Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley called a state of emergency yesterday afternoon based on the health catastrophe that is the Covid-19 pandemic.
The people who were not at his side to explain how we arrived at that momentous decision and what comes next were: the chief medical officer, the attorney general, and the minister of national security.
CMO Dr Roshan Parasram was, arguably, adequately deputised by principal medical officer Dr Maryam Abdool-Richards and chief epidemiologist Dr Avery Hinds. But Minister of National Security Fitzgerald Hinds and Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi?
Hinds later appeared in a Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) post gazing intently at monitors in the operation centre. There was not a peep on the national security’s Facebook page.
And the Office of the Attorney General’s entire contribution, as of Sunday afternoon, was to re-post a declaration by President Paula-Mae Weekes that said only, yes, there is indeed a state of emergency. Weekes’ announcement, incidentally, came in the wee hours of Sunday morning.
So, already hours into the SOE, the public has no details beyond: stay home between 9pm and 5am; and don’t ‘jackass the thing’.
The latter, incidentally, is a brilliant piece of propaganda, since—whether inadvertently or not—it suggests that any issues with the country’s response to the pandemic lies with the behaviour of the man on the street, rather than the drivers of the public’s response.
The government is to be praised when things go right; the public to be blamed when they go wrong. That could only ever be a half-truth.
If the state of emergency was a coordinated and well thought-out response to a growing health crisis, how come Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith was asking essential businesses to contact him for curfew passes on Saturday evening?
Since when does the decision on who is or isn’t an essential worker at any given time lie with the police commissioner—as opposed to the Ministry of National Security and/or Office of the Prime Minister?
How many thousands of applications must Griffith sift through today? Should that not be a duty for the technocrats and policy-makers, as opposed to the lawmen who are expected to follow policy?
What does it mean for essential workers who have duties tonight? Will the SOE be informally pushed back 24 hours? Would policemen be asked to use their ‘discretion’ if the commissioner does not complete his herculean task?
Or, more to the point, did Dr Rowley not consider the possibility of a SOE since the first ‘lockdown’ in March 2020; and discuss all potential eventualities with his cabinet or think-tank?
The Trinidad and Tobago public has already been asked to cede far more power to the state than is normal in a democracy. Citizens can only enter or leave the country on the say-so of the government—not so much ‘closed borders’ as it is selective border control—while businesses operate when and how the prime minister decides.
Dr Rowley said repeatedly that such decisions are made after consultation with the health care professionals; and I believe him. But, as Dr Parasram already revealed, the prime minister does not always act on their advice. So, ultimately, the buck stops with him.
The government has now moved to formally restrict the movement of its people within its borders, through the SOE.
For every decision since the onset of the pandemic, Dr Rowley appears to have the support of the majority of the population. Most people, myself included, believe the government is acting in their interest in an attempt to save lives.
Is it too much to ask for better planning and clearer instructions, though?
Asked about the length of the SOE, Dr Rowley responded: “The length of it will be determined by the response that we get. The more positive the response, the shorter the period.”
On one hand, any reasonable person can grasp that it is hard to look too far ahead in a pandemic. But on the other hand, there is a question of whether the SOE was called with a specific target in mind and whether the population deserves to know what that plan is.
For instance, Dr Abdool-Richards said the rolling average of new infections was 383 in the past week. So why not say that when the average of daily cases drops below 150, certain restrictions will be lifted? And what below 50 would get us?
The hospital’s net occupancy was last given at +15 per day. Why not say that such and such liberties will be returned to the public when our net occupancy becomes -15?
Tobago, for example, has endured the same constraints as the rest of the country even when their infection rate was in the single digits and their hospital occupancy was low.
Would it not have been fairer—as our editor Fayola Bostic pointed out—to restrict movement between the islands and reward Tobago’s behaviour with more freedoms?
Who wants to feel as though decisions related to our lives and livelihoods lie not in a specific quantifiable formula but in ‘the prime minister’s back pocket’ like an election date?
In March 2020, the government refused to give a date, infection rate, or hospitalisation level that will see our borders re-opened to citizens. Who would have foreseen then that, 15 months later, the public would still need the blessing of the Ministry of National Security to come home?
Despite the memes about local ‘jackassery’—most quite funny!—the truth is that the Trinidad and Tobago public has, for the most part, been incredibly patient and supportive of the government.
Is it too much to ask for some level of respect, thoughtfulness, and transparency in return?
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