The five years before Covid-19 hit were years of economic decline for Trinidad and Tobago.
When Covid reared its ugly head in Wuhan, China, we blocked travel from China. When Covid spread beyond China, we locked down and began bracing for it with closed borders.
As we entered the shutdown phase, economic activity dwindled, joblessness increased, we initiated relief measures and went into survival mode. As we opened up slowly again, restoring closed businesses, we are still in the survival phase, as businesses try to recoup and to retrieve their business. Nationally, we continue in the survival, recoup and retrieve stage.
Many businesses have closed, never to reopen. Many workers in the private sector have lost their jobs. Some companies have initiated salary cuts.
Covid, now with clusters and community spread and with deaths every day, makes our situation uncertain, and somewhat grim, as is the case for many countries. And we are yet to embark on a recovery plan with a clear set of actions.
The 2021 budget presents an opportunity to begin a recovery plan, to make a departure from the policies, actions and decisions of the last five years where it makes sense to do so. To take advantage of this ground zero situation to make a fresh start and to take breakout actions, to initiate action on economic restructuring as we build a diversified, new economy, accelerated by the transformation taking place all around us, in the work place and work life, the reduction in the need for travel, the intensification of online services and the increase in online business and the transformation of schooling, home life, social relations and human engagement.
Covid is not a purely national problem, nor should a Covid recovery plan be seen as a purely Government responsibility. One has to manage nationally, of course, but we are dealing with a world problem, and the recovery strategy requires more than Government action in Trinidad and Tobago, which means the Government’s meaningful engagement and involvement of the national community in its many dimensions. It also means involvement and engagement of critical elements of the international system on which we sometimes depend.
The case I am making here is the case for a dramatic change in the attitude, tone and disposition of the 2021 elected, Keith Rowley-led Government. Dr Rowley’s Government has a new mandate, a slim parliamentary majority, and Trinidad and Tobago has a formidable task ahead of it. What this task involves is a national recovery in a world recession context, where navigation has to take place in uncharted waters, for us as well as for other countries, in a time when our energy export, revenue and forex base, the core of our existence for the last seven decades at least, has been decimated.
The above do not absolve us of our entirely home-made mistakes, bad decisions and missed opportunities, nor will we be absolved from the necessity of acknowledging the foreign exchange and balance-of-trade crisis which stares us in the face and the need to act now.
But for us to overcome this crisis, in a context in which the president of the IMF has estimated that 90 per cent of the world’s population will be living in reduced circumstances after Covid, the people of Trinidad and Tobago need to understand the demands of a recovery effort and be part of the solutions. National institutions and stakeholders also need to buy in, and external support of a partnership kind is necessary.
I therefore propose that the Government do the following well before October 5, Budget Day.
1. Full parliamentary honesty and accountability and disclosure to the population to make a fresh start on the state of the country’s finances, comprehensive debt obligations direct and contingent, a realistic indication of the number of businesses which have closed, a realistic assessment of the extent of joblessness in the society, number of actual disbursements to citizens and businesses in the various categories of grants and loans allocated for this purpose, and the up-to-date expenditure figure on Covid-related expenses. It is important to do this in Parliament.
2. The multilateral agencies have been either helpful to T&T with loans and grants in our initial response to Covid or have offered to help. We need to bring these multi-laterals into the picture in a meaningful way, outlining a three-year development plan, accompanying fiscal plan and an indication of operational expenditure patterns over the next three years.
3. The same should be done with the rating agencies which determine our solidity in the finance and investment markets focusing on the issues that are important to them, and examining how we upgrade our rating in relatively short time.
4. Submissions have been invited from stakeholders for possible influence on the 2021 budget by the Minister of Finance. The Government needs to make a genuine commitment to create a structured forum to engage these contributors after the budget is passed.
5. In the three-year plan, make provision for a pre-vaccine strategy and a post-vaccine strategy, including necessary preparation and action in the pre-vaccine Covid period for the post-vaccine Covid period.
I have more suggestions, some pre-budget, others for the budget, but these five, and the contextual frame that accompany them, will do for now.
—Bhoe Tewarie is a former MP, minister of planning and UWI principal.