While the Government is being led by science and data in the public health battle against Covid-19, there is little evidence of a similar approach being applied to decision-making on the economy. In the absence of data-driven decisions on the workforce and business activity, the Government risks destabilising the very fragile balance between saving lives and livelihoods.
The private sector’s howls of protest and pain in response to the Government’s announcement of roll-back measures from today should be seriously analysed in order to shape strategic interventions appropriate to the Trinidad and Tobago situation. After all, this is what worked for us against Covid-19. The prescriptive template developed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) was calibrated and adjusted to take into account the state of T&T’s public health system and available resources lying idle outside the system. Out of this came the parallel health system for tackling Covid-19 while insulating the existing health system. The fact that the Eastern Caribbean has so far been spared the worst of the pandemic allowed T&T to respond with a certain amount of ease.
By contrast, the economy, a creature of great complexity and all-encompassing scope, has been largely uninsulated from the destructive impact of the pandemic, not only in T&T but the world over. The focus has quite properly been on cushioning the most vulnerable through the widespread distribution of State resources. However, the scatter-shot release of grants as needs arose demonstrate that even in that single response the Government was not being led by data but by the cries of public need. The great risk to the economy would be to adopt a roll-out plan without a precise understanding of how the parts of the economy work together to keep the engine turning over at a rate that keeps the economy afloat.
The private sector’s pleas for urgent release following the Prime Minister’s detailing of relaxation measures were surprising given the extent of private sector representation on the team charged with developing the Government’s Roadmap for Recovery. It should, for example, be clear to the Government that advising small businesses to tide themselves over with loans, no matter how low-interest, will result in many not returning when the regulations are lifted. No business facing uncertain consumer demand, especially those operating on small margins, will risk the burden of additional loans. In this context, DOMA’s proposals for State support for rent payments for the SME sector, interest subsidy on business loans, and relief on electricity charges are all worthy of serious consideration.
For many in the business sector, especially in small businesses, the walls are closing in as resources dwindle and disappear while the prospect of imminent lockdown-relief recedes. For now, the most unimpacted are permanent staff whose salaries are being paid on schedule whether working from home or not. However, even these fortunate ones are not guaranteed to survive the shake-out when employers, including the Government, begin to calculate the pandemic’s full impact on their viability as a result of both local and global developments.
Negotiating a path between life and livelihood is a feat that will require the skills of tightrope-walking if the patients are to be kept alive.