COVID-19 Grants: Good Ideas, Weak Implementation

In the wake of the nationwide lockdown due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the government has deemed it necessary to make available to the public a number of grants for persons without a source of income. These grants include relief for salaries, rent assistance and food aid. While these grants are a welcome break for people who depend on their jobs for sustainence, as is often the case, the implementation of these policies have left much to be desired.

As you peruse the comments under the news articles and other posts about the grants on social media, you would find a number of people at any given time complaining about the quality of service and the puzzling requirements and conditions for accessing the grants. To begin with, in order to be eligible a person must be paying NIS while also not having another source of income. Employer must be registered with NIB.

Another major issue is the sheer amount of beaureaucracy involved. The registration process requires the applicant to download a form for the previous or current employers to fill out. These forms will then be sent in to the Ministry of Finance with the relevant documents where the applicant will then wait to have her/his information verified by the National Insurance Board. One can imagine this to be a very cumbersome process. Aside from the fact that the NIB is one of the slowest government agencies in existence, having to vet each individual application form will no doubt put a strain on the limited manpower available at this time.

Instead, the MSJ recommends that the responsibility should be on the employer to provide a complete payroll of all employees and their salaries in order to cut down on the amount of time and resources spent verifying the authenticity of each application. Secondly, a designated department within a government ministry (ideally the Ministry of Labour) should take on this task of dealing with applicants and their employers. Once the payrolls are verified then payments will be sent directly to the employee’s bank account instead of the employer’s. In the event that the employee does not have a bank account then cheques can be made available at the Ministry of Finance. A similar process has been executed in countries such as Denmark and Canada to the satisfaction of the workers in those countries.

It should also be mentioned that with the current system we have in place, at no time has the government given any timeline as to when applicants can expect payment. Are we going to see payments made within the week, or longer? It is disturbing to think that people will be left uncertain for weeks, if not months as is usually the case with our government beaureaucracies.

There is also a grant available for self-employed persons. The problem is that many workers who fall within that bracket (taxi drivers, market vendors, etc.) have difficulties keeping records of their income and expendature. We expect that these persons in particular will have great difficulty accessing compensatoin, especially those persons who lack bank accounts and cannot get bank statements.

Where the welfare of our workers are concerned, the government must seriously rethink its implementation process. The Heritage and Stabilisation Fund is limited and must be used as wisely as possible.

As with all social programmes made possible by our state, the threat of political victimisation is ever present. For the most egregious display of politicisation during this crisis look no further than the School Feeding Programme Grant. The family must first be registered under the School Feeding Programme. All registered persons will then be contacted by their MP, and they will collect their assistance only when called.

Why is it up to the MP to determine who is eligible to be fed? As with foods cards, housing and other state benefits, it is a macabre thing to use food as a political tool. We can only presume that this means punishment for people not supporting the party being represented by the MP’s whether they be government or opposition MP’s. Instead, we are recommending that a unit within the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Social Development be established to handle the responsibiliy of making sure our schoolchildren are fed.

Our final segment covering this topic will focus on the workers of our country who have been deemed to be “essential”. Before COVID-19 reached our shores these workers (in particular those who work for the minimum wage including grocery workers, sanitaion workers and cleaners, etc.) have been met with much derision and disrespect by the country at large. The fact that it took a global crisis for us to understand their worth as workers and as human beings speaks volumes about our attitude towards so-called “blue collar” jobs. While this crisis is an urgent call for all hands to be on deck, we hope that the persons who work in these jobs remember how important their contributions were so that they can bargain for better wages once this situation is under control.

In closing we wish to urge the government to review the conditions of these grants and fast track this service for those most in need.

Food for Thought- Food Sovereignity in Times of Crisis

Yesterday the Prime Minister announced that all restaurants and food vendors will be ordered to cease the sale of food until the COVID-19 virus is under control in T&T. Rowley’s announcement seemed to have inspired a civil war as many have been led to believe that this decision was the result of pressure from disgruntled doubles vendors. However while the country is locked in a senseless argument about whether KFC is “essential” or not, a larger, more pressing issue that has haunted our country for our entire history looms larger than ever. That is, the question of food sovereignity.

As a small island nation with a dormant manufacturing sector, almost every item that is consumed- from clothes, to electronics and especially food- is imported from abroad. But as the COVID infection continues to rip throughout the world without abating, entire industries are being forced to shut down due to concerns about the safety of workers and the wider population. If this virus isn’t brought under control, there is the very real possibility of our nation having to forgo imported goods for as long as the world needs for this virus to relent.

This is a frightening possibility, especially given the fact that our agriculture industry isn’t even a major industry anymore. What would the future hold for the 1.3 million people who live here with our source of sustainance gone? “Too late, too late!” shall be the cry as we would finally understand how important it would have been for our nation to feed itself.

What can the government do (perhaps more poignantly- what would an MSJ government do) in order to revive agriculture in a way that can save us from impending disaster?

It begins with incentivising agriculture. At this point, this is where defenders of past and present agri-policy would interject and list the various incentives that exist for farmers locally. However, none of these incentives address a fundamental problem affecting farmers- the purchasing of agricultural produce.

By importing cheap food that has been mass produced on industrial farms in other countries, we have flooded our own nation with cheap produce which has made it difficult for local farmers to compete. The higher cost of local goods have discouraged both retailers and consumers from buying local. As a result, farmers continue to struggle despite the numerous incentives that are available. However these incentives mean nothing if farmers can’t even get their produce sold.

Therefore it is important that the purchase of local goods are guaranteed by law. Under the MSJ, all supermarkets and other retailers must first purchase products from local farmers before turning to outside sources to fill their shelves. In doing so not only would we provide a stable and steady source of income for local farmers but we would also cut down on the loss of foreign exchange- the shortage of which has triggered yet another crisis in T&T. In addition to mandating the purchase of local food products, the cost of these items will be offset through government subsidies. Why has this not been done before? This oversight can be easily attributed to apathy and nonchalance, but we see something more sinister. The retailers and traders locally have amassed great fortunes through the buying and re-selling of imported goods. From supermarkets to fast food restaurants, the business elite have been able to influence government policy for their benefit and theirs alone. Funds generated from this un-innovative business model have been used to fund political parties and keep politicians in their pockets- hence the lack of interest by both major parties to develop agriculture.

There are other reasons to avoid foreign food products. Last year, the world was horrified as we witnessed the destruction of the Amazon rainforest at the hands of the Brazilian government. The Amazon is being destroyed because the president of Brazil has practically sold large swaths of the forest to agribusinessmen, who are turning the Lungs of the Earth into mega-farms. Many meat, vegetable and beverage products are imported from Brazil into T&T every year. By turning to Brazil for food we are indirectly contributing to the ongoing destruction of the Amazon and the genocide of indigenous people living there. It should also be mentioned here that this will no doubt contribute to climate change, something that can seriously affect our lives as Caribbean people.

Another hindrance to local agriculture has been the habit of both government and opposition parties alike to use fertile farmland for conscruction sites. This is because housing continues to be used as a political tool and not the human right that it is. A separate article about the state of housing will be written in due time; but to address the the topic of agriculture, rest assured that not a single inch of farmland would ever be used for construction projects under an MSJ government. Arable land is a limited resource, especially on an island as small as ours. Every effort must be taken to ensure that such land is protected and utilised in the manner that it ought to be used in.

The establishment of community-based cooperatives will also be encouraged. Beginning at a local government level, each Borough Corporation will establish a number of community farms in order to meet the demands of the population. It should be highlighted that some local government districts (especially those in the built-up, urbanised areas) may not have access to land. This is where indoor and vertical farming can be introduced to ensure that every district can feed its people despite the lack of available land space.

We hope with all our hearts that this COVID-19 crisis passes by without any major fallout for T&T. However even when that happens, we are still far from being out of the woods. For there will be many long battles to fight in the very near future. Because with climate change comes the possibility of droughts, hurricanes and flash floods- things that will no doubt put a strain on our national resources and especially our food supply. One of the ways China was able to contain the COVID-19 virus was due in part to their stockpiling of food supplies for the population. During the course of its long history, the Chinese have had to endure many calamities- natural disasters, disease, war, etc. So it is no wonder that they have figured out that the best way to ensure survival for everyone is to begin by simply making it possible for each person to have a plate of food. We ought to take a page out of China’s book in this regard and turn to our farmers for our survival as a nation.