Exactly one year ago today Trinidad and Tobago closed its borders to the world and hunkered down against Covid-19. On top of this, the Government imposed a visa-like exemption requirement under which special permission was required for everyone, including citizens, wishing to enter or leave the country.
No one could have imagined that one year later, the borders would still be closed. Of all the policy initiatives implemented by the Government in response to the pandemic, the year-long closure of borders has been the most economically crippling and socially controversial, with consequences that are likely to be felt long after T&T reopens to the world.
We had the ugly spectacle of the now famous 33 Trinidad and Tobago nationals, senior citizens and all, having been allowed respite in Barbados, while the authorities in their home country refused to budge. They had the ill-luck of trying to rush back home, cutting short a cruise of a lifetime, only to be refused entry when they got to Barbados. When they eventually made it back, and into more local quarantine, they produced a huge publicly displayed “Thank You” card to the authorities in Barbados.
While maintaining an attitude of intransigence on this scenario, the Minister of National Security was hard pressed to explain the rationale which led to the okaying of a flight into the country headed by the Venezuelan vice president and including other government officials.
Unlike the tourism economies of the Caribbean whose very survival depends on keeping their borders open, T&T’s energy-based economy could afford a prolonged border closure with special provisions for the energy sector to continue functioning without major disruption. The impact elsewhere in the economy is however more pronounced. As a surprise speaker at last Thursday’s edition of the current Conversations with the Prime Minister series, the Finance Minister disclosed that $18 billion was spent in assorted disbursements addressing various Covid-related restrictions. It is expenditure the country could ill-afford, in the best of what figures as our current circumstances.
On the business side, we are yet to calculate the impact on Caribbean Airlines whose future must surely be hanging in the balance. Hard-hit but still unquantified is the toll levied on the tourism sector, cultural and entertainment industries, support services of all kinds and the swathe of small and medium-sized businesses. Shop fronts and store windows in shopping centres and malls across the country tell an increasing tale of abandonment. These represent the more visible signs of this ongoing crisis within a crisis.
While the government hails the sustained border closure as the key policy decision that has kept infection and deaths relatively low in T&T, the jury is still out on whether more of the economy could have been spared through managed border control.
As he issued the marching orders to the Covid-19 Road to Recovery team he put together last April, the Prime Minister presented a scenario in which action was an urgent requirement. He started off by asking, in light of the recent oil shocks, and the prevailing uncertainty, “where, with what and how should we diversify our economy”.
We expect that answers are at least near at hand to this list of questions and concerns, upon which the mission of the Road Map team was launched.