In jeans and tee-shirt. With push-toe rubber or leather slippers on his feet.
That, I imagined, was how Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, interviewed by Natalee Ligoure before fielding questions from the public on i95.5fm on Sunday, was dressed. In my mind’s eye, I saw the Mason Hall native walking alongside the Jamaican interviewer, on their way to the beach at Moriah or Plymouth. The sun was on their backs and at their back were a bevy of technical people making the broadcast possible.
I did not, unlike Patrick Manning in Parliament in 2008, ‘see hate, (…) bitterness, (…) animosity, (…) acrimony and a man completely out of control’. The PM’s manner was avuncular, paternal even, his tone accommodating, reassuring even when searching questions provoked a guarded response rather than a straight answer.
That is what crisis can do. In a crisis, Lloyd Best famously said, all answers are wrong.
The one that provoked the PM’s unscripted appearance on national radio, almost all experts seem to agree, represents an existential threat. COVID-19 endangers life almost everywhere, not just the lives of us here in Trinidad and Tobago.
But the way some of us are reacting, you wouldn’t think so.
In the hour preceding the PM’s interview, listeners had also been encouraged to comment on another hot topic. Fifa has moved to replace the board duly elected last November with a normalisation committee. For some, a crisis of significant proportions though not on the same scale.
Legally, some felt, the TTFA is on thin ice; the statutes by which Fifa runs world football give them the right to send in their dogs as they see fit. And not even government can bring them to heel. Still, most callers seemed to see Massa’s signature in Fifa’s high-handed intervention.
And many expressed contempt for locals like the Pro League Executive and the former TTFA finance manager who had seemingly conspired with the umbrella body to provoke the intervention. They also condemned those who had openly expressed approval of it.
On COVID-19, most callers seemed to approve government’s handling so far. However, the Panchayat host, a generally reasonable, balanced commentator, was clearly displeased that people were being asked to queue up to get into markets.
“We are market people,” he repeatedly objected.
Which led me to conclude that claustrophobia is in our genes. Crisis or not, don’t ask people to change their habits. As if crises somehow respect people’s habits or can be overcome without sacrifice.
By Sunday, the swelling number of confirmed COVID-19 cases worldwide had already exceeded 330,000, with deaths numbering 14,500-plus. In T&T, we had had not a single death and all 50 confirmed cases had been imported.
The T&T curve remains flat, allowing the health system, with all its acknowledged limits, to cope very well so far. But PM Rowley was acutely aware that if he failed to convince us all of how real the threat is, the numbers could change dramatically overnight.
And, perish the thought, allow all hell to break loose …
Government’s current position appears to be that a man convinced against his will …
So Rowley was at his seductive best. We have a big stick, he warned, but we prefer not to have to use it. We are all together in the same leaky boat. And whether or not we stay afloat depends on the degree to which each of us is prepared to contribute to the communal effort. Or, perhaps more accurately, on the degree to which none of us is prepared to work against the advice of those who must call the shots.
A teacher friend of mine is not at all optimistic about how things will go.
“I think we aren’t doing too badly so far,” I told him. He seemed to have been waiting for precisely that comment.
“Since 1990, Trinis know what is Uzi diplomacy and what is SLR love,” he said, his tone lugubrious. “Now we’re about to find out about the ravages wreaked on private lives by the forced intimacy of COVID-19.”
Explain, I prompted.
“You know it wouldn’t be long before we’re on complete lockdown?” he shot back. “Well, forget La Peste, now is Huis Clos time! Remember ‘Hell is other people’?”
Huis Clos (No Exit) is a play by Jean-Paul Sartre, in which those four famous words first appeared. And in France, where things are not yet quite as bad as in neighbouring Spain or Italy, people are snatching up all available copies of La Peste (The Plague). In that novel, Sartre’s Existentialism colleague Albert Camus paints a compelling picture of what can happen in a place when something comes along that requires people to surrender some of the freedoms society tends to take for granted.
“It is normal,” the Nobel Prize-winning writer/philosopher has famously said, “to give away a little of one’s life in order not to lose it all.”
Maybe in the last century, I found myself thinking afterwards, everyone agreed with that. Maybe in today’s France people still agree. But in T&T in 2020? I doubt it. Yesterday’s Express front page speaks volumes. Will tomorrow’s reveal a ram-cram Corona party à la 1990? And will there be more shocking stories about price gouging and bars staying open and rampant selfishness?
Remember Sartre’s ‘Hell is other people’? The Trini version is ‘To hell with other people.’ Didn’t John Maynard Keynes, the renowned 20th-century British economist say ‘In the long run, we are all dead’?
So I emerged from Sunday and Monday with three unsettling four-word conclusions of my own. First, selflessness seldom trumps WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?). Second, given the nature of the opposing forces, if the TTFA is to win its battle with Fifa or T&T its battle against COVID-19, we shall need miracles.
And third, Rowley’s relaxation masks resignation.