Andy-Johnson-Columnist-use

THE Minister of Social Development and Family Services was at the absolute top of her game last Wednesday during the national update to the country, as we began to witness what is now a significant uptick in Covid-19-positive cases.

Camille Robinson-Regis was scripted to deliver a situational as to where and how money had been allocated to individuals and families impacted negatively by the restrictions imposed in the wake of the pandemic in our midst.

She said the Government had spent a total of $284 million in such support over the last four months. The most significant portion of that was spent on provision of temporary income as well as food support to persons who were either retrenched, terminated or experienced reduce income. She said 42,813 families across the country benefited from such measures.

In tone, in poise, in composure, in measured delivery, the minister could not be faulted. What threatened to distract somewhat from the presentation, with a light showing up a vulnerable spot through her low-cut hairdo near the right front of the head, was quickly pushed aside, on the strength of what she was saying, and how she was coming across.

As of today, she said into the camera, “I can assure the population that the ministry has continued to provide support to more than 170,000 individuals and families whose major, and in some cases, only form of sustenance, came in the form of senior citizens pensions, public assistance grants, disability grants, food support and other support services.”

The presentation, strictly speaking, cannot be faulted against the clauses in the established code of conduct for ethical political behaviour, in an election season such as we are now deeply enmeshed. In fact, we are on the home stretch along that highway. Political operatives are signed on to the obligation against (a) the permission of the use or abuse of resources for political campaigns, and (b) use of funds derived from any source, public or private, to improperly influence electoral choices.

But it is fair to have concluded that the minister’s insertion in the Covid-19 update on July 29 had its motives fixed on the ballot boxes to be in use five days from today.

As if by divine providence, she got to be in the position in the Cabinet to be making such an intervention, on behalf of a team which goes into these elections riding the crest of a wave of goodwill from its general handling of the Covid-19 emergency. Hers was the kind of performance which would have evoked a response from my late mother-in-law, Irma Gaspard, “Take that!”

You could see Cherrie-Ann Critchlow-Cockburn staring into the TV screen and shouting, “It shoulda been me.”

But alas, there exists other compelling narratives about Covid-19 and us. In fact, several of them, with no such comforting realities, no less powerful, however. One travel agency operator in Port of Spain last week was relating a tale of woe in seeking to collect on long-overdue payments of VAT from the government. He says it is one set of runarounds from one VAT office staff member to the next, in frustrating bids to collect on almost $100,000 in payments due. The paperwork has been completed and submitted for months. His staff is still on rotation and working shortened days and hours, with nothing to do, given our closed borders over the last four months and counting. Airlines are telling customers with tickets they can’t use, through no fault of their own, collect from the agency. A few of his colleagues are making do with what little activity there is in the shipping business. This is current reality in the travel industry.

The morning after the minister’s presentation, there emerged a cry for help from what is said to be a Facebook group of 1,800 and counting, of persons who filed applications for salary relief grants and were still waiting.

“We would like to highlight this situation in the media because we feel the government is not entirely truthful with the public,” this message from Melissa Hodge said.

In direct conversation on the matter, she was weighing her chances against being further victimised by going public on the issue. But if it would bring some relief to her and others in similar situations, she said “it is worth it”.

The ministry has assigned direct lines for persons who have filed submissions, but nobody picks up on the other end. No response comes back from messages left on request.

“It is as if they are saying we have done enough, and we are done with this now. And they have just pushed it aside. But some of us are really struggling. For me, I have no other choice, (but to go public). It is either make or break,” she said, her voice choking up, evidence of the appearance of tears on the end of this line.

To paraphrase Peter Truman, a Toronto-area television news anchor of the 1970s, the stories of the travel agency operator, Ms Hodge and others like them, may not be news, but they too, are reality.

• Andy Johnson is a veteran journalist

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