Post 398.

In recently announced changes to the GATE programme, undergraduate degrees will remain subsidized to an extent determined by a means test. Post-graduate degrees have been substantially defunded for future students.  

Regarding reduction of tertiary education subsidies, and the increased availability of loans, the effects are well-documented in the US, which made this switch in the 1980s and has since witnessed skyrocketing student debt and family indebtedness; resilient labour market inequality by class, race and gender; and exacerbated economic slowdown.

In her prescient book, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, Melinda Cooper describes student debt as a “lucrative interest-bearing asset in global securities markets”. It works for both governments and banks. The first can still assert that tertiary education is accessible to all despite shifting from free access to university whether rich and poor. The second can profit from state policy to replace or supplement public funding with private deficit spending. 

As Cooper puts it, “Instead of the government going into deficit to spend on public services…the individual consumer would go into debt to purchase these same services”. Fiscal austerity and credit abundance are being presented hand in hand, and as the national economy continues to contract, this is a policy direction that we can anticipate. 

It will be interesting to see if tertiary education loans increase. One could argue that families are responsible for their children’s education, but one could just as well argue that decades of corruption and mismanagement have wasted billions of dollars that should have been available for investment in education as a public good and economic stimulus strategy (though, for us in the Caribbean, this is undermined by emigration and ‘brain drain’). 

Some families will be able to afford their children’s tertiary education, and even post-graduate degrees. Low- to middle-income students will likely hit a qualification barrier if they cannot afford (rising) tuition and other costs. In reality, most students cannot qualify for a loan on their own so that student debt becomes a familial and intergenerational obligation. 

Additionally, Cooper notes, “a student with no assets or savings is more likely to have to defer, refinance, or default on a loan, accumulating a much longer temporal burden of interest payments than the student who can pay on schedule”. Alternatively, for Trinidad and Tobago, where for decades women have graduated from university in higher numbers and yet on average earn lower incomes, loan repayments could be a higher portion of monthly wages, acting as a form of regressive taxation. 

Cooper describes this as a way that “private credit markets…perform democratic inclusion without disturbing the economic structures of private family wealth”. Simply put, in repaying loans, with interest, poor families will spend more on education than wealthier ones who have less need for additional funds and greater capacity to repay. 

The government analysis that led to the recent GATE reforms isn’t clear. Is the expectation that students will turn to vocational training, the labour market, or other options? This makes me wonder whether the government forecasted the effects of the recent GATE reform, and has a macro plan in relation to those effects.

That macro plan should differentiate the student population affected by class, age and gender. For example, at UWI, 63% of students are women, 37% are men. This means that GATE has been an irreplaceable source of public investment in women, who are the main sex seeking both undergraduate and post-graduate qualifications (except in Engineering), principally to improve their chances in the economy. 

The majority of UWI students are also 18-24 and young women in this age group have the highest rates of unemployment, possibly because they are deferring employment for education in order to improve their chances beyond low-waged retail, service and clerical jobs where women remain clustered. Since 2015, enrolment has been dropping in all faculties except for Law, and Science and Technology, suggesting the economic downturn has already been making an impact. So, it’s a perfect storm out there for students – increased unemployment and decreased access to higher education. What choices do we expect them to make? 

This is an example of how austerity measures have feminized impacts, and so too may be education-related increases in private debt. At the same time, public debt financed vanity projects, such as the port in Toco, and other construction stimulus plans, will disproportionately benefit men as they comprise 80% of that sector. I’ve been calling for gender responsive budgeting, which makes visible such inequitable costs and benefits of gender-blind fiscal policy, for precisely this reason.

Post 396.

I’ve struggled with what to express other than haunting sadness at the killing of Tenil Cupid, and my condolences to her family and her children. I’ve wanted to write a column printed with blank space, where words would otherwise fill the page, to compel a pause, a moment of quiet, when we all still our steps, as we do for the national anthem, to remember that she was just 23 years old. We are a nation where young women are not safe, where they cannot love and choose to leave, and where men’s lethal violence produces generational trauma, pulling both boys and girls into its cycle.

I’ve struggled because statistics predict such pain and loss. All the recent studies of violence prevalence in the Caribbean, from Guyana to Jamaica to Grenada to TT, point to established risk factors in young Tenil Cupid’s life.

First, entering intimate relationships before 18 years old, particularly with much older male partners (who are legally sexual predators committing the crime of rape and child sexual abuse).

Second, motherhood and, especially, adolescent motherhood, for example, beginning at 15 years old and continuing through teenage years with multiple births.

Third, limited education, as well as relatively low school achievement of male partners.

Fourth, insufficient income and economic dependency on partners with low income, particularly when children must be fed and schooled. Keep in mind that young women under 24 have higher rates of unemployment than young men, suggesting complex power relations which they must negotiate to be secure and survive.

Fifth, the decision to end a relationship and to escape a male partner’s controlling behaviours and dominance. These behaviours are an absolute key red flag for femicide, whether the triggers are substance abuse or a new relationship or financial crisis and conflict.

There are hundreds each year who enter young womanhood in these circumstances, and additional experiences of child abuse and neglect. These are girls raised without sufficient information and support to make healthier decisions, and in circumstances that increase their vulnerability to much of what Tenil Cupid lived.

In the women’s movement, we worry whether women are being killed at younger ages, at the increase in such killing and at the state’s inadequate response in terms of having social welfare workers go to vulnerable homes in communities as they used to; appropriate psychosocial intervention for children at an age when it can still make a difference; and a serious national campaign against male predation as an accepted social norm.

As the Coalition Against Domestic Violence cautioned, after the murder of 29-year-old Reshma Kanchan, “we cannot run away from the intersecting relationship of domestic murders with gender inequality and harmful masculinities.”

That this intersection affects women everywhere was poignantly shown in Womantra’s Silent Silhouettes short documentary where murdered women and their children were shown in everyday places, their absence marked by the dark space and shape left by their missing bodies.

Conceptualised around 2006, by the Network of NGOs of TT for the Advancement of Women, to encourage us to emotionally connect to lost lives such as Tenil Cupid’s, these silhouettes also represent Jezelle Phillip Fournillier, Gabriella Dubarry, Naiee Singh, Trisha Ramsaran-Ramdass, Adanna Dick, Vera Golabie, Sherian Huggins, Joanna Diaz Sanchez, and Reshma Kanhan; all murdered by (mostly former) partners this year.

To better understand femicide prevention, the coalition has called for “comprehensive and multidisciplinary investigation into domestic murders” to assess the circumstances of both victim and perpetrator, whether a history of abuse was known to family and community, whether actions were taken to protect the victim, and whether any services were sought from state institutions. It also continues to recommend “school and out of school-based interventions, gender sensitive parenting programmes, and programmes engaging men including perpetrator/batterer interventions.”

The GBV Unit has responded, citing 220 arrests and 290 charges since January. However, convictions are beyond the unit’s ambit, and in TT are notoriously low, signalling how the judicial system slowly but surely reproduces impunity.

As Conflict Women urged this week, the Government must make “prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans for covid19,” and men and citizens must “speak out, report and act against violence against women and girls,” perhaps saving another woman and her children from becoming statistics.

Meanwhile, at the end of this sentence, please stay with me for a moment of stillness, silence and sadness, for loss of words, for Tenil Cupid, just 23 years old, and taken too soon.

Post 387.

There’s much to say about debates over race and ethnicity in Trinidad. What’s clear is the extent to which ideas circulating in our society take on a life of their own. They speak not only to the power of old, pervasive stereotypes, but the bed of trauma on which such views land, making their harm even more painful, and making conversations difficult unless there is mutual acknowledgement of such pain. 

For example, in her racist response to the UNC’s loss, Naila Ramsaran said “I hope Rowley starts putting contraceptives in their water supply”. Her comments echoed eugenist ideas of population control of the poor, primarily because of additional stereotypes of their burden on the state. These have been racialized in terms of Afro-Caribbean family systems and sexual practices since British colonial response to labour resistances of the 1930s, and the emergence of an idea of a state welfare. 

Contraceptives are not poison, and she didn’t threaten to put any in company products, but public condemnation justifiably moved from disgust at her demeaning of PNM supporters to fears regarding public health and the risk of genocide that deliberately poisoned products could pose to Afro-Trinidadian people’s lives. 

The problem isn’t only the racism of individuals on social media today, it’s the ease with which these racist logics circulate, appearing as accessible truths to understand others, but also to undermine them, and it’s their power to take on a life of their own.  

I don’t think the UNC intended its ad, for example, with a poor African child to be racist. I think the UNC was targeting poor Afro-Trinidadian voters who have been abandoned by the PNM, those willing to kick floodwater at Fitzgerald Hinds, those living in the marginalized communities of Chaguaramas and Sea Lots, and those who are the targets of the PM’s committee established after the protests in July.

They were not wrong to target these voters, in fact it’s necessary, but their targeting took up widely available narratives that are reductionist and misleading, and become racist representations. The same emphasis on poor Afro-Trinidadians at the bottom of the social and economic hierarchy comes from some local Black Lives Matter voices, and from those calling for an end to the Concordat because schooling disparities leave young Afro-Trinidadians poor and excluded. 

The idea of Africans at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder is an Afro-Trinidadian discourse that non-Africans hear, and may also believe, and it combusts into a life of its own as it moves across ethnicity and when it is then taken up in simplistic or opportunistic ways or should not be taken up at all.

So, the conversation isn’t whether the UNC or PNM, or Indians or Africans or anyone else, is totally racist. It’s not about a contest to list offensive political advertisements or statements, or post social media screenshots. 

Both parties have played on racial logics for decades, and swathes of the population heard and felt echoes of these logics as, at best, race-baiting and, at worst, as deliberate racism. These perceptions are the reality we have to unpack and confront, for it is here that layers of historical narratives, stereotypes, fictions and exclusions step in, creating disagreement over both history and the present, and a sense that the other does not prioritize our hurt or healing. 

What is critical is that different groups may hear these logics differently, sometimes may not hear them at all, sometimes may not consider them valid perceptions, or may see them as inconvenient but historically-accurate truths. 

Ideas we hold and convey about ourselves and each other are filled with dangerous myths, which at some times are expediently wielded and at others deeply wounding, bringing many to conversations about race with deep sense of pain. Political parties will play all this as long as it exists. We will have solid bases for accusing each other of racism, and blindness to it, as long as such logics live and breathe in our shared terrain.

There are continuous examples of victimhood because racial, gendered and classed ideas determine our grasp of history, validate shortcuts for explaining distrust and inequities, create both platforms and silences, and establish group identities and boundaries that can be conveniently exploited for political power.   

Where these discourses come from, when they can be drawn upon, why they remain effective, what truths they capture and hide, and what harms they continue to enact are necessary conversations to have as people making one nation out of the challenges of such complexity and contradiction.  

Post 383.

The school term finally ended, one like no other in our living memory. The experience our children had will connect them as a generation for the rest of their lives.

Ziya’s school taught classes every day, covering some math, English, Spanish, social studies, music and PE. The children learned a lot, both about distance and connectivity.

As a working mother, I was grateful. It’s challenging to work and parent simultaneously, and school provided a few well-organised hours of focus. I’d listen with one ear while the teacher chided the class for not knowing all the words to the anthem, reminded them not to eat at the computer, repeated the importance of learning to listen, and tried to instill all kinds of manners. With their voice present daily inside my home, I grew grateful for how much teachers contribute, freshly appreciating their daily commitment to filling gaps in our parenting. Teachers, like nurses, should be better paid than CEOs.

Meanwhile, soon after knocking water over her laptop and frying its electronics, Zi became computer-proficient. She could type, upload her assignments and check her own e-mail. Suddenly, she understood e-mail. I loved seeing her upskill even as I noted our own entanglement in the expanding digital divide.

There’s no doubt about it, computer and internet access are a privilege, and will deepen systemic class distinctions in exam results and school places. They will exacerbate unequal opportunity for children globally, which is why access to the internet is increasingly considered a human right. Our children are in a world so different from our own childhood.

One evening, when she was resisting a rule I had insisted on, Zi even threatened to put me out of the “Zoom meeting.” It was like a newspaper headline marking a historical moment. We were lying on her bed, not actually in a Zoom meeting, and I could only shake my head at post-covid19 lingo for punishment for giving trouble. Imagining the new vocabulary that will define school chatter and news-carrying in September makes me smile.

Zi loved dressing up in clothes she chose, attending class in shorts, eating breakfast leisurely, having lunches together, and being near to us all day. She missed her friends and wandering the hall in her school terribly, but when term opens, it will be clear that there was much we gained during this time.

Prior to schools closing, she was racing from school to extracurricular activities to her grandmother’s or her dad’s, and then home. It seemed we were always arriving back late from my work hours and hustling to bed, or getting home and spending the evening doing homework. The whole week felt like a rush. It was a joy and labour of love, but pace.

Being freed of traffic, experiencing school without stressful demands and the anxiety of tests, inventing ways to occupy herself on evenings, and simply staying in one place seemed to enable her to mature and mend. We cooked, gardened, took walks, and it genuinely felt like she exhaled. She just needed to come off the treadmill and its breakneck haste.

I began to think about the costs of our emphasis on achievement. Seeing her now, more loving, independent, settled and calm, I know her heart would not have grown as much at the speed she was functioning, with the rotation of activities she was doing, or with even the number of people she was interacting with on a weekly basis.

You have to know your child. Some need greater stillness and quiet, time between transitions from one place to the next, less pressure and fewer personalities, and the room they are given becomes filled with emotional growth.

I wonder how many children are like her, keeping up and even thriving, but with inner needs that our world undervalues or speeds past. I think about the children whose aggression would subside, whose silences would break open, and whose capacity to navigate difficult feelings would improve if they had to manage a little less for enough time, could fit into themselves, and, without fear of failure, slow down and breathe.

I’m in awe at how little I understood this, perhaps because there seemed simply no chance to stop until everything ground to a halt. I’m alarmed by the fact that I would have pressed her through, which at the same time would have held her back. What she lost in schoolwork, she found in her heart. After a term like no other, it’s the lesson I’ll remember.

Post 379.

When a woman experiences partner violence, her neighbours, friends and family can report even if she does not. Often, neighbours and families witness or experience violence or its threat because of their relationship or proximity to a victim. The more we all report is the more we empower police to respond and can hold them accountable for doing so.  

Reports of domestic violence do not require women to seek a protection order to ensure their safety. Threats and violence by partners and relatives are also criminal offenses, and police can immediately investigate and charge perpetrators.  

As the Coalition Against Domestic Violence has stated, “It is time that the police develop and implement a zero tolerance policy for domestic violence. If a serious offense has been committed or is threatened, the police must act independently, whether the victim cooperates or not”. 

Proposed amendments to the Domestic Violence Act include provisions for undertaking risk assessments. Upon reports being made, a risk assessment should be undertaken so that police can predict whether lethal harm is likely. A protocol should then be in place which connects with the courts, psychiatric intervention, and social services.  Police should also check perpetrators’ history of violence.

As Conflict Women’s recent press release reminded, Michael Maynard was charged with rape and released on bail in 2018. In February this year, after a history of violence, he killed his 8-year old daughter, Makeisha.  In response to a report by her mother, police were willing to go with Tricia Ramsaran-Ramdass to remove her belongings from the house. The TTPS press release states, “She never did, but instead, moved back into the same home with her spouse until her death on June 9th”. 

Perpetrators, not victims, should be removed from a home. Nonetheless, we must keep in mind that leaving a home does not guarantee that violence will end. Women are at greater risk when they begin to leave or have left, and threats and intimidation continue long after they attempt to end relationships. 

In the case of Tricia Ramsaran-Ramdass, she was fearful of a partner who killed one woman already. It had been years of torture. Her family was also vulnerable. Such terror can lead women to return to abusive partners repeatedly. 

Love, hope, forgiveness, guilt, loss of self and self-blame are always enmeshed in such decisions, but such complexity should never distract from the fact that responsibility for violence always lies with the perpetrator and, in many cases, his controlling practices, his beliefs in traditional gender roles and male dominance, his history of witnessing, experiencing or expressing violence, and triggers such as substance abuse.  

The proposed amendments also allow police to seek emergency protection orders electronically through judicial officers, enabling them to be granted quickly. They allow Interim Orders to be granted after the second hearing where adjournments are being sought by the court and/or respondent.  In 2017-2018, over one-third of more than 9000 applications were dismissed, 72% of adjournments were related to the unavailability of the magistrate, and only 29% resulted in a protection order. 

The amendments address the needs of victims who appear repeatedly at court and leave without even protection on paper. Expanded beyond cohabitation and marriage, the amended legislation will enable some persons in visiting and dating relationships to seek protection orders.

There are expanded protections for children, including those who are witnesses to domestic violence. Mandatory reporting to police is now required if domestic violence is being perpetrated against vulnerable groups, such as the elderly or persons with disabilities. Such reports should also be able to be made to the Division of Family Services and Children’s Authority. 

The Alliance for State Action to End Gender-based Violence, comprising over 20 civil society organisations, including The UWI, continues to call for the amendments to protect all persons who experience violence in a domestic context, regardless of family status or gender. To continue to exclude some from protection is to define who can share domestic space or have relationships. That is not the point of the DV Act. It should provide protection without discrimination. 

My condolences to the family of Tricia Ramsaran-Ramdass, 37 years old and mother of one. We should all commit to preventing such violence in whatever way we can. These amendments will be debated in Parliament next week.

The GBV Unit and Special Victims Department are important, but as yet underfunded, steps in the right direction. Where police and judiciary can improve, the only headlines should be about how much is possible and how soon.

Post 378.

Neither elder nor younger Abu Bakr is a card-carrying member of the PNM, but both sought and say they were promised a chance at a seat under the party banner.  Party leader, Keith Rowley, would have had to convince constituency party groups and the whole PNM to include another political entity (the New National Vision) for the first time in history. 

This, from a go-it-alone party that finds coalition offensive and demeaning. This, from a party that only accepts cross-overs if they come from marginal constituencies and effectively combine insult with injury to the Opposition, or are voters. This, from a party that believes its inheritance is post-independence, patriarchal authority. It would certainly not invite in a contender to strengthen itself on PNM resources in order to aggrandize a cabal.

The party is aware that disaffection at its poor handling of the economy abounds, and every vote matters. It is inconceivable that it would risk inclusion of the Jamaat al Muslimeen, an organization which a vast population born before 1990 still associates with violent state take-over, death and destruction, and collective willingness to hold a terrorized nation to ransom.  It is unlikely it would be threatened by the Jamaat’s control over votes in Port of Spain South. 

Even if they feel abandoned by the PNM, are all those “young Africans” (Abu Bakr’s term) going to vote for Mrs. Persad-Bissessar? The UNC is a Trojan horse for Indian men, aspiring for greater status, power and wealth than their fathers, to secure their influence over the political-economy. In the competition among patriarchies, they would be perceived as now ruling over African men with less status, power and wealth. 

Surely, the People’s Partnership State of Emergency and its criminalizing (and eventual releasing without charge) of such young Africans is hardly forgotten. African youth might find ways to rebel as a more politically-educated generation did in 1970. They might not vote, but it will be a grim day in fairy tale land for them to vote UNC.  Whether they will vote for Fuad, now re-throned as political leader of the NNV, we will see.

I’m fascinated by the Abu Bakrs’ audacity in publicly playing garrison politics with the nation. Garrison politics is best understood from Jamaica’s experience of politicians making alliances with dons, or male civilians who ‘control’ gangs, communities and organized violence, in order to secure the votes of urban, poor communities. As Rivke Jaffe writes, dons became power brokers as contracts, housing, jobs and money (and weapons) were distributed through them. Later, as the Jamaican state hit recession, dons “came to replace members of parliament (MPs) as community patrons who distributed largesse” and provided health services, schooling and policing. Empowered to secure urban order, dons became effective and accepted co-rulers (with politicians), in turn demanding “a steady flow of state funds and a measure of protection”. Demanding a seat inside government is the next, logical step. 

While not a don in the Jamaican sense, the Jamaat al Muslimeen is governed by a strongman leader who cares, invites loyalty, builds comraderie, promises ethical/religious certainty, establishes justice, and provides for basic necessities where the state has failed on all counts. Gangs perform the same function of creating a sense of value and belonging to a familial order, particularly for young Afro-Trinidadian men who feel alienated, abandoned and under threat. 

In Anna Ramdass’ Express story from May 31, 2020, Abu Bakr described the Jamaat as “responsible for the decrease in gang warfare, especially in the Enterprise, Chaguanas area”. He continued, “they ain’t kill no women because we make a law in the community”. Having locked off “gun warfare”, Abu Bakr boasted that only he holds the combination to the lock. Regarding Fuad, he promised, “Anywhere he go he will win, I is he father, I does rule the streets”. And, because manhood and sexual command over women is social capital in politics, elder Abu Bakr cast Fuad as “a sweet boy, he’s them girls sugar”. 

Elder Abu Bakr is, however, threatening as much as he is promising. If he can decrease crime, including domestic violence, he can allow its return. If he can bring in votes, he can bring down the government. This is the modus operandi of the don: to offer protection to politicians, but only if formal state institutions and representatives recognize and secure his rank and power.   

Fuad may want to represent grassroots youth, but what we witnessed was his play for power however his father brokers, knowing that he inherits patriarchal right over the Jamaat and the vote bank it can lock down from among genuinely disaffected communities. Rowley agitated such garrison politics by refusing to agree to the Abu Bakrs’ high-stakes game in king-making using “young Africans” as pawns or collateral and using a general election to secure a dynasty.

Post 375.

Once again, so many voters looking for sanity and trustworthiness find themselves wanting. A PNM win was secured by the government’s deeply cautious, but extremely successful health response. It was also secured by the vast distribution of social and economic support to tens of thousands of citizens, and the millions given carte blanche to religious groups which constitute major voting blocs. Don’t expect these monies to be properly and publicly accounted for, of course. The PMN found the best way to use a disaster to secure gratitude in the voting booth. That’s just reality in an election year.

Fascinatingly, the Prime Minister made a lengthy speech about campaign finance reform. This sounded like a brilliant plan to spend billions as a party (in government) without the constraints of procurement regulation while cleverly limiting other parties’ (out of government) ability to spend on their campaign without oversight. Campaign finance reform, if passed, will be a double win for the PNM and cause some belly pain for the UNC as they are well aware that parties in government spend millions (and this year more than a billion) in state funds as part of their campaign and parties out of government straggle on what they fundraise.

All this cleverness now seems wasted, however. It’s clear that the PM and Minister of National Security Minister lied to the nation or maybe are lying to themselves or maybe they just open borders and meet sanctioned foreign elites on the fly. I don’t understand calls for Stuart Young to resign when the anancy story goes straight to the top. What does a voter do when the party in government is caught in a lie? Go back into a relationship without trust?

On the other hand, the UNC’s strategy has won no love. Moonilal’s ill-fated run to the US Embassy was simply to send the message that an election is coming and a change of regime would be in US interest. Threat of sanctions, which it almost seemed that the UNC was begging for, would help send that message to a population already hungry and fearful, and provide nice sound and fury to secure desperate votes on the campaign trail. Moonilal didn’t anticipate that the press would pick up the story, but kick dust in his face and it’s now clear that new bacchanal must be quickly found.   

The UNC strategy was despicable, though I disagreed with the PM that it was traitorous and I disagreed with Cudjoe that it was racist. Actually, I thought Cudjoe’s commentary on Moonilal, and Indians, was itself despicable and racist, or maybe he hasn’t read anything on Indians in the Caribbean published after 1980.

I understand why we have to remain under US policy rule as our major trading partner and neighbourhood bully, but to champion that position was to reduce us to colonial status and playing policeman of our own subordination, like little boys in khaki short pants.

There has been a global call to lift sanctions, particularly at this time, when they impose an immoral cost on the shoulders of innocents and the poorest and most vulnerable in Venezuela. Sanctions against Venezuela are also not CARICOM policy. As citizens of the world, we have a right to our own views on global affairs. We have a right to think for ourselves beyond US politics. We have to abide, or bears costs of doing otherwise, but we do not have to agree.

So, where does the last weeks’ political chaos leave us?

Over the last decades, the incumbent has had trouble getting back into government though a month ago the PNM could have called an election and, without even a campaign speech, immediately won. Today, if we vote the PNM back in, we will be showing that we accept degrees of dishonesty yet again.

The AG has the Commission of Enquiry into the Point Fortin Highway, which is racking up tens of millions and again constitutes campaign spending using state resources, in his back pocket to pull out whenever the UNC bawls corruption. If we vote the UNC back in, he will make sure it shows we are prepared to accept much the same.

As Iran bravely ships oil to Venezuela, and Caribbean waters heat up, an election season fight for credibility has begun. We will have to choose between two parties with questionable decision-making, many smart men and too little trust. As with hurricanes, we can only hope to weather the wrath of oncoming storms in our tiny teacup.  

Post 372.

Our societies were already defined by exclusion, inequality, and lack of sustainability prior to COVID-19.  Now, Trinidad and Tobago can no longer rely on oil and gas revenues to distribute the basic welfare provisions that kept so many from homelessness, crime, illness and starvation. We simply will not be earning what we spend.

Increased insecurity means that we will not be able to buffer ourselves against the next crisis, whether epidemiological or ecological, unless we plan our recovery as if we are already protecting ourselves from such an inevitability.

To be honest, I’ve struggled with what those options are, and their realism, and will explore them over the next weeks in this column.

On the one hand, as the Guardian Weekly noted last month, “whenever a crisis visits a given community, the fundamental reality of that community is laid bare. Who has more and who has less. Where the power lies. What people treasure and what they fear”.

On this basis, I’ve wanted to argue that we commit to economic and social justice, which is more than welfare provision to women and the poor, as the goal around which we plan national growth. How will our economic recovery also renew the possibilities for women to carry less unequal burden for care; how will it prevent increasing distance between rich and poor; how will it include an education transformation that doesn’t leave so many alienated from learning, how will it create greater inclusion for those on the margins?

Even as we emerge from this period, we also have to keep in mind that the biggest threat to all future generations remains climate-related destruction and death. Around the world, both governments and corporations are rolling back environmental protections in the wake of a focus on the economic recovery.

I’ve wanted to call for us to not lose momentum. Climate change, like COVID-19, is a global disaster which does not respect borders or identities, and requires the very global collaboration, respect for science, speed of response and individual investment in preventing unnecessary deaths that have shaped our lives these past weeks. If we understood the climate crisis as far more lethal, we would find the funds to invest in renewable energy and low-carbon alternatives on every front, so many of which are our endless resources in the Caribbean. “We would see these kinds of emergency packages that would get people off of the fossil fuel grid and onto a clean grid right away” says May Boeve, executive director of the climate advocacy group 350.org.   

These are the big issues of social, economic and climate justice which require not just big ideas, but much bigger political will. I’ve been drawn to them, knowing as we now do that everything we consider harmful can be stopped, regardless of the impact on international travel or school exams, if we decide an emergency response is required. If we think of the injustices we were living with all along as a disaster, we could decide this was a time like no other.

On the other hand, I’ve been drawn down from thinking that every big idea is one we should be allowed to consider to focusing on the nitty-gritty of immediate protections. Corruption and mismanagement has been the major harm to our financial wealth since independence. This is why our national savings are so small – they have been stolen and wasted by our very own, leaving us less able to protect our most vulnerable or turn our economies around on our own. Enact procurement legislation so that it no longer occurs from today.

Negative growth across the region and increasing indebtedness – both individual and national –  means harder times for most, increasing hunger and hardening anger. We need hope that comes from alternatives, imagined with our broadest, most inclusive ideas of justice at their heart, quieting the cynicism we have all felt that nothing changes, at the very moment when everything absolutely can.  

Frankly, the whole society – every cook, cleaner, caterer, cashier and child carer –  should have a say in how we will survive, including on the basis of cooperative-based and solidarity economy models, such as bartering and sharing. So many development solutions can come from listening.   

From the midst of economic and emotional despair, we must therefore find on a future defined by each other’s resilience and renewal, and do so collectively and transparently. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to move beyond recovery of an older order and, instead, birth long dreamed and long overdue possibilities.    

Post 371.

“I’m feeling suicidal,” he said, as I inched down the window. Ziya and I looked at him, and I began to wonder about what I was exposing her to. It wasn’t just that he wasn’t wearing a mask, it was that I didn’t expect the social and economic costs of this time to appear so close so soon.

We were locked in the car on Easter Monday, waiting for my shattered phone to be fixed – the day before, I was talking with the Coalition Against Domestic Violence while hastily sweeping the house in an ill-fated example of tired working mother multi-tasking – and he now stood on the pavement signalling to me.

He had been employed in construction. There was an accident. He raised his shirt to show us, but I looked away for it was intrusive and degrading. He found out his employer had not been making his national insurance payments, and this affected his compensation.

He had come to Port of Spain, but had not been able to access any help. The police treated him like a vagrant as he walked the streets, but he wasn’t one (and, here, his voice broke by oncoming tears). He lived in Cumuto, and had no money for his four girls, all under 12 years old, and not enough money to get home. The school-feeding programme used to help, but now he didn’t know what to do. He was hungry.

He insisted he was not a vagrant, he just was unemployed. He thanked me for listening to him and for not looking down on him. He accepted money and promised to buy me a doubles when “this is all over,” when we meet again and share a meal. I thanked him for his offer, told him to speak to his local church for help to access a food card.

As he walked away, I said to Zi that his story could be true or not, but what was clear is that we should all give from whatever extra we have, especially in these weeks and months when widespread insecurity peaks. He could be an addict, but his hunger was real. We didn’t know his story, but what should stay with her is that every person has dignity, and wants that recognised as equally as everyone else.

I had been reading much about the economic and social impact of covid19 over the next year, including the effects on depression and suicide ideation, but this brief encounter made it immediate and human, and showed the inequality at its heart, to us both.

Inequality marks the boundary between those mainly worried about their health and those worried most about hunger, who think they will begin to starve before they get sick. Such inequality similarly sets apart those able to transition to online schooling and those children who will be left behind next term even more than they already are.

Inequality now divides those secure workers who retain benefits from those still fighting for them, despite being essential. Think of domestic workers still caring for the elderly despite the lockdown, and who have been struggling for decades for state commitment to ILO Convention 189, on decent work for domestic workers, even while labour leaders in Cabinet from each governing party ignored them completely.

Sanitation workers, who are among the lockdown’s heroes, have been waiting for backpay and wage increases, are managing higher risks of respiratory problems, remain exposed to hazardous waste, and over 2019 repeatedly protested decades of total disrespect. Rather than simply clapping, valuing their contribution requires our public support of their demands for workers’ rights.

We should refuse to return to business as usual when we have been given the opportunity to reset, to see each other as essential, to stop the waste of our time and money. If the machine that was running our lives can be reimagined, our society can choose solidarity and compassion, rather than insecurity, fear and inequality.

We know now that anything is possible. We can work from home and decrease traffic. We can do state business online. We can increase our investment in agriculture. We can celebrate workers. We can pivot governance around preventing unnecessary loss of even one life.

The long-term crisis is a social and economic one to be fought just as much as we are fighting for our collective health. Those who were already just making ends meet may now be on the verge of vagrancy, and are deathly afraid of the fall.