“We have gone seven days without a new case of Covid-19,” said AZP News journalist Prior Beharry, a former government advisor during the tenure of the UNC-led People’s Partnership, “is this you think an indictment on the way that you are handling things so far in this crisis; and have we seen the curve flatten?”
Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh took a moment to inspect the pitch.
“In what context are you using the word ‘indictment’?” asked Deyalsingh.
The thesaurus states that indictment is interchangeable with words like ‘charge’, ‘accusation’, ‘allegation’ and ‘imputation’. But then Beharry, as an orator, often seems to be reengineering the meaning of words in mid-sentence.
If public speaking carried the same rules as basketball, the referee would be constantly whistling Beharry for ‘traveling’.
The journalist rephrased the question to show that there was no hidden malice.
“How you think you have managed it?” asked Beharry. “Because of the measures you have used, do you think that has something to do with [the fact that] no new cases have cropped up in the past seven days?”
Deyalsingh is too well-advised to begin doing victory ‘dabs’. Medical professionals, including World Health Organisation (WHO) director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, have repeatedly warned that the novel coronavirus is likely to attack in two or three waves.
However, a month after the first confirmed Covid-19 case, few can argue that Trinidad and Tobago has not done as well as anyone might have expected—if not better. (At least based on the data provided by the Ministry of Health and in the absence of credible evidence to the contrary.)
Deyalsingh often opens his press conferences with statistical milestones related to the global pandemic. Perhaps Beharry’s question marked another. Even a former UNC advisor was ready to give the health minister a public pat between the shoulder blades.
So what now? Do we start slowly picking up the pieces with a gradual return to normalcy?
Or is ‘Corona’ already preparing for the dreaded ‘double tap’ to catch us unawares?
“Any talk at this time about opening anything is premature and will feed into a narrative in the public domain that is contrary to what we are trying to do,” said Deyalsingh, “that is to keep people at home. The message coming out today should be one of caution.
“[It] should be one of prevention of community spread; and the only way we can do that is to stay home.”
The health minister said similar when another journalist asked for indicators that the government is looking for before deciding to fully reopen the economy.
“Based on science and medical opinion, the Honourable Prime Minister [Dr Keith Rowley] will gauge [when to resume ‘non-essential’ services],” said Deyalsingh. “[But] loose talk will put us right back to the stone ages…”
Of course, Deyalsingh had the science right next to him to his left, in the form of chief medical officer Dr Roshan Parasram. But, as usual, they opted to keep that information under wraps.
His response was the sort of the thing that children would get from irritated parents.
“Mammy, why can’t I stay up later?”
Deyalsingh is justified in trying to avoid a false sense of security from seeping into the public—as much as that is possible when they would also note the drastic slowdown in confirmed cases.
Whether the government ought to deny the public such information is another question that might speak to the ideological relationship between local politicians and the electorate.
Rowley, Deyalsingh and hundreds before them were elected to office by members of the public. But, once there, they often seem to transform from the neighbour you voted in to look out for your interests and that of the state’s, to a wanna-be ‘Father, Mother or Uncle of the Nation’.
You would try answer your brother or sister if they asked a question. But you might think it perfectly fine to respond to your child with: ‘zed’.
We are trying to save your lives, is the unspoken sentiment from the head table, so don’t worry your little head with the details—just follow our instructions and we will all be fine. Even if well-intentioned, that sentiment feels patronising at best; and probably provokes insomnia in persons capable of ‘joined-up thinking’.
Why won’t they just tell us?
Other than the persons who may feel automatically suspicious when a politician dodges a question, there are also citizens who—as is their legitimate right—pledge loyalty to a different political leader.
Opposition parties oppose. The quality of the contributions might differ according to the members of your team but the philosophy, if you would call it that, is the same regardless of which party finds itself on the wrong side of the house.
Minister of National Security Stuart Young and Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi appeared enthusiastic to use Covid-19 press conferences to take potshots at the UNC, while Rowley and Deyalsingh have not been immune to that temptation either.
It is not that the condemnation was always unwarranted. But is it helpful? Does it give Trinidad and Tobago a better chance of a collective triumph against the new coronavirus?
Al-Rawi, when asked whether the ruling PNM government might meaningfully engage the UNC in its fight to flatten the curve, pointed to the antagonistic behaviour of some opposition members.
Again, I’d rather not address whether he does or not have a point. Instead, I’d like him to think in terms of the challenge ahead of us.
Is there a sector of the society that will react more positively to ‘stay at home’ orders if opposition leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar had a video asking them to do so? Would some persons be more willing to accept the list of essential and non-essential services if Roodal Moonilal or Wade Mark had a place on the evaluating committee?
What’s the worst that could happen? That the decision to close rum shops—if Moonilal really chose to debate Parasram on the point—is not unanimous but goes through anyway?
Yes, meetings may go a bit longer. But the result might be that thousands or tens of thousands are more open to the advice of the government.
It would not take away from the fact that the PNM was in charge for this health crisis. (Not that either party should be thinking in terms of which side can take credit from this battle when all is done and dusted.)
The current government has no reason to feel insecure. Based on current information, the gamble to hold Carnival 2020—a major boon for the country in economic and psychological terms—paid off.
The much-maligned health sector has held up quite well, despite a couple hiccups. And there ought to be appreciation for the effort by the persons involved in the essential services, from law enforcement to banking, garbage collection, groceries, pharmacies, public utilities and, yes, even media houses, which take blows so that persons with genuine concerns can have an outlet.
Minister of Communications Donna Cox has certainly been a far less partisan and polarising figure than her predecessor and creates an environment that allows journalists to operate in some comfort—despite the limiting timeframe, which the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago recently pointed out.
Even Beharry seems relatively happy. (He deserves respect as a practising journalist but would appreciate that he can never escape the stigma of his role under a previous government.)
And Deyalsingh, a curious combination of composure and hyperbole, is, thankfully, still on his toes.
“So far, so good,” said the health minister, “but don’t test the system and throw us back into the stone age…”
Editor’s Note: The Ministry of Health reported a new confirmed case of Covid-19 within an hour of publication. Jinx!