As international commentators have pointed out, no matter how small or under resourced you are as a country, if you act quickly in accordance with expert medical advice, that gives you considerable control over a pandemic.
The basic approach to a pandemic is not complex or new. Testing, tracing and isolation of infected persons or persons who have come into contact with infected persons are the only sensible ways to deal with a dangerous infectious disease.
That is what your PNM Government did. And many lives have been saved because of our proactive response to Covid-19 and many more lives will be saved in the future if and when we are returned to Government.
The key is the speed at which we moved, unlike developed countries that waited until their health care systems were overwhelmed.
We moved with precision, always following the advice of the health professionals, and within a matter of just over 2 months, to keep our citizens safe and save lives, we closed our borders and locked down and prohibited all non- essential activities. And so, while the virus raged outside our shores with over 16 million cases and 685,000 deaths of loved ones from the virus worldwide, as of July 27th, with hospitals overseas filled to capacity and mass funerals and burials taking place in other countries, we in Trinidad and Tobago have managed to contain the number of deaths due Covid-19 to just 8 since April 2020, tragic as these 8 deaths are.
We have managed Covid-19 in an exemplary manner by observing strict quarantine, health and isolation protocols, sanitization procedures, and restrictions on activities that are most likely to lead to a resurgence and spread of the virus, and by ensuring that we have all of the funding, equipment, pharmaceuticals, PPE, physical facilities and personnel required to contain it. Even in face of constant threats of legal action from the other side, we have not flinched or hesitated in our duty to keep our people safe.
Compare this to the USA, where over 4.6 million people have been infected and 150,000 people have died from Covid-19 so far, which is 1 person in every 70 persons in the USA infected, with no sign that the spread of the virus is slowing down in that country. Or to Brazil, with 2.6 million people infected and 87,000 deaths, which is 1 person in every 80 persons infected. In Trinidad and Tobago, we have just 164 cases, or 1 person in 8,000 infected, 100 times less than the number of cases in Brazil on a per capita basis. Further, the vast majority of our cases are imported, and until we allowed persons to return from overseas on humanitarian grounds, we had no increase in cases for weeks.
In addition, consider the fact that the other major political party has been so reckless and irresponsible with respect to its approach to dealing with this dangerous Covid-19 virus. At first, in early February, their key spokespersons foolishly described Covid-19 as a “little flu” which according to them, was nothing to worry about. As the virus swept across Europe and North America, leaving a trail of sickness and death in its path, they rashly recommended the use of puncheon rum, pepper, chlorine, and various unsuitable and dangerous drugs, such as insulin, to treat the virus. The latest ridiculous salvo from the leader of the other side, apart from senseless demands that we open our borders arbitrarily and allow our already stretched healthcare system to collapse, is that “sunshine” will kill the virus, completely oblivious to the fact that Covid- 19 is raging through Florida, the Sunshine State.
It is unimaginable what would have happened to us if they were in charge in February when Covid- 19 arrived in Trinidad and Tobago – our citizens would have had no chance of survival.
Having kept our citizens safe, on May 9th, the Honourable Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley announced a 6-phase Reopening Plan for the Economy. Details of this carefully thought out Plan can be found at this link:
During the early days, we were also aware that the public health restrictions would impose hardship on some of our most vulnerable citizens and would have a severe adverse effect on business activity, income and employment.
Accordingly, we devised a multifaceted social and financial support and fiscal stimulus Plan to guide us through and out of this health and economic crisis, with the primary focus on helping those most in need. To pay for the additional expenses associated with Covid-19, and the economic fallout, we moved swiftly to access available funding from our Heritage and Stabilization Fund, which was set up for precisely this type of catastrophe, as well as international funding.
Our comprehensive $6B Covid-19 support measures include the following:
SOCIAL AND HUMANITARIAN SUPPORT
- Additional financial support for existing food card beneficiaries and persons in need – 18,000 families at a cost of $21M
- Emergency hampers, food boxes and food vouchers – 20,000 families at a cost of $10M
- Additional Financial Support for existing or pending social welfare recipients – 46,000 families at a cost of $36M
- Food and Income Support for persons outside of the National Insurance System who have lost their jobs – 80,000 persons at a cost of $175M
- Food Cards for persons whose children were on the school feeding programme – 20,000 families at a cost of $32 million
- Rental Assistance for persons who have lost their jobs – 5,000 families at a cost of $20M
- Financial Assistance to religious bodies for food distribution to needy persons – 120,000 hampers at a cost of $30M
- Salary Relief Grants to persons registered for National Insurance – 60,000 grants at a cost of $70M
- Fuel Relief Grants to Maxi-Taxi and Taxi Owners – 20,000 grants at a cost of $32M
- Free cloth face masks to the public – 500,000 free cloth masks at a cost of $5M
- Income Relief for Artistes – 5,000 grants at $5,000 each
FISCAL STIMULUS – FINANCIAL SUPPORT FOR COMPANIES AND INDIVIDUALS, TO KEEP PEOPLE IN JOBS
- Individual Income Tax Refunds – 25,000 persons at a cost of $240M
- Accelerated VAT Refunds in cash – 5,000 SMEs at up to $500,000 per VAT cycle at a cost of $460M
- Fully tradeable VAT Bonds – $3B in Bonds up to $10M+ per VAT cycle
- SME Stimulus Zero Interest Government Guaranteed Loans – 5,000 loans at a cost of $300M
- Credit Union Loan Programme – 25,000 loans at a cost of $200M
- Micro-Enterprise Grant Programme – 5,000 grants at a cost of $30M
- Special EximBank USD window for importers of essential items – US$75M
- Accelerated clearing of outstanding Government payments due to contractors and suppliers – $2B
ROADMAP TO RECOVERY
Further, recognizing that we are all in this together, on July 1st , the Honourable Prime Minister, Dr. Keith Rowley announced the establishment of a broad based non-partisan team of persons from the public sector, private sector, labour, civil society and academia to create a Comprehensive Roadmap to Recovery, essentially a detailed and dynamic post Covid-19 programme to allow our country to get back on its feet, kickstart the economy and continue the programme of growth and development that was temporarily suspended by the Covid-19 lockdown.
The committee’s mandate was two-fold to be tackled in two phases as follows:
- In the First Phase, the Committee was asked to address the issue of “Surviving the Crisis”, to articulate measures to be implemented immediately to protect the vulnerable and ensure the health and well-being of the population; and to propose initiatives to “reignite economic activity and ensure social stability”.
- The Second Phase of the Committee’s work, currently in progress, is focused on the medium-term and is aimed at restructuring and transforming our economy, to create a more resilient, equitable, and self-sufficient society.
In the first Phase, the Committee focused on 3 immediate priorities:
- Addressing and mitigating the hardship inflicted by COVID-19
- Restarting the economy
- Laying the foundation for sustained economic recovery
The Committee concluded that the prevailing risks in the environment require increased focus by the Government during the next 12 months, as the instigator, influencer and facilitator of jobs and business activity. It also recognized that both the private and public sectors will have to play significant roles in the short-term to jumpstart the economy.
The Committee has identified the following as short-term objectives, which the PNM fully accepts and endorses:
- Social protection – leave no one behind
- Retain and create jobs
- Boost aggregate demand
- Minimize and remediate supply disruptions
Among the measures proposed by the Committee were the following:
- Increasing the allocation for Social Welfare and Support programmes, given that the number of persons accessing these programmes is expected to increase
- Implementing Safe Back to Work Protocols
- Adopting policy decisions to immediately boost and sustain the Agriculture Sector
- Providing direct support to Tobago Businesses and boosting local tourism
- Increasing spending in the Construction Sector by both the Government and the Private Sector
- Liquidating outstanding debts to contractors and accelerating priority construction projects
- Restructuring the Oil and Gas Industry to improve competitiveness and recalibrating ‘the gas value chain’
- Providing appropriate financial support to the Services, Retail, Distribution and Manufacturing sectors, in particular to SMEs, Entrepreneurs and other institutions at all levels through accelerated payment of VAT Refunds, Liquidity Support and Soft Loans
The PNM accepted these proposals.
The Committee has also defined a series of cogent, practical and compelling actions in the areas of:
- Improving the Ease of Doing Business
- Building Institutional Capacity
- Developing Critical Supporting Infrastructure
These enabling pillars will support and facilitate the success of the Recovery as they cut across sectors and enhance the adaptability of the society to the dynamic forces of digitization and the failing globalisation. These will become the critical enablers on which we must create a reimagined society and economy post-COVID19. Several of the initiatives proposed by the Committee in its Phase One Report have already been implemented by Government, with the Phase Two Report expected to be presented in the near term.
Our Covid-19 Response has received international accolades including being ranked First in the World by Oxford University, one of the most prestigious universities in the world, in terms of our ability to roll back the lockdown, as a result of the PNM Government’s performance in 4 indicators, namely:
- The overall government response
- A containment and health index (which combines ‘lockdown’ restrictions and closures with measures such as testing policy and contact tracing and investment in healthcare)
- An economic support index (which records measures such as income support and debt relief)
- The original stringency index (which records the strictness of ‘lockdown style’ policies that primarily restrict people’s behaviour)
Further, because of prudent and sound financial management of the PNM Government over the last 5 years, Trinidad and Tobago has also been ranked by the world-renowned Economist Magazine as 15th among 66 Emerging Economies in the World in terms of our financial capability to withstand the adverse effects of Covid-19.
We believe that our swift, purposeful and multifaceted response to Covid-19 has saved this country and our people significant grief and our progressive policies and programmes over the next 5 years, assisted by the recommendations of the Roadmap to Recovery Committee, and informed by our Vision 2030 Plan will ensure that Trinidad and Tobago’s future is positive and secure.