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Raffique Shah


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Remove these shackles

By Raffique Shah
March 8, 2021

If a brush with death is said to prompt man to reflect more deeply on life, then the Covid-19 pandemic that swooped down on mankind last year, cutting a path of death and destruction such as we had never seen in our lifetime, has also triggered deep thinking on the social contracts that exist among governments and the governed, on how societies are structured to sustain inequality, and on altering such arrangements, replacing them with more equitable alternatives.

From an eruption of the Black Lives Matter movement to the far-right fascists who invoked the spirit of Adolf Hitler, no less, institutions and officials are being challenged. Ordinary people and organised interest groups everywhere, including here in T&T, are fighting to redefine their spaces, to revise or replace their social contracts.

The Covid-19 crisis exposed levels of poverty in wealthy countries that were unbelievable even to those who lived near to the squalor. Across the world, millions of people fought hunger daily. With television stations broadcasting graphic images of human suffering into living rooms and on mobile devices everywhere, people saw how, in almost every country, the wealthy and the poor coexisted.

Before Covid-19 struck, some seismic shifts in global equilibrium had already taken place, or were set to so do. China, which had made it a mission to eradicate poverty and expand its economy to become the biggest, most efficient in the world, was well on the way to achieving its targets, albeit under an autocratic system of government that brooked no dissent and demanded from all its 1.4 billion population full productivity and absolute loyalty.

We seem to forget that China was the first country that was hit by Covid-19 in its pandemic form, and it took drastic action to stem the spread of the deadly virus. It was also among the few countries that contained it, then set about resuming economic activities as if nothing had happened. It is set to enjoy growth this year even as its rivals wrestle to vaccinate acceptable levels of their populations that will allow them to resume economic activities.

Indeed, as post-Covid-19 changes go, a huge shift from the old order that is yet to be tested is Britain's exit from the European Union. What that will mean for global trade and positioning among some of the biggest economies in the old order remains unknown. In Asia, India, which stands to strike it big from its huge manufacturing base that hosts many of the vaccine producers, is besieged by social and political unrest that could negatively impact its monetary gains.

But back to rewriting the social contract in so far as that process affects us in T&T. While one cannot measure the level of discontent among Tobagonians over what many of them see as domination by Trinidad, the noises generated by those who promote greater autonomy for the island is cause for concern.

I find it curious that the issue of redrawing the maritime borders, which many advocates for autonomy insist will make Tobago much bigger than Trinidad, hence wealthier—I don't know if they are correct—disturbing to say the least. I should add that while I do not support fragmentation of two-by-two islands in the Caribbean Sea that have only sand, sea and serenity to sell, all of which could be reduced to rubble with one category five hurricane or a six-point-plus earthquake, I am a firm supporter of self-determination.

I suspect, though, that all this grandstanding by a vociferous few in Tobago about going it alone and doing much better than Trinidad is mere…well, grandstanding. They are no doubt looking to squeeze some more millions from Port of Spain, as if they aren't aware that the sponge is almost dry.

But there is much more to be addressed by way of reviewing the social contract, revisiting the way we govern ourselves. Let's face it: Britain gave us a generic, skewed system of government and economic order that, many might argue, has worked, has kept us fairly well off for generations. But is it really the best we can do? Surely we must have evolved from the colonial era, and from among our brighter sons and daughters, conceived changes that can better equip us to face the future.

Let me leave readers to ponder this aberration that has kept us “in chains”, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, author of the original Social Contract, posited in 1762: from the dawn of our history, we have relied on foreign countries to supply us with everything we consume —from food to fruits, motor vehicles, appliances, construction material— everything.

No government, not the colonials, not pre- or post-independence regimes, has made a half-decent effort to deliver us from this bondage. Can we not, in a new economic order, throw off these shackles that reek of slavery, indentureship and worse?

I shall continue this discourse.

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