The last 21 months have drained our nation’s emotional resources and injected paranoid feelings. Uncertainty and risk are now our constant companions.
We no longer have a clear vision of the future. We are exhausted. The constant quarrelling on every front has bewildered us, and we no longer appear to subscribe to the view that ‘all ah we is one family’.
Is David Rudder’s ‘How we vote is not how we party’ boast now fractured? Can we still party together when the use of ethnic codes rouse deep polarising passions?
Will we ever get past this virus that seems to have the power to evade the world’s best defences? The longer it stays, the more visible is our divide.
We are divided on almost everything. So how will we, as a nation, face the future?
Here in Trinidad and Tobago, we run a two-tier healthcare system: a private one for those who can pay and a public one in which one can receive several free health services and drugs.
In the public system, the major problem is the long wait to receive care. Reports indicate that these waiting periods can reach up to 24 hours from the time of arrival.
The lack of qualified staff means that there is significant overburdening of those on call. The lack of funds translates into maintenance being a big bugbear, with vital machines out of operation for extended periods.
The privately owned sector is a profitable industry on the back of the failures of the free, taxpayer-funded public health system. The poor among us suffer.
Despite a remarkable and worthy pivot to restructure the public health system by creating a parallel structure, Covid-19 has caused inevitable substantial havoc. (No other Caricom country has a similar parallel system.)
We entered the crisis with no state institution enjoying a majority vote of confidence. Fascinatingly, though, in the first months of the pandemic, the health institutions received a significant boost, as national confidence in them moved from a five-year average of 22% to 36%. (Express/SBS 2021 Poll)
Is the low confidence rating for our health sector reflective of the experiences of the poor among us and the disdain of the rich? Or is it reflective of its long-standing shortcomings? How did this play into the vaccine hesitancy numbers?
The Ministry of Health failed to trust the public to do the right thing: wash your hands, wear your masks and socially distance. Instead, we were told weekly of our failings as measured by the increases in infections. The media conferences turned into scolding sessions.
The Opposition leveraged the changing narratives (which are to be expected in an evolving pandemic) and the stumbles in communication by the Ministry of Health in savage, personalised attacks—deliberately undermining the credibility of the lead medical team, they pumped hostility into the vaccination campaign.
They shifted the goalposts for each stage of the national effort without reference to the global situation. Contrary to their opinion, Trinidad and Tobago is not a significant player that can get cutting edge products and systems at the drop of a hat.
Distrust was meted out and repaid on all sides. The nation lost since a critical weapon, vaccination, was never warmly or fully embraced.
Rampant misinformation and tribal loyalties surfaced with deadly consequences for many families. The result? Frustration and confusion.
But the Opposition was not alone; the business and religious leaders were myopically absent or hostile, which added distrust—further muddying the waters.
How much did this injection of scepticism affect the level of the national acceptance of the needed public health measures? How will this hesitation hamper our national post-Covid recovery?
Every public institution is under siege. The fiasco of incompetence at the Police Service Commission in handling the appointment of a police commissioner engulfed us and spawned shifting conspiracy theories. Speculation paraded as fact.
Several of our leaders engaged in theatrical hijinks instead of providing good governance guidance. Some sought to show contempt for the rules and norms and encouraged the population to share their disdain.
Their arguments did not have to make sense since the objective was to permit their partisans to be disrespectful. These agents provocateurs are not concerned about the well-being of their fellow citizens but about power.
They deliberately bypassed the courts, the independent arm of our democracy, since it was more about politics than law. The use of the victim card was designed to evoke sympathy from the undiscerning.
The emotional appeal of conspiracy theories is that complex issues are simplified, and the believer has a satisfying sense of unique, privileged access to the truth.
The ball of confusion that sought to immerse the Speaker of the House was a naked grab for power. The Facebook arsonists compete to create the most inflammatory posts and images that are spread effortlessly without context or nuance.
The Independent Senators became fair game because they had not unstintingly supported the agenda of the Opposition.
At no time did the Opposition supporters stop to reflect. This reluctance reminds me of a quote about Philip II of Spain: ‘No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.’
Our citizens detest each other, with an exaggeration of differences and vilification of each other. Social media algorithms encourage us to be hostile towards each other. There are no social norms on Facebook, so we could destroy each other and never understand what either party intended to communicate.
There is a cost for this action; we now have a swamp of despair and pessimism, which removes our capacity to think logically.
Our service sector is the largest non-governmental employer, but that sector has had two very different experiences. Those in white-collar jobs have switched to remote work seamlessly, but others have seen their hours cut or their employers close their doors and they have substantial fears about their life chances.
The retail and personal service sector will recover slowly since there are lingering fears about taking the vaccine or possible infection brought about by the resumption of life. Yet the slower this recovery, the more pain will be in the overall economy since consumption, the driver of our GDP, will be dampened.
This disruptive scenario coincides with increased inflation; this pinches the poor and further alienates them. The rising national debt ratio will form another source of tribal attacks. Life, for many, is more uncertain and dangerous.
How will we chart a course for the future? Will a populist with highly developed social media skills stage a coup?
We can expect a period of intense political strife since we see our glass as half–empty but our regional neighbours’ glasses as half-full. Disparaging ourselves and stirring discontent, we rob ourselves of our energy.
Our anger, fuelled by groupthink, dissuades sane, competent persons from volunteering for public service. Yet without competent leadership in every sphere, we will not recover quickly, if at all.
Partisan attacks on public service volunteers will cause us to rely on partisans who may not be competent with detrimental results. We have flirted with this problem before on critical state boards.
In Jamaica, the hope is expressed in this saying, ‘the place of choice to live, work, raise families, and do business’. Will our admiration for Mia Mottley extend to our adoption of a tripartite arrangement Barbados has had since 1991?
Without competent leadership, how will we succeed? Without all the stakeholders on board, how will we move forward?
Caricom, as we have known it, is under threat. Guyana has signalled their unwillingness to play ball with the present Trinidad administration. We got a glimpse of this earlier this year. Thankfully, Dr Amery Browne was able to stave off an open break.
Jamaica is uninterested in us. In July 2016, Prime Minister Andrew Holness set up a committee headed by former Prime Minister Bruce Golding to review their Caricom relationship. That committee issued a veiled threat of withdrawal from the Common Market regime and proposed the assumption of the status like The Bahamas.
Barbados, under Mia Mottley, is trying to forge a new identity. To whom shall we export? If our domestic market is depressed, what can we ship, and at what price?
We cannot think about this if we dissipate our energies in internal warfare.
How do we create a society empowered to act on behalf of us all? Persistence in error is a problem; we have to rid ourselves of blind tribal loyalty.
There is always freedom to change course, but the voter must have moral courage. However, to recognise the error and alter the policies is possibly the most distasteful option for many. Without it, bankruptcy beckons.
Hopefully, we will not be ‘wooden-headed’ and fail by assessing a situation with preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs.