to talk.
We have for a long time known that the health system is unbecoming and unless we have radical health reform, it will fail.
Dr Karl Theodore has done extensive work on some solutions from an administrative and economic level and we know that a big part of the challenge of the healthcare system are the systems that do not put patients at the centre of healthcare.
Instead, we lived in the fool’s paradise that any government could provide the money for public healthcare unless its personal and corporation taxes are so high they discourage investment. We prefer to dread going to the public hospitals rather than do the hard things to fix it.
And now we are faced with what is going to be a game-changer. We are faced with the inevitable end to fossil fuel in a mere 29 years. Yes, there are those who would argue that oil and, in particular, natural gas will be around for a long time. They may be right. But what if they are wrong?
For three days this week, Columbia University in the United States held a global energy conference in which they had leaders discuss the issue of energy transition.
During the discussions, US President Joe Biden’s adviser on climate change Gina McCarthy argued that the country that wins the race to renewables will be the economic powerhouse.
She said, “The future is going to be who grabs clean energy and wins it. And we already know that because of disinvestments over the prior five years and the lack of even significant or sufficient investment, the US lags internationally in terms of if we are going to be the winner. The argument is the sensitivity about who wins and who loses, who’s left behind or not left behind. And how we do this, in a way that’s going to be fast enough to meet the moment that we find ourselves in. But also careful enough for us to recognise that in a transition, there will be portions of the economy that will be divested, and there will be workers facing the need for transition.”
Nigeria vice president Professor Yemi Osinbajo called for a just energy transition for developing countries and energy producers like T&T. He raised the spectre of several European countries and development finance institutions banning further investments in fossil fuels.
“Globally, we are seeing wealthier nations and development finance institutions banning all public investments in fossil fuels, including natural gas. Examples include the European Union, the United Kingdom and Denmark to name a few, as well as specific institutions such as the Swede Fund from Sweden, CDC from the UK, the European Investment Bank and the Investment Fund for developing countries from Denmark,” he said.
In other words, it has started.
Increasingly, there will be pressure not to spend on fossil fuel projects and when the investments dry up, so too will the production. T&T is warned we must do the hard things to quickly transform the economy. If indeed, oil and gas continues into perpetuity then that is ok. It will be extra money that we can save and invest. But if the winds of change are so strong that they blow the sector down, we would have found new ways to not just survive but hopefully to prosper.
Do we have it in us to do the hard work and see the danger of the status quo, or do we have to touch the wound like Thomas to know it is real?
Curtis Williams is saddened for the families and friends of all those who have lost their loved ones due to this pandemic. Like most people, he too now knows victims.