As Trinidad and Tobago enters its sixth month of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, Sunday Express investigations have placed the total cost to taxpayers of direct pandemic relief so far at about $4 billion.
In April, the Government instituted a range of financial Covid-related responses for businesses and people impacted by the fallout of the stay-at-home orders.
Those orders were implemented, with varying adjustments, for a three-month period from April to June.
While the economy remains open, the Government has held back on reopening the entertainment sector, given the recent Covid-19 clusters which began two weeks ago.
For Minister of Finance Colm Imbert to finance the Covid-related expenses (given that T&T energy revenues had declined and only yielded $3.3 billion for 2020 thus far), he had to draw down from the Heritage and Stabilisation Fund (HSF) the sum of US$600 million, access international loans and floated a US$500 million bond in June.
From that, and to help businesses with cash flow, the Ministry of Finance paid $1.3 billion in tax refunds in cash, $1 billion in value added tax (VAT) refund bonds and salary relief grants totalling $2.36 billion.
In his 2020 Supplementary Appropriation and mid-year review on June 12, in which he elucidated the Government’s Covid-19 response, Imbert said: “During this pandemic, whatever the health sector needs, the health sector will receive.”
“Substantial budgetary resources have been directed to the health sector, and this has been aided by external financial support. Additional medical personnel have been hired; medical equipment and personal protective equipment (PPE) have been sourced; hospitals and medical facilities have been, and are being, upgraded and commissioned where necessary; and specific sites are dedicated to treating infected people. Step-down convalescing facilities are in place.
“We have created a health system parallel to the traditional health facilities to respond specifically to the pandemic, which has been, and continues to be, an extremely effective approach,” he had said.
As of May, it has cost taxpayers $45 million for the parallel health system. (• See table below)
The Sunday Express sent questions to the Ministry of Health, but only got data up to May 31.
In June and July, the Government began repatriating citizens and increased the number of facilities available to the State to serve as quarantine centres. That data was not provided and would impact on the cost of the parallel health system.
In response to questions on Covid-19 expenditure, the Ministry of Health said during the period February to May 31:
1. The amount spent on the parallel system was $45 million.
2. The total spent on consumables (safety goggles, N95 masks, isolation gowns, sterile surgeon gowns, caps, shoe covers and methylated spirit was $18.2 million.
3. Total spent on equipment was $10.4 million.
4. Total spent on human resources was $15.8 million.
5. The total spent on sanitation was $2.4 million.
In June, Imbert had increased the allocation to the Ministry of Health to $224,582,640.
This, he said, was “to supplement the 2020 funding to facilitate payment to 11 new intensive care nurses from Cuba; 20 doctors attached to the Ministry of Health’s Covid-19 Hotline; and other staff in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Within the overall sum, $184,669,990 is required to supplement the allocation to the four regional health authorities (RHAs) to enable the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The funds are to meet the cost for consumables, infrastructure and equipment and the procurement of additional human resource services”.
Social Development Minister Camille Robinson-Regis said the Government has spent $284 million on social-protection measures for citizens.
These, she said, have impacted “the lives of more than 156,289 individuals and families, representing over 450,000 persons or approximately one-third of the national population over the last four months”.
1. Top up to 25,1010 beneficiaries of food support programme—$17.1 million
2. Top up to existing 17,834 Public Assistance beneficiaries—$11.4 million
3. Financial assistance for 24,627 people with varying disabilities—
4. 20,500 food cards were distributed at a cost of $31.4 million.
5. 2,818 applicants of the Senior Citizens’ Pension of $1,500—$12.7 million
6. 488 applicants of the Disability Assistance Grant—$1.5 million.
7. Emergency hamper distribution—$500,000.
8. Income and food support for 42,813—$185 million,
9. Rental support—$8,732,800.
10. Hamper collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture—$10 million.
11. Distribution to faith-based organisations—$30 million, of which $10,085,000 has been spent.
Questioned on whether the Covid-19 grants would end, given the Government had catered for three months of support for affected citizens, Robinson-Regis said: “We have still been accepting applications. However, the reduction in income or retrenchment must be as at mid-March and as a result of Covid-19.”
Imbert had increased the allocation to the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services to the sum of $581,794,321.
This, he said, was to required “to provide additional financial support to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to enable meals (lunch and dinner) to be provided to the homeless during the Covid-19 pandemic; to supplement the 2020 Senior Citizens’ Grant allocation to cater for existing beneficiaries and meet new expenditure associated with the increase in numbers of senior citizens accessing the grant; and to supplement the 2020 Social Assistance Programmes allocation to provide additional support to existing beneficiaries and assist with income support to families which experienced loss of income as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The impact on business
Chief executive of the Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Commerce Gabriel Faria told the Sunday Express the business body does not believe “that shutting down the country is the best option as we have seen all over the world, we must learn to live in a Covid world and take the necessary precautions.”
“The feedback from the medical experts is that this will probably continue for another year before a vaccine is widely available. Just yesterday, the US reported that GDP (gross domestic product) plunged 32.9 per cent for the second quarter on an annualised basis. I believe it was the worst drop ever in American history.
“Most of the business community do not have resources to withstand another lockdown and the country does not have the financial capacity to continue to support the population if this occurs,” he said.
He observed while the chamber does not have empirical evidence on business closures as a result of the stay-at-home measures, “the feedback we have, which is anecdotal, is less than five per cent of businesses, mostly micro and small, have closed permanently.”
“Many businesses held out in hope that the reopening would have delivered the sales to cover their operating costs, however, this has not proven to be so as consumer spending continues to be depressed due to the uncertainty of the future. Different sectors have seen varying levels of decline, and there is a very small group of businesses which have not been negatively impacted.
“Many businesses have borrowed money to continue to operate, in the hope of accessing the fiscal support packages announced, which took longer than expected to be released. I know several businesses which have applied, a few have been approved, but many of them are still waiting for approval,” he told the Sunday Express.
“Many businesses were also hoping to collect overdue vat refunds and overdue amounts owed for provision of services to Government as promised. While several businesses have received the overdue vat refunds, there appears to be many who have not received their overdue VAT refunds. We have not heard of any overdue suppliers who have been paid.
“It would be helpful if the Ministry of Finance could provide an update on the number of relief loans approved and amount disbursed, as well as the amounts of vat refunds and payments to suppliers actually collected by companies as it appears that the cheques are either still in the mail or have been returned to BIR (Board of Inland Revenue) and we have not been able to get any information from them,” he said.
“We are individually and collectively responsible for limiting the spread of this virus. We believe that the wearing of masks in all public spaces should be made mandatory. Given that we are faced with a public health emergency, if this policy can be made law by an order, with a penalty of non-compliance, the chamber supports its immediate implementation.
“We all have a stake in keeping Trinidad and Tobago safe and for protecting lives and livelihoods,” he added.