TT is facing a clear threat from the coronavirus (Covid-19), not only from a health perspective, but also in terms of TT’s economic stability, the Prime Minister said on Thursday at the post-cabinet press conference.
Speaking to reporters at the Diplomatic Centre in St Ann’s, Dr Rowley said the virus will affect and already has affected the country’s trade relationships. The Heritage and Stabilisation Fund (HSF), the country's sovereign wealth "rainy day" savings, is already adversely affected by the spread of the virus, he said.
“There are some bigger issues here for us,” Rowley said. “As we look at the (effect) the virus is having on the international trading community, we in TT have some serious exposure. The performance of our Heritage Fund is directly connected to the performance of (international stock markets). That is where the investment largely lies. So if the exchange is doing well, then the fund is doing well. If it is doing badly, for whatever reason, then we have concerns there.”
According to the HSF quarterly investment report, the fund is nearly 83 per cent invested in the US markets, with up to 21 per cent in US core domestic equities and 17 per cent in non-US core international equities.
International news media have reported that US stock markets were in their sixth day of decline.
“This time more than ever, to have our Heritage Fund underperforming or threatened by a collapsing market is something that every citizen should be knowledgeable and concerned about,” Rowley said.
The PM also pointed out that TT's trade worries, especially in the natural gas markets, could be exacerbated by the virus and the effects it is having on Chinese industries that TT and other countries depend on for demand in natural gas. He said that in the wake of the virus some of the manufacturing companies that import natural gas have shut down.
“We had a fairly warm winter, where the demand for natural gas was not as high as it would normally have been. There is a robust supply of gas in the market and that has kept the price depressed. We projected gas to be US$3.35 per mmbtu. Natural gas is now US$1.92 per mmbtu. There are also all kinds of forecasts that are not optimistic.”
Rowley said very many countries, especially those involved in manufacturing, get a lot of inputs from factories in China.
"Some of those factories are not operating. Those effects are directly of interest of the people of TT.”
The response to the threat of the virus is forcing the hand of Government as well to limit and stop the movement of people coming from any area where the virus is prevalent. Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh, also at the briefing, identified Italy, Iran, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Singapore as five countries to be added to China as places from where visitors would have to undergo a 14-day quarantine.
China and TT have several major government-to-government arrangements in the pipeline, including the La Brea dry dock project and the Phoenix Park tech park. Part of those agreement include Chinese firms using Chinese labour for construction. Rowley said the virus could affect those projects because of the limitation of the movement of people. "In terms of projects taking place, the response to the virus and our attempt to keep it out is forcing us to reduce and stop the movement of people coming from any area where the virus is prevalent and poses a threat." He said with the virus affecting major events like the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, and major conferences, how it is being spread is a concern for all countries.
The Government will not turn away any TT citizen who is abroad, and feels they should come home, after being in an environment that could have exposed them to the virus, he assured. He said precautions would have to be taken and they would be subject to quarantine.
But, Rowley stressed, there is no need for panic. Before the virus runs its course worldwide, he said, it is likely that it would reach this country. The Government, he added, is prepared to handle such an instance.
He knocked “irresponsible” people who use social media as a tool for fearmongering, saying the Government has tackled the disinformation surrounding the virus daily.
“Some people are just horribly irresponsible,” Rowley said. “We had one instance of a person coming to Tobago and it worked very well and everyone did their jobs. The one thing we want to do is keep a level-headed response. We don’t want panic, we don’t want exaggerations. And certainly, the worst place to be is in a place driven by fear. So we want to be level-headed and be informed and make informed decisions.”
About the coronavirus
The coronavirus is a strain of influenza which manifests with symptoms that may be similar to the flu, or more severe symptoms similar to the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
About 47 countries have reported confirmed cases of the virus. There have been 82,784 cases, with 2,817 deaths.
People over 60, pregnant women and people with low immune systems are particularly at risk, with people over 80 having a 14 per cent risk of death if exposed. (The World Health Organisation)
Standard recommendations to prevent infection spread include regular handwashing, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, and thoroughly cooking meat and eggs. Avoid close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing.