When will COVID news cease to dominate headline news, nationally, regionally and internationally? For almost one year now, COVID-related news has stolen the lead-off spot in news broadcasts, from one perspective or another. It is of course a reflection of the seriousness of the situation for the world has witnessed big global events, 9-11 for instance, which have hogged the headlines but never for as long as or on the scale of that of this global pandemic.
At a national level, even though the recent restrictions imposed seem to have been resulting in a decrease in positive cases, COVID is still “the” talking point of the day. Unfortunately any success occasioned by those restrictions is now taking third place behind sectoral complaints demanding more state assistance and news about vaccines.
On Monday of this week there was a reported “strike” by mini-bus drivers. It led to a meeting with a government delegation led by Prime Minister Hon. Dr. Ralph Gonsalves the next day. This meeting apparently discussed a seven-point set of demands made by the association representing mini-bus owners and operators. Some of these have serious economic implications for the finances of government, among them a reduction in fuel prices, duty-free concessions, a permanent economic subsidy of at least $500 per month and a waiver of all vehicle licences for a one-year period and reduction by 50 percent thereafter.
A media report on the outcome of the meeting states that government has agreed to “a temporary economic subsidy that would not be less than the one offered last year”. This will no doubt help to intensify calls by other sectors, fisherfolk for instance, but also farmers and trade unions for continued income support for their members. There is no doubt that the concerns raised by the various sectors are genuine ones. Almost every sector has been negatively impacted by the fall-out from the pandemic. We all share the pain.
Yet the critical issue to be addressed is, will piecemeal appeasement work? Is it the answer to such a far-reaching crisis? When government, post-Budget mind you, begins to agree to demands from one sector, what will it say to workers who have had working days reduced and so have reduced incomes but still have to pay full bus fares? Will government subsidize their bus fares? Or will bus-owners and operators, out of solidarity with fellow-sufferers, be prepared to even nominally reduce fares? Workers are suffering too.
There are several lessons we can draw from the crisis. The first is the reaffirmation that most of us are living a hand-to-mouth existence. Any time there is what economists call “an exogenous shock”, we have little or no reserves on which to rely. In countries like ours we simply make demands on government, often not considering the economic implications for the whole country.
Secondly, there seems to be a lack of creativity among us. If, for one reason or another, there are job or income losses, very few of those affected see the solution in creatively trying to find some income-generating activity, we simply want new jobs and government subsidies. There is a limit to which cash-starved governments here, in St Lucia or Grenada or even Trinidad and Tobago, can continue to dole out subsidies, especially without knowing how long the crisis will last.
Above all however, there is the lack of a national approach. We cannot, in a crisis, be adopting narrow approaches about “our members”. It is clear that every sector is affected, but are there not people in the leadership of the various organisations who are capable of taking the initiative to organize a dialogue among them all? Would this not strengthen the solidarity and increase the bargaining powers of those affected? We run the risk of getting into a dangerous crab-in-a-barrel situation if each sector only seeks to further its own demands. What about our children in educational institutions who may well be the biggest victims of the economic crisis? We have had a rich history of cross-sector cooperation and mobilisation, so why not build on it?
There is also the government response. It has a responsibility to organize a national dialogue on the matter, meeting different sectors and offering appeasements will not work. It has a duty, Budget debate notwithstanding, to call all those affected together, to lay the cards on the table and to invite, and take seriously proposals from them as to how best to address the crisis. Nothing else will work. Let’s give it a try at least.
Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.