A national Budget is about so much more than the allocation of funds, the introduction of new revenue streams for the public purse or the opportunity to show where governments have enjoyed success with its spending over the past year. A Budget also represents the opportunity to alter behaviours, by setting parameters that will influence the populace towards choices that will create both immediate and long-term benefits.
It can be the tax breaks given to industries such as recycling and renewable energy, while simultaneously increasing taxes on fossil fuels, to nudge a country towards a greener—and very necessary —future. Entwined in every massive Budget presentation, should be the means to ensure proper investment in not only the infrastructure of a nation, but also its people. Human investment.
Unfortunately, the ‘Pigtail Budget 2022’ falls short on this requirement. It is a continuance of the ideology of throwing money at a problem instead of taking decisions with the potential for far reaching effect, to help fix the problem at its source.
The current Budget boasts the two largest allocations for Education and Health, which is understandable given the need to continually invest in our school system and to alleviate the coronavirus stresses endured by the medical sector. But when the Budget also boasts of VAT exemptions for certain food items whose ingestion will increase the frequency of visits to the same medical sector, it begs the question as to why a government would give the second largest chunk of funding to a sector, then place it under increased strain by encouraging poor choices in diet? It is counterproductive spend.
This VAT exemption choice hints at a level of thinking that is not all-encompassing; one choice should benefit the other as part of an overall plan to increase the wellbeing of citizens, instead of increasing the means to medical complaints. Juice, ketchup, processed food such as canned meat and sausages? When there are fruit and vegetables, beans and grains, all putting up their hands ‘pick me,’ waiting to be made exempt? One wonders if pre-Budget consultation with the Ministry of Health did not throw up these factors and ring Mr. Deyalsingh’s alarm bells, because surely there is a long-term plan —this being the 21st century—to increase the health of Trinbagonians, rather than simply appease the population with a delicious ease up. Mapping out the future with health and wellness targets would incorporate exemptions on healthy food, that exist in abundance regionally and that can be encouraged to not only be eaten but grown locally as well. These are the types of positive behaviours a 2022 Budget should seek to encourage, to generate positive outcomes and to create or invigorate industries that can contribute positively across the entire spectrum of a society.
If the global statistics of 2019 are correct, T&T is almost at a 19% obesity rate; that is nearly a quarter of our adult population that are placing unnecessary pressure on their organs, limbs, arteries, as well as a healthcare system that the Minister of Finance recognised as having had cracks exposed during the pandemic. Globally we share the obesity issue with other nations, while also sharing prolonged lockdown periods where little or no exercise was possible, with instances of bad eating habits within households. As we try to reopen sectors and learn to live with the existence of COVID-19, this should be a period of inspiring better and healthier lifestyles.
Beyond the obesity issue, T&T is trying to cope with diabetes, cancer, stroke, and a myriad of other medical issues, many of which can be reduced through proper diets married to a dedicated push to educate about healthy eating. If such a campaign could be carried out in conjunction with the VAT exemption of the same goods that appear in the campaign, then the behavioural change will occur. It is baffling to continually speak of digital transformation year after year while ignoring the transformation occurring to our citizenry’s bodies. Unlike the much sought-after digital haven, T&T’s eating habits are not virtual, they are real, and they have deadly consequences.
Combating the onslaught of sugar, saturated fats, artificial colouring and all their unhealthy cousins that bombard the global population with enticing advertising or tantalising taste, is taken seriously by nations that recognise the affect upon the wider society. Production and work rates are affected, insurance, both national and private, is affected. Hospital bedspace is affected. Mortality rates are affected. We are blessed to have some of the best tasting dishes in (pun most definitely intended) sweet T&T but just like the attempt to balance the Budget books, we must balance deliciousness with healthiness.
A Budget that takes a ‘let them cake’ attitude is the antithesis of this requirement and borders dangerously on disdain for the wellness of the people. Perhaps the thought process is so focused on providing breaks in an area that is truly ingrained in our psyche, food, that human wellbeing is not even on the radar, but this is where the Ministry of Health’s own objectives should intervene.
By all means have VAT exemptions on food items as part of the policy to offer economic relief, but for the sake of the nation’s health, direct it at the correct food items as evidence of proper concern for the population.