Theodore Lewis

Professor Theodore Lewis

In his wisdom Eric Williams gave us three watchwords at Independence, the first of which was discipline. Historian that he was, Dr Williams would have known that for countries much older and more established than ours, discipline more than any other attribute, would have been the quality that helped them overcome crises (such as disease, war, famine) that posed existential threats to their flourishing.

One of the vulnerabilities of our still-fledgling country is that our citizenry has never had to deal with existential crises. Some may say, well, we did have one or two attempted coups that were disorienting. I do not view those as character-building opportunities. What I speak about here is hardship of a kind that constitutes a crucible out of which emerges hardened citizens, with the resolve to fight back—to rebuild. I view our coup attempts as the opposite of this. I see them instead as arguments in support of the view that we, as other third world ex-colonies, are undisciplined—prone to anarchy.

In assessing our own situation, we could develop some sense of where we ought to be in the pandemic by extrapolating from US numbers. The US population is 327 million, and as of March 21, the number of COVID-19 cases there was 22,738 cases, with the number of deaths being 288. These numbers are relatively bearable, considering that in just one day—March 20—Italy had 670 deaths. Using US figures as a guide, we should at this point have seen 84 cases and two deaths. We are within these limits.

Singapore has 5.6 million people, and so far, has had 290 cases, of whom 140 were discharged. There have been two deaths.

Singapore is a good country for us to benchmark. We are doing well to this point.

Smart money is for us to keep the virus from spreading, and that means cutting out liming and fetes, and just staying home.

That is the discipline challenge we have.

The COVID-19 virus is the first real test we have had since independence to employ discipline against a common enemy.

On the BBC on the day of writing this, a doctor from a Scandinavian country said that medicine constituted a poor defence against the disease. Instead he said, the best defence was in the social and behavioural realms.

What we need here are not respirators or magical cures from Cuba. Rather, what we need is discipline.

If it comes down to hospitalisation and medicine here, we will witness tragedy on a scale we have never known.

We saw in the case of China with 1.4 billion people, that there was a powerful display of discipline. Things are on their way back to normal there.

Our instinct rails against order. It is not who we are. Some people saw the opportunity for curry duck and trips to Caura.

But I went to a major supermarket this week and it was virtually empty. We are catching on. Everyone can see what is occurring, not just in Italy and Spain, but in New York. Things will be grim if there is no discipline. We can see the draconian steps taken in India.

In most of the big countries of the world, history helps the people deal with crises such as this. The UK could look back to the 17th century to the great plague of 1655 where in August alone in that year there were over 30,000 deaths.

The Great Depression of 1929 wreaked havoc with the US economy. Many banks failed. Unemployment and homelessness became the norm. People from the middle classes found themselves on bread lines and in soup kitchens. Unemployment was 25 per cent. That hardship has had a lasting influence on the American character. I lived in the American midwest for 25 years and found the people there to be reflexively frugal and disciplined. Even in walking within a public building, and climbing steps, they maintain the logic of driving by always keeping on the right-hand side. They do not throw away used household items—instead, they hold garage sales. Everyday discipline.

During the Second World War the Japanese suffered the grim fate of atomic bombing. The country proceeded to draw on itself, emerging from the ravages of war to lead the “Asian Tigers” in a wave of economic growth, driven by manufacturing based on quality principles. Toyota is very much the standard of excellence in the auto industry. In 2016, an earthquake struck the country and the tsunami that followed in its wake caused 16,000 deaths. There was also a nuclear plant mishap. The people responded to all this with stoicism—discipline.

Singapore has risen from having been conquered by Japan in a 1942 war. It is now among the top five economies in the world, and one of the most disciplined. They have a law there prohibiting spitting on the streets and chewing gum is banned.

It’s a country with a 5.6 million people, four times ours. The number of murders committed there in in 2017 was 11. In T&T the number that year was 495.

Our Carnival was one month ago, February 24 and 25. We saw Nicki Minaj here. And tourist ships. We should not have had the Carnival. But it was the same with Ebola. Different government same gambling. Polio, Jaws, Corona, the mas must go on.

Elections coming. Governments too must model discipline. We will see soon enough if we are up to this. The smart money is on staying home.

Discipline. Production. Tolerance.

—Theodore Lewis is Professor

Emeritus at the University of Minnesota

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