The Cambridge English Dictionary defines “unreality” as “the quality of not being or seeming to be real”.
Will what awaits us after August 10 subdue the unreality that normally pervades a general election campaign in Trinidad and Tobago? Will we be real?
The pandemic is by no means over. While more than 11.8 million cases of Covid-19 have now been reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO), with more than 544,000 deaths, it is “still accelerating”, says WHO, with the total number of cases doubling in the last six weeks.
And things are worsening in our hemisphere. The Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) revealed that in the Americas, cases reached 5.9 million last Monday, with almost 267,000 deaths. PAHO says in the previous week, “there were 735,000 new cases in the region, with an average of over 100,000 cases reported every day.” Very importantly, “new patterns are emerging. Two months ago, the United States accounted for 75 per cent of the cases in our hemisphere. This past week, the US reported just under half, while Latin America and the Caribbean registered more than 50 per cent of the cases”. UN Secretary General António Guterres says this region has become a “hotspot of the pandemic”.
Not surprisingly, the World Bank says the outlook for the global economy “has darkened”. It projects slowing trade and investment, rising debt vulnerabilities in low-income countries, and large food price spikes accentuating poverty throughout the world. Indeed the UN expects poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean to jump to 37.2 per cent in 2020; and extreme poverty to reach 15.5 per cent, leaving 230 million poverty-stricken people.
Trinidad and Tobago’s economic prospects are already worsening. The Caribbean Information and Credit Rating Services (Caricris) has revised T&T’s ratings from stable to negative, based on projections for economic growth in 2021 and “over the medium-term”; and chairman of the Heritage and Stabilisation Fund (HSF) Ewart Williams has called for an “urgent” review of the HSF Act, given the “extremely limited” prospect for accumulating large surpluses going forward.
Our situation is particularly precarious because of the enormous ineptitude of the present administration which will end up producing an unprecedented five consecutive years of economic contraction, 2016-2020. Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley started it with one of his first moves as prime minister, the appointment of Colm Imbert as finance minister. The announcement was greeted with utter disbelief. There was a certain unreality about it. Among many, a growing gloom accompanied the bewilderment.
Fears have proven justified. For five years, Imbert, with Rowley’s blessings, ignored what should have been obvious from day one: that whilst Trinidad and Tobago had talked diversification for decades, it was now do or die. We were in dire need of new foreign revenue streams. Energy earnings dropped from $19 billion to under $2 billion in 2016; and in 2017, the Government’s total revenue was $36.2 billion, its lowest in a decade.
We made up for deficits by borrowing, the nation’s debt standing at TT$120 billion around January this year, Standard and Poor’s citing in its downgrade “the country’s debt burden and interest burden over 2017-2020”. Moody’s joined the increasingly insistent call for “reform that enhances economic diversification”. But Rowley raged at the “annoying” term and in his voluminous verbiage from five budget speeches, Imbert never gave this crying need any real focus. Instead he chose to sing about “doing it my way”, confirming the unreality of his appointment as he took campaigning and self-promotion into the deadly serious business of saving our economy from collapse. And he was supported all the way by his prime minister. Unreal!
These two had each spent over 30 years in Parliament, yet they were so completely out of step with global developments, they expected a return to boom times. Such frightening inadequacy in leadership! The global energy revolution was unfolding before them, yet they ignored the danger to the nation if diversification was delayed.
So, an important question to be answered is this. In the unreality that our election campaigns bring, how many voters will ask Rowley and Imbert to account for their scandalous irresponsibility? How many will enquire how they couldn’t see the enduring global oil and gas glut coming from dramatic international developments: the shale revolution transforming the United States from the largest importer to the largest exporter of oil and natural gas; technology improving accuracy in exploration and producing massive discoveries on and off-shore; and the arrival of the renewables revolution, including the electrification of transportation, all together permanently depressing energy prices and decimating national revenue.
How many voters will ask these two leading figures in the Cabinet why, in the face of this overwhelming evidence calling for a new economic direction, they buried their heads while the nation’s economic strength drained away, foreign reserves dropping by 34 per cent, US$4 billion evaporating.
Will we question Rowley and Imbert, or will we accept it when they claim it is the pandemic that has caused our present plight? Will we grow up as a nation or will unreality reign again?