Sprawling and flanked by massive trees and well-manicured lawns, The University of The West Indies St Augustine campus, was a place always teeming with students, lecturers and academics.
This has changed with the advent of Covid-19. Conferences, teaching and learning have gone virtual in the highest seat of learning in Trinidad and Tobago. Campus activity is severely restricted. The students’ dormitories - Canada and Freedom Halls - have been converted into convalescent homes for Covid-19 patients.
Even the buoyant commerce that had sprung up inside and outside the environs of the “University Town” has dwindled or dried up completely. Bars, doubles, sno cones, food vendors and mini mart proprietors have reported slower sales in surrounding communities. Dwindling sales have mounted against the Covid-19 background of unemployment, people being furloughed, and put on rotation.
To compound it, landlords have collected absolutely “no income” since March. Collectively, the surrounding Eastern business communities in Curepe, St Augustine and Tunapuna are also negatively affected financially.
Small businesses, companies, and landlords are silently hoping, watching and praying that Covid-19 will abate, or a much-needed vaccine will be found. They are yearning for students to return to school, and for adults to return to work. Members of the business community are hurting since they, too, need money to pay their bills and meet other expenses. Several businesspeople said they have to eat and drink, take care of themselves and their families, just like other Covid-19 impacted citizens. They also want people to view them “not as money-making monsters, but as human beings impacted by Covid-19”.
$200,000 loss since March
At Watts Street in St Augustine, landlord Terry Sookram, 46, said he has lost about $200,000 since March. Sookram and his wife Leona rent apartments to about 12 university students. A studio apartment goes for $2,700 monthly. He has three sons to care for. The majority of the tenants are students who can’t make the commute from the Central and Southern communities daily. Commuting can be time-consuming, and interfere with precious study and research time.
Mounting the stairs, Sookram said: “I would have lost about $200,000. I still have to pay the Wi-Fi, which is about $800. All the apartments are empty. No students. Just the bed, kitchen and toilet and bath. We are hoping the Covid-19 will abate and they will get a vaccine. We could open up again. I may consider reducing it (rent) to $2,500.
“I am still trying to help people get work. I have a Cuban handyman helping me keep the place clean. If the students can’t or won’t return, I will look at renting out the studio apartments to working people like nurses at Mt Hope Hospital. I have to put in a car park,” added Sookram.
Sookram yearns for the youthful activity and conviviality among his academic tenants. He said: “I have good students. We screen them well. We interview their parents. They are young. They would have some fun. They love to cook eggs for breakfast. We miss them.”
Sookram, too, was impacted, by the pandemic. After 22 years of dedicated service at Allied Caterers at Piarco International Airport, he took a compensatory package.
He said: “I chose to accept a package. I can’t contribute to my pension because the State took the 25 per cent cut. The apartments were my only other source of income. Some of the other landlords around here are not getting any income for months. They would send a sad face. No smiley face.”
Struggling to pay bills
At the entrance to the same Watts Street property, mini mart proprietor Indra Kalloo said: “Since March, the university has shut down. So we have had no income. Slow sales. Primary and secondary schools closed down, too. Children would pass by. I just paid last month’s electricity bill, this month. I have still have water bill to pay.”
Kalloo is prepared to work long hours, but she is petrified about the escalating crime situation in the community.
She said: “In September, they held up the Chinese restaurant. Some time ago, they held me up. I crouched under the counter, grabbed the phone and called the police. They fled.”
The fast food restaurant adjoining her establishment, which sold fried chicken and fries, has been closed since March.
Kalloo said: “My son tried to accommodate the gentleman but he could not make the $1500 rent so he closed it down.”
Giving an inside glimpse into a changed campus life, university employee Naipaul Smith said: “It’s quiet. You are seeing one person every half an hour. More than half of the lecturers are working from home. The other half are on campus. The cafeterias are closed. No suppliers and caterers are on site.”
In a telephone interview last Friday, St Augustine Campus History lecturer Dr Akiel Murray, who is also a former Express Young Writers judge, said: “It’s true. I just finished an online class. Students can’t congregate or be on campus. It’s not banishment but that’s just in keeping with the protocols. The two halls... Canada Hall, and Freedom Hall are occupied. Security is tight. It’s like a steel trap. They are quizzing people mercilessly. I went to use the ATM in August. It’s the last time.
“All the apartments are vacant. All the students went home. Students have to use online resources from the library for research. They have links to other websites where they can access information and reading material. The staff can use the West Indiana library. But you have to set up an appointment,” added Murray.
Lucky to make $3,000
to $4,000 in sales
The Lighthouse business establishment on Pasea Main Road, Tunapuna, borders The UWI. There, supervisor Nicole Martin said: “We have been struggling. Slow sales. Sales are not where we would like it to be. We went down to three quarters of where we would like to be. Just before Covid-19, the economy was not doing soo well. It was not as buoyant. We were lucky if we made $3,000 to $4,000 in sales. We are considered non essential. We are a luxury item. So people would focus on the basics like food, medicines, and paying bills first.
“We have had to cut salaries, because we don’t want to send home people. We are hoping that the Covid-19 situation will not get much worse.”
Martin likened Covid-19 to getting a wound.
“You have to clean it, and put a plaster on it and continue your work. You can’t remove the finger or arm. It’s like people who have a disability. They have to learn to cope with it. Life goes on. We have to return to some semblance of normal life,” said Martin.
A mere two months away from Christmas, a festival of lights, Martin said the Lighthouse is toying with the idea of selling Christmas lights.
She said: “We have to continue talks with the purchasing department. We have to set a good mark-up price.”
Desks and LED lamps, fetching $400 and up, continue to be hot sellers.
“A number of people have had to work from home. People are buying them for their children. About three weeks ago, LED lamps sales were soaring. We sold about 30. It has now trickled down,” said Martin.
Old cars need parts
Between smoking a cigarette and drinking black coffee, Tunapuna businessman Narin Mahabir, said he is going to downsize. “I will still sell (car) parts. I am not worried about the limited importation of foreign used cars. It’s a fact, showroom cars will get old. People need batteries and bolts.
“There are always old cars on the roads. Cars always breaking down. People into agriculture need parts for cranky vehicles. They won’t take a new vehicle to their plots. Parts go from $20 to $300.”
Next door, his brother Atma Mahabir, who operates a supermarket, added: “Sales cut down by 40 per cent. Cigarettes and rum are still selling. People are buying rice, flour, sugar and oil. They making plenty bakes and sada roti. Everybody is saying, “sales are down.”
In Curepe, doubles vendor Jerome Seales lamented that sales are slow. He thanked Express photographer Robert Taylor for putting in an appearance, saying: “Suddenly, people are coming to buy doubles with plenty pepper and kuchela ($6).” A nearby hot dog vendor said: “You have to cook the food properly. People are no longer drinking (at the bars). So every hot dog has to be well done. People are looking at value ($10) for money.”
Ameen: No UWI students, increase in crime
St Augustine MP Khadijah Ameen says she’s aware of the loss of income and the spate of rarmed robberies.
In a telephone interview last week, Ameen said: “What we have is the apartment rental business. I have seen what appears to be an influx of foreign nationals, now, renting in these apartments close to UWI. Residents have expressed concern about it. Around the campus, there are businesses that support students with stationery, supermarkets and food places. They have been really hard hit. Even though there are surrounding residents, the UWI students access the majority of goods and services.
“There have been hold-ups. Some of them are held up at gunpoint. Bandits come with knives and cutlasses. A few business people are forced to spend more money but they hire security. Based on the situation, it’s useless for the security to risk his life.”
Ameen says she has been empathising with her constituents.
She said: “ I have been told by two business owners they were fearful about making a report. I have another scenario where a business place was robbed. The owners got fed up going to court when the case started. They prefer to spend their time at home because of the slow pace of justice. The slowdown of the justice system is having a negative impact. It is further discouraging businessmen from reporting crimes. It would not be a true reflection of what is happening on the ground.”
Ameen said the “informal economy” which comprises “hucksters,” who sell chow, doubles, soup or coconut has been impacted.
She said: “They don’t have a business establishment, so the UWI student is an option for them. They may not have a restaurant or an establishment in a building. Some of the businesses may be owned by people who live outside. Doubles vendors are negatively impacted. Many of these people don’t have a permanent job otherwise.”
On the way forward, Ameen said: “I have called on the police to meet with members of the business community. The UWI police has a patrol system that goes beyond the gates. I think it might be worthwhile to have a collaboration with UWI police and TTPS. I want to ask the TTPS to come and meet with the businessmen to make a plan in terms of what would be most suitable in going forward.
“I am concerned even if we open up the economy, people would have no or less income because of the massive job loss. I have been advocating for the Tunapuna/Piarco Regional Corporation to pay a major role in creating and supporting mall and large business enterprises. At Eddie Hart Ground, there is that sort of operation. A vendor can sell without renting a spot, or pay a nominal fee. I would ask the State to give the help needed to stimulate the local economy.”
Several efforts to contact Tunapuna MP Esmond Forde for comment on this story proved futile.