By Kamla Persad Bissessar
For the past few weeks, we have all been anxiously watching the seemingly unstoppable spread of the COVID-19 virus throughout the world.
We felt a heaviness in our hearts when the news broke that the virus had reached our country and I am sure your heart grew even heavier when despite the extraordinary efforts of healthcare workers in our hospitals, the virus stole the lives of some of our citizens. We remember them in our hearts and in our prayers.
Added to our human loss, we now see many struggling to get food for their families. This is a tragedy as well. Thousands of our citizens have been out of work for over a month and wonder what will become of their jobs when the lockdown ends.
Businesses are struggling to pay their employees and cover costs wonder if they will have customers when they reopen; if they are able to reopen at all. The situation is indeed grim. As a grandmother, I have struggled to make sense of all of this to those in my family.
I had to explain to the children in my extended family who were eager to come to visit me for my birthday that we just could not celebrate as a complete family this year. This is a sacrifice we all have to make today, so we can celebrate another birthday, another Eid, another Divali or Christmas. My family, like yours, have been unable to go about our normal lives, staying at home to help people and save lives.
Many of us must have felt at some point in the last few weeks, a little afraid, nervous and unsure, but having to accept this is temporary and we must all make sacrifices in the name of defeating this virus which threatens our way of life.
Although COVID-19 has brought fear and uncertainty, it has also brought out the best in many of us. Many citizens are helping our neighbours who are less fortunate by distributing much-needed hampers and supplies. We have seen taxi drivers providing free transport for our senior citizens, cafes catering free lunch meals for children and some bakeries offering free bread. And of course, we have witnessed the selfless acts of service displayed by our nation’s medical and security professionals, from doctors to policemen, nurses to members of the Defence Force to paramedics and administrative hospital staff. They are indeed our national heroes.
I express my heartfelt gratitude to all these national heroes who leave their homes and families to do their jobs dutifully in this dangerous time, to serve us all. To those citizens still in hospital and quarantine, I wish you strength in your recovery.
All of these examples of our true Trinbagonian spirit of unity and togetherness should remind us that throughout the battle with this virus we each have the best weapon – a resilient spirit. Our resilience as a people has seen us through many dark days in our history, we have faced our troubles and returned to work and life, each time rebuilding even stronger and better. We are not the first generation of Trinbagonians to endure great hardship and sacrifice, nor will we be the last. But, like those before us, we will endure and overcome this difficult time.
Citizens of our great land: I promise you; we will get through this together. I promise you; we will heal our nation.
Saving lives and livelihoods
While it is understandable that saving the lives of our citizens is the top priority now, we must also seriously plan for saving the livelihoods of all the people of our land. Even before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trinidad and Tobago was in a very vulnerable economic state. Now, it has all been made worse.
The United National Congress (UNC) has been looking ahead. We have been watching the dark clouds gathering for some time now, and we have been quietly doing our work, preparing for when those dark clouds burst open, preparing to make sure we can offer you economic solutions that can protect you and help you keep going. This applies more than ever in a post-COVID-19 world. We must be prepared and be prepared to act fast.
The UNC’s economic manifesto is our blueprint for how we will protect and create jobs, bring benefits to every citizen, and generate a sense of hope that things will get better in our great nation. Our focus is economic resilience, built on people’s spirit to fight and do what needs to be done. We know we can count on all citizens to step up.
We have meticulously crafted our economic manifesto to navigate this unprecedented and rapidly evolving COVID-19 pandemic crisis, which is like no other.
The work the UNC has done for economic recovery is in the national interest, it is for every single citizen and therefore I believe it would be selfish of us to hold on to it, given how valuable it is to rebuilding our country right now. The lives of our citizens matter more than politics. I appeal to the prime minister and his team to put people before party and politics and accept our plan.
The UNC’s COVID-19 blueprint for economic recovery will restore growth and restart the diversification process away from the dominant energy sector.
Our economic plan is complete, but we know a lot depends on the way in which this novel coronavirus evolves, the effectiveness of containment measures, and the development of an effective drug or a working vaccine, all of which are hard to predict. And we know even if we manage to control the spread of the virus, we cannot be complacent; we must continue to protect against future outbreaks through rigorous testing, tracing and isolating.
We do recognize that we must rebuild a new economic system against a troubled background of geo-political power shifts, trade wars, climate change, artificial intelligence and tech dominance, as well as possible social upheavals.
We will, therefore, update and refine our economic manifesto when circumstances materially change, incorporating additional policy measures, as necessary, to facilitate strong, sustainable, balanced and inclusive growth.
We note that within the next month the government’s economic recovery team is expected to present a draft plan with recommendations on how to restart the economy.
That is why, in the true spirit of national unity and bipartisanship, the UNC is willing to share our economic manifesto with the government so we can get a head start on turning our economy around.
Economic booster shots for recovery and growth
Reduce the tax burden
Our economic manifesto is pro-business, but it has a human face. We have placed special focus on restarting and supporting small and medium-sized businesses affected by the pandemic. There are many families who will come out of this pandemic having their savings and financial security stolen; they will need months of help to get back on their feet.
We believe reducing the heavy tax burden on our citizens and businesses most affected by the pandemic will help our citizens start to regain their footing.
So, we will reduce personal and corporate income taxes, simplify the Value Added Tax (VAT) regime, remove basic food items from the VAT net, and improve the efficiency of the tax system by strengthening the Board of Inland Revenue, VAT office and Customs and Excise.
Jump-start food security
Food security is essential in a post-COVID-19 world. A protracted pandemic will disrupt the global food supply chains, making it very difficult to move food from the world’s “breadbaskets” to the places where the food is to be consumed.
The UNC has placed agriculture and food security at the centre of our economic manifesto. We believe there must be a jumpstart to our agriculture sector by leasing 25,000 acres of former Caroni lands to create agricultural parks. At the same time, we propose spending at least ten percent of the PSIP to develop agricultural access roads, irrigation and drainage for these agricultural parks.
We will also incentivize the private sector to establish an agro-processing plant. There will be no more wastage or dumping of produce which is a bane for many of our farmers.
Now, more than ever, fuel security is critically important to a thriving economy
No one will soon forget the horror of oil prices on the futures market crashing to less than zero, for the first time in its history, as the coronavirus pandemic leaves the world awash with oil and not enough storage capacity.
We believe the government must re-examine its plan for Petrotrin and we are proposing to restart a reformed Pointe-a-Pierre oil refinery. By re-opening Petrotrin, we will have greater fuel security, save foreign exchange, provide meaningful jobs, and ensure the company continues to contribute to the treasury.
Why invest in renewable energy now? Because the COVID-19 pandemic and the sudden economic lockdown have revealed just how interconnected we are on this Earth. The reduction in emissions from less air and land traffic has led to the Himalayan mountain range becoming visible in northern India for the first time in almost 30 years. It has led to sika deer feeling comfortable enough to wander through city streets in Japan, and the waterways of the usually crowded Venice, Italy are clearer and visible from space.
Now is the time; this is an opportunity to springboard into climate change policy and action for all countries and for us to seize the opportunity to update the country’s environmental policies and legislation in keeping with the ambitious climate change goals we agreed to in the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement.
The UNC’s initiatives in renewable energy and recycling such as the establishment of a solar energy park at Tamana and industrial recycling parks across the East-West corridor will reduce our carbon footprint while adding to our environmental resiliency.
The creation of three innovative funds to mobilize financial resources
Public finances will remain tight for the foreseeable future. Public debt is rising to dangerous levels. The UNC intends to create three innovative funds to mobilise financial resources to finance the programmes in our economic manifesto.
We believe the government should now adopt this approach and start the National Food Security Fund, a National Infrastructure Fund, and a National Climate Trust Fund. These funds will not raise our public debt.
The National Food Security fund will invest in land, farms, forestry and agricultural businesses abroad to give us greater food security. This Fund will be a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Heritage and Stabilisation Fund (HSF). This Fund will be capitalised by allowing the HSF to invest up to ten percent of its total assets in alternative investments. This will mobilise about US$500 million in capital for the National Food Security Fund.
The National Infrastructure Fund will support strategic investments in public transport, solar, water and wastewater facilities, climate-resilient infrastructure, and green housing. The National Infrastructure Fund will be capitalised using the idle cash balances of State-controlled institutional investors like the National Insurance Board (NIB) and the Unit Trust Corporation (UTC). This will mobilise an initial $4 billion in capital for the National Infrastructure Fund.
Life insurance companies and private pension funds can be encouraged to become either shareholders or investors in the National Infrastructure Fund, thereby substantially boosting its pool of capital.
The Green Fund should be repurposed into a National Climate Trust Fund which will finance new green technology start-ups and provide the financial backing we need to create a low-carbon economy.
The government should use the $5 billion in cash balances of the Green Fund to capitalise the Climate Trust Fund. This will attract international grant funding and private sector capital, substantially boosting the pool of funds available for climate-smart investments.
Together we will heal
We devised our economic recovery strategy around 12 prosperity engines spread throughout communities in Trinidad and in Tobago which will ensure we stabilise, grow and diversify our economy. These prosperity engines will focus on agriculture, energy, creative industries, tourism, infrastructure, renewable energy, recycling, biotechnology and the digital economy. We believe the government should mirror this approach.
Our plan can save precious time in the rebuilding process and help people become employed quicker, earn paychecks faster, be productive sooner, and thrive longer. It can help families and our country heal sooner rather than later. The measures in our plan, if implemented, will place our economy back onto a path of growth and strength.
I encourage you to visit www.uncplan2020.com and our Facebook page Healing Trinidad and Tobago after COVID-19 to learn more about the UNC’s economic manifesto for a post-pandemic world and to provide feedback to us on our policies and programmes.
We have done thorough research and planning and believe with our COVID-19 economic plan we can create 50,000 new jobs within the next five years and double our non-energy exports to US$5 billion by 2025.
Above all, let us be hopeful, we will return to work, we will go to Maracas, or Quinam or Pigeon Point for a swim, return to Caura River for a cook, we will go back to the movies, to the malls. And we will meet our friends at Debe junction for doubles soon.
Kamla Persad Bissessar, MP, SC, Political Leader of the United National Congress (UNC)