Lewis Carroll’s classic ‘Alice in Wonderland’ encapsulates our nation’s present predicament and many of our leaders. He could have been describing Trinidad: “There is a place, like no place on earth. A land full of wonder, mystery and danger! Some say to survive it, you need to be as mad as a hatter.”
We are going down the rabbit hole into a bizarre and disorienting place from which it will be extremely difficult to extract ourselves. We have the ‘Mad Hatter’ and we have the ‘Queen of Hearts’—who, in our case, may be a man filled with bombast who wishes to cut off all our heads.
Take a read and discover what that story tells you about ourselves and our leaders.
Unfortunately, our mad rush into that elusive, wonderful place will be rudely disrupted by the freight train of reality that will crush our unprepared souls. What we are being sold as light at the end of the tunnel is the merciless destruction that is the economic impact of the Covid-19 virus.
Like the health challenge, the economic challenge will not be beaten with bluster and bravay danjay moves.
We hurtle towards elections, and blithely consider the health challenges of Covid-19 as things of the past. We make no connection between the slow return to normal business levels and our fear of being infected.
People need assurance that they will not be infected before they return to restaurants and malls. The lengthy enforced stay at home period has caused many to rethink what is important and worth risking one’s life for.
Yet in a perverse way, no politician wants to discuss how we may maintain our safety since ‘we overs that’. Check anytime around the Queen’s Park Savannah and see how many mask-wearing people you find.
Human beings are also notably ungrateful, an insight that Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher, captured when he said: ‘when the best leader’s work is done, the people say, we did it ourselves’.
Yet we, who are unfortunate, will return to the interminable waits in the Emergency Departments. Our small businesses, the backbone of the economy, will run out of cash while we, as individuals, work through our fear of infection before shopping again.
We act as though we are immune from the trials that beset the rest of the world. Gita Gopinath, the IMF’s Chief Economist, has said at a Princeton webinar that the associated recession is the worst since the Great Depression, which means that we can reach unprecedented levels of unemployment.
Instead of wearing sackcloth and ashes for our past excesses, we point accusing fingers at each other and choose to ignore the sober prediction of Reza Moghadam, Chief Economic Advisor for Morgan Stanley, that while emerging markets (of which we are one) largely escaped the 2008 global crisis and recovered quickly, they will not be so lucky this time.
The prediction that 90% of all countries will suffer declines does not stop the partying since we have the ‘seppi’. In our irrational exuberance, we miss that we are being carried like debris in the flood waters after heavy rains.
We do not run things, no matter how much we wish to believe that.
Fanciful vague promises are offered to fool the unsuspecting. We unproductively long to go back to the way things were instead of manfully acknowledging the tasks ahead. Even if we restore the refinery, we have no markets (remember the world is in a production slump?) and the prices are accordingly low.
Talk of increasing job opportunities means that we have to almost double our job creation rate of 2010 – 2015 at a time when our Caricom neighbours are distressed, China is limping while the USA flounders.
Are we going deeper into the magical Wonderland? The young graduates and the poor will be slammed by the economic crisis.
The uncertainty that stalks us is made worse by the reality that we do not have information about our economy because of a weakened CSO. We cannot forecast whether our ‘plans’ will work for the same reason we cannot determine the differential impacts Covid-19 has on our communities.
There is a paucity of reliable data to guide our policy makers. A particular economist is making noises about the need for austerity measures so that we can balance our budgets. Sigh.
We make no connection between the quality of the nominees of the different political parties and the job of crafting and debating the merits of any plans brought to our incoming Parliament. Many of them can neither plan nor make a fete match side. Yet we are hopeful that we could power through what lies ahead.
Our civil service, which once boasted of competent technocrats, now does not even have a credible bench strength. They cannot help a weak minister look good; or better yet, competent.
When the economic inequalities of our nation were laid bare, we dismissed the cries of the dispensable ones as ‘orchestrated criminal activity’ while others fool the black youths into believing that life will soon be better—while steadfastly refusing to tackle the contributing structural issues.
Yet, the tsunami is inevitable. Unemployment is the result of reduced national spending and affects the poor urban people disproportionately, since they are employed at the bottom of the ladder and in the most hard-hit sectors.
They have no reserves to buffer the impacts and their soon-to-be-hungry children, disadvantaged in their schooling, will be crying out in pain.
The clumsy appeals and empty promises to them will be the match that lights the coming fire. Disappointments and heartbreaks will be the fuel.
But we do not address these challenges since character assassinations provide more fun and material for videos to divert attention from our harsh realities. We seek to deepen the polarisation, ignoring that we are simultaneously creating an ungovernable nation. Short-term personal gain is desired more than communal well-being.
The only way to escape this wonderland of ours is to wake up. Let us stem the stench. Roll up our sleeves and get to the hard work of building a nation.