By Jack Warner Former Minister of Works & Transport & Former Minister of National Security
I had promised several weeks ago not to give Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley any more advice since he seems to know it all both inside and outside his Cabinet. In fact, if the stories that have been told are true, he has a one-man Cabinet where it it is dangerous for any Minister not to agree with him, that is to say, if one’s political survival is to be assured. But the present pandemic, that is the COVID crisis, has forced me to make an exception to my original public statement about no more advice to PM Rowley and instead has forced me to give the Prime Minister just one more bit of advice…..just one more, Mr PM, for the sake of my country!
During any type of crisis, the most critical and important human resource is leadership.
The type of leadership that is desired is decisive leadership, leadership that is all embracing and leadership that seeks after the welfare of the most vulnerable demographic within our society.
On the afternoon of March 16, 2020, the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago addressed the nation and in this all important address he underlined the challenges that we as a people face with the coming of Covid-19. And, for the first time since the global outbreak, we were hearing our political leader address the real issues which not only included health but spanned across the financial spectrum.
It was an address which identified a number of initiatives the Government was proposing to take and most of these sought deferrals of indebtedness by persons who are renting properties, by citizens who are servicing loans and the appeal was made that as a nation we extend levels of benevolence that would postpone the payment of these debts most likely until we come to grips with this pandemic.
The first time ever
One cannot help but gently applaud the initiatives because it is the first time in the history of Trinidad and Tobago, and that is according to my memory, that this Government has made an intervention to assist the common man in the servicing of his debts during a trying period.
One cannot help but duly note that this has to be the first time ever that a Prime Minister will make an intervention and appeal to the financial sector to waive installments incurred by citizens during this period of a national shutdown where survival clearly must now take precedence over the servicing of debts.
One cannot help but respect the position taken by the Government to call on all banks to waive service charges on credit cards during this period and not impose any penalty on citizens who cannot afford to reconcile payments to credit cards. And the reason for the respect is because this is a good place to start.
But when one comes face to face with the actions of the French President Emmanuel Macron, we are taken into a zone where the French Government is not simply calling on private citizens to do their part or appealing to the business sector to assist. This is a case where the Government is taking a lead to alleviate the financial woes that citizens will face during this crisis.
President Macron has taken the bold position to declare the French nation to be at war against the coronavirus and has declared a State of Emergency and imposed a full lock-down of all citizens and/or persons living within the French borders.
The French President has placed a ban on all citizens by suspending certain civil liberties ensuring that all stay inside except for the purchase of food and essentials like pharmaceuticals. And those who dare to flout this order will be fined a penalty of 38 Euros, in the first instance.
But corresponding to such austere impositions is an empathetic response which takes into consideration the poor, the vulnerable, the dispossessed and small and medium businesses. The response of the French Government does not reflect a shirking of its duty but a leadership that is exemplary; a leadership that a community can follow.
The French gov’t is in the forefront of aiding its citizens
President Macron declared the suspension of all rent, taxes and utility bills for a period of thirty days in the first instance and this includes gas bills, water and electricity bills.
President Macron has demonstrated that his Government is in the forefront of aiding citizens to combat this virus by reducing the stress that would normally accompany one’s failure to meet one’s financial commitments and by increasing disposable income thus placing more revenue into the hands of his citizens to purchase the essentials.
The entrepreneurship class in France is in a better condition than we in Trinidad & Tobago are because we are faced with the austerity of having to pay Pandemic Leave without any assistance from the State; a benefit which seems to be a burden on the employer class which can be abused by employees.
It is a burden that has the potential to destroy profits, force small and medium businesses to live on capital and drive some into foreclosure and bankruptcy but no such mechanism was placed on the employer class by the French President who in turn appropriated the responsibility to assist the business class from the nation’s treasury.
President Macron is not the only leader to advance this type of thinking, as socialist as it may be, because as nondescript as many would have us believe that President Trump is, the White House is considering cash payments of $1,000USD to workers to assist them to wade through these turbulent economic waters.
The financial environment is all but described as a depression. But the features show that the markets are sliding and even though the Feds slashed interest rates the Dow still showed a decline.
All financial indicators are showing no signs of a recovery and while most of the measures seem to suggest an optimistic period of one month the reality is that based on the pragmatics associated with this virus, the business community seem to be facing a long haul and it will take the State and not just the private sector to carry the burden to alleviate the pain our citizens will face.
Tear a page out of the wisdom of President Macron
Just think about the sudden drop in prices for foodstuff from which citizens will benefit if President Macron was head of our State; overnight VAT will be removed and food prices will be 12½% cheaper.
The price in pharmaceuticals will drop and this will provide a greater access to essentials especially to the poor, to the employed who were disenfranchised even before Covid-19 appeared. And the nation will not feel as though the State is absconding from its responsibility but standing side by side with it in the battle to defeat this virus.
Let us be honest. We do not know enough about Covid-19 to be making decisions and setting firm deadlines relating to the return to a state of normalcy.
Science is not even conclusive concerning the spread of this virus; whether the virus could be spread while carriers are still asymptomatic or at what point is this infectious disease bracketed for a person recovering from it.
In other words, at what point in time is one safe to return out of quarantine is what society is seeking a definitive answer for.
We have never encountered a crisis of this nature before; a crisis where in 24 hours 369 people in Italy could die; a crisis where the number of deaths in a first world country could triple within a 24 hour period. And because there is so much uncertainty associated with it, we need leadership from the front to instill that belief that we will overcome.
Dr. Rowley has done well so far but he must accept the challenge to do better and to do so quickly!
He must tear a page out of the wisdom of President Macron, use the Treasury to alleviate the burden not only of the business community but also of the little people in his country who are forced to bear and suspend, even if it is for 30 days, rent, taxes and utility bills. This is what is expected of him by the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago.
The time has come for Dr. Keith Christopher Rowley to show his people that he too could lead from in front. Over to you now, Sir.
Former Minister of Works & Transport
Former Minister of National Security