A T&TEC worker is geared up to do electrical upgrades at the Couva Hospital and Multi Training Facility.

It has been a year since COVID-19 snatched public freedom causing increased anxiety, job loss, food shortages and chaos in the health care system.

Business owners are coming forward providing food banks for the needy. Even farmers are giving away tonnes of produce to those who cannot put food on their tables. Humanitarian organisations are out in full force delivering hampers and assisting with educational devices, while internet providers have offered broadband capability to 95 per cent of the population.

In the face of rising COVID-19 positive cases overwhelming the health care system, thousands of doctors, nurses and other hospital workers have been patiently caring for the sick under extremely challenging circumstances. Amid the chaos, other frontline workers have also shown remarkable resilience as they battle this invisible foe.

For the most part, since the pandemic hit, T&T has continued to enjoy a steady supply of electricity, water, internet connectivity and even government services although many departments have been operating under a rotation schedule with a skeletal staff.

Each public utility in T&T has jointly faced challenges with thousands of workers going into quarantine, self-isolation and even hospitalisation for COVID infections.

WASA workers on the ball

At the Water and Sewerage Authority, water demand has grown steadily this past year as more people wash their hands, clean regularly and sanitize workplaces and homes.

But how has WASA coped with this increased demand?

In an exclusive interview with Guardian Media, executive director of the Water and Sewerage Authority Dr Lennox Sealy said WASA’s water distribution and wastewater collection services have continued uninterrupted.

He noted that all 4,800 workers were on rotation schedules, while WASA’s 750 frontline staffers operated with diligence while they were awaiting total vaccination.

Dr Sealy said the Authority was proud that no member of its workforce had died from the virus.

“The Ministry of Public Utilities has arranged for all of WASA’s frontline workers to get vaccines. We know there is some vaccine hesitancy but more than 50 per cent of vaccine appointments were kept by our frontline people,” he had said recently.

He explained that WASA has protected staff and customers by reducing operational hours at recollection centres.

“We have not had any kind of significant shutdown that affects the public in terms of water delivery,” he added.

WASA’s Health and Safety manager Roger Karim said there has been a willingness among workers to get the job done. He further revealed that COVID infections have been minimal.

“Between March 2020 to May 2021, a total of 703 workers were placed on quarantine of which 99 were still on active quarantine,” Karim had said, noting that of that number 19 people had completed quarantine.

He also said since March last year, 74 employees tested positive, 43 of whom have recovered and are back to work.

“WASA is a subset of the wider population but we have done pretty OK in terms of how we have been able to keep employees safe. We have no mortality. We have protocols at the Authority. We limit movement and we have mandatory health screening facilities. Physical barriers have been erected around workstations and we have set up temporary drop-off boxes for the public,” he added.

T&TEC frontliners on the job

Meanwhile, at T&TEC, frontline workers have been operating despite several COVID infections.

General Manager Kelvin Ramsook said despite the pandemic, T&TEC has managed to fulfil its obligations. He said employees developed two online systems in-house–T&TEC’s Energy Management Application and a new system for capital expenditure applications.

“We have also managed, on behalf of the Ministry of Public Utilities, the procurement and the distribution of 1.6 million LED bulbs to our customers,” he said. Ramsook praised employees for going above and beyond to ensure projects were completed and that quality service is maintained.

In April, two T&TEC employees tested positive for COVID-19.

In May, a T&TEC frontline team was lauded publicly as they provided electrical upgrades at the Couva Hospital and Multi-Training Facility where the most critically ill patients have been housed.

T&TEC has adjusted its operating hours and customers are asked to utilise online bill payments as well as the T&TEC drop box to minimise infections.

And as T&T goes through the third wave of COVID, the Commission’s projects have been executed and completed during the pandemic.

In its July/December 2020 newsletter Watts Happening, the Commission announced it has completed the lighting up of four community spaces–Ariapita Avenue, Woodbrook; Harris Promenade, San Fernando; Victor Chin Kit Park, Point Fortin; and the Princess Royal Park, Arima.

The Commission also outfitted 22 recreational facilities with new sporting lights. The pandemic restrictions prompted innovative solutions for business continuity which included virtual Factory Acceptance Test (FAT) for distribution power transformers.

In September 2020, about 50,000 customers in Port-of-Spain and the outer west ring, from Diego Martin to Chaguaramas, also benefited from a $28 million T&TEC upgrade and expansion of the 66/33/12kV Westmoorings Substation.

Broadband capability to 95 per cent of T&T

Meanwhile, internet service providers have also expanded to deal with the increased demand for connectivity.

Digicel’s head of Public Relations Colin Greaves said employees have remained committed to keeping T&T reliably connected.

“We have a significant responsibility to society which we take very seriously and over the last year, we have implemented numerous initiatives to care for our employees, as they are the backbone of the operations,” Greaves said.

He said over 300 call centre employees have been working from home, without a single disruption in service to customers.

“Technical teams installed internet service, computers, desks and other tools in the homes of all employees across the country, to ensure that we could continue to deliver the best service to customers,” he added.

Meanwhile, internet provider Flow has also been keeping ahead with demands.

On its website, Flow said due to the unprecedented connectivity demand ahead it has been working to “increase the capacity and speed” of their network.

“We have activated our emergency plan and our technical team heroes will be working around the clock to fix any service interruption issues to keep you and your businesses connected,” the company said.

Education Minister Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly has been engaging with internet providers to expand internet access to facilitate online schooling.

During a recent Joint Select meeting, TSTT’s Lisa Agard said 95 per cent of the population of T&T has broadband capability whether it be fixed or wireless, noting that even though 95 per cent had access, there was only an 80 per cent uptake of connectivity by citizens.

This meant that some people could not afford internet connectivity, she added.

She explained that 401,000 households have high-speed broadband internet access with speeds of ten megs (megabits) or more.

Digicel’s Chief Executive Officer Abraham Smith said there has been a 56 per cent increase in fixed networks and a 64 per cent increase in mobile network connectivity over the past year.

He said Digicel invested $1.5 billion in fibre and mobile broadband network infrastructure in 2016, adding that Digicel offered over $170 million in relief during the pandemic.

Teacher training has also been ongoing.

Farmers rise to the challenge

T&T’s farmers, meanwhile, have also risen to the challenge. Agricultural economist Omardath Maharaj said farmers have been donating thousands of pounds of sweet potatoes and other produce to needy families. In May, Maharaj shared 500 pounds of sweet potatoes donated by farmers in central Trinidad.

On Thursday Maharaj was packing honey dew and cantaloupe melons to distribute to needy families who are finding it difficult to give their children a nutritious meal. Farmer Roger Lobin of Mayaro donated 4,000 pounds of melons. Nicolas Boodram, a young farmer from Princes Town has been assisting in transporting the melons. The produce are being distributed through Maharaj’s Yard Market in Chase Village, Chaguanas.

Food baskets have also been shared by many humanitarian organisations.

Small entrepreneurs such as Chinaka Jordan, of the Generation Survival Foundation, opened up a food bank at her mini-mart at Poinsettia and Pleasantville Circular Drive, Pleasantville, offering food items to needy families affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Also doing similar initiatives were Rodney’s Supermarket in Arima and Diamond Liquor Mart and Supermarket.

As T&T strives to bring down the rate of infection, undoubtedly some may have been reckless, but many more citizens have been reaching out and working diligently to assist others as they develop pandemic resilience to fight COVID-19.