A grinding, Covid-fuelled poverty is spreading across the land which requires an urgent and aggressive response from the Government.
While organised interests are equipped to represent themselves, this group consists of individuals who were on the margins of the economy even before the pandemic hit. They made up the micro-economies around schools, fetes, football matches and other events. They kept the cultural and entertainment sector alive and provided domestic help to persons who have since let them go for fear of viral infection. They found employment in daycare centres and preschools which are now closed. They drove children to and from school, ran errands for persons now working from home and served as tour guides to tourists and other visitors. Their ranks are swollen by a large number of itinerant and transient labourers who can no longer find the odd job to make ends meet.
On a daily basis our reporters encounter these persons who do not know where their next meal is coming from and are threatened with eviction or foreclosure because of unpaid rent or mortgage.
We are concerned by the Government’s silence which stands in stark contrast to its urgent response in March following the first cases of Covid-19 infection. The Government earned high marks from a grateful nation for moving swiftly to cushion the impact of its decision to shut down non-essential activity with three-month grants for food, rent and lost salaries along with deferment of utility bills and bank loans. It was as if the pipeline to the Treasury had been opened.
However, even with all of this, thousands of people who had either never been captured by the State’s social welfare system or not yet in receipt of grants were left begging for food, prompting a massive relief effort from NGOs and, eventually, a multi-million package for food hampers from the Government.
After the relaxation of restrictions, the hope that the economy would pick and restore lost jobs proved short-lived. Seeing a window, the Prime Minister called the general election, sending thousands of political supporters into campaigns that defied Covid-19 regulations and blew T&T’s success in keeping Covid-19 spread under control.
Over the past three months, Covid-19 deaths rocketed from eight to 111. The second lockdown came without the re-institution of the three-month State-funded financial buffers apart from an extension of grants for persons in the creative sector whose applications have been surprising low.
The idea that relief specific to the impact of Covid-19 was a one-and-done effort from the Government is unacceptable. The Government simply cannot simply wash its hands of the responsibility for looking after the most vulnerable knowing that many persons are not covered by the Ministry of Social Development.
The cynical view would be that the great show of State compassion in late March was due to the pending general election. Whether or not this is so, and notwithstanding T&T’s straitened circumstances, the Government must recognise the need for a second relief package to prevent a growing number of citizens from falling through the cracks. It cannot close its eyes to the plight of a growing number of citizens.