From any vantage point, 2020 was a difficult and challenging year. It began with a weak economic outlook which grew weaker as the year advanced. Energy prices were soft, oil and natural gas production stagnant or declining, with several plants in the petrochemical sector “temporarily” closed waiting for the petrochemical market to rebound. Gun-related crime continued to pose a dilemma and as did the inflow of undocumented Venezuelan migrants. And then came COVID-19 which produced additional complications that are challenging governments in richer countries with more resources.
As 2021 begins, none of last year’s challenges has been comprehensively addressed, far less resolved. Only one of them, COVID-19, was new. The response to the pandemic has produced some positives. Whilst there have been delinquents, most citizens have complied, adjusting their hygiene habits, and managing their social interactions. But even if COVID-19 may have been contained locally, it has not been controlled. The evidence of a second wave and mutations in other jurisdictions is a warning for T&T to be continuously vigilant.
Schools have remained closed, though there will be some relaxation this year. Online teaching has been pressed into service, grafted onto a teaching system which is entirely unused to this delivery method. Despite the best assurances of the Education Minister, too many students do not have access to the necessary resources to benefit from this new delivery method and are being left behind. It did not require the skill of a fortune teller to recognise that a different approach and additional resources would be required, or that the system would be stretched the longer the pandemic continues.
The Venezuelan migrant crisis is not new. Yet a well-articulated policy supported by concerted action on the high seas, or on the shoreline, remains elusive. Indeed, the border policy seems only to negatively affect mainly nationals stranded abroad, a perverse outcome.
The underlying problem in the petrochemical sector remains the price of natural gas sold by NGC to downstream companies. Soft international prices for petrochemicals have exacerbated this situation. Worse still, the production of natural gas, the key foreign exchange earner which drives the rest of the economy, is faltering. The Energy Ministry’s statistics show average natural gas production at 2.8 bcfd in more recent months a decline of 20 per cent since 2019.
Foreign exchange availability remains a key for the non-energy sector’s performance, the major employer. Anecdotal and statistical evidence suggests that forex sales by the banking sector to the public have declined thus requiring that businesses reposition and adjust their staffing levels. The recovery committee reported and made its recommendations months ago. What has been translated into policy and action? Recommendations that are not supported by a budget are ineffective and have value only as a public relations exercise.
This administration was re-elected a mere four months ago, presumably because they were the better, rather than the least bad, option to govern the country. Public relations exercises like the “Spotlight” on Energy or Education are only useful if the ideas they generate are used to change policy and drive action. Unfortunately, this has not happened. Rather, this administration spent its first five years blaming the UNC for their profligacy and every other shortcoming. But it is this administration that weakened the procurement legislation, opening the very loopholes the act was designed to close.
Energy prices fell in 2014. By now everyone should understand that it is not business as usual and some sacrifice will be necessary. This requires leadership, management, a plan, and action. This administration cannot continue to blame the Opposition for its inability to address key areas. It was elected to govern, and the country needs concerted, measured action, not platitudes.