An absence of dignity


I understand why mankind has to believe in God or Gods. If I were an idle pessimist I might decide to get a placard, paint the words “the end of the world is in hand” and strut around town announcing doomsday. There are moments in history where we become overwhelmed by circumstances that seem intractable. Such a moment is now.

A friend sent me a long explanation by a highly reputed stargazer about the extraordinary confluence of planetary activity that may explain the many forms of crisis that are assailing us. At times such as these, of unrelenting change, when turbulence is everywhere, we can feel rudderless and our only form of hope is to believe that it is beyond human existence, divine intervention, even. Hope, one of the theological virtues, means we wish for something and expect to get it. Being hopeful is critical but it is what we do to turn the desire into a reality that should occupy us. It’s pointless praying to win the lottery if you don't buy a ticket.

The violent street demonstrations are back. Last week mayhem erupted yet again in the Beetham area and spread all over east Port of Spain. They seemed to be worse than previously, probably copying some of the tactics broadcast universally of the recent and widespread manifestations of people power aimed at challenging the status quo, the scourge of racism, the ravages of inequality, injustice and ignorance. The Port of Spain protests, like in the USA, sprung up as a response to police force that has resulted in still more citizens being killed by those meant to protect lives. The number of people dying in this manner is unacceptable and particularly because these killings are not happening across society; they are taking place only in certain disadvantaged areas and amongst a certain socio-economic group which is generally associated with crime.

That is not accidental. It is not divine intervention either. Our woes spring from inadequate action over very many years and no political party seems to have the stomach to make the radical economic changes needed to address entrenched inequality. Well-meaning interventions in depressed Port of Spain areas are commendable but they do not deliver the structural changes needed to embed the benefits of those programmes. They won’t fix poor housing and schooling, a serious lack of employment opportunities, illiteracy etc. The post-coronavirus world will be much worse than our Minister of Finance promises. He does not take into account the fact that many people have lost their jobs and will probably be out of work for a very long while. Many more will continue to have less money too unless we change our economic model. Reducing inequality to more socially acceptable levels requires a gigantic effort to redistribute income and wealth. We need to activate many more industrial sectors and do more still to develop SME’s to be local wealth creators.

Like most of us, I learn how other people in TT live via our TV screens. The hovels people call home are breathtaking and the pictures on television of maskless, nothing-to-lose protesters were disheartening. What possesses a pregnant young mother of five to enter the fray, or an elderly woman to pour petrol on fire? From the behaviour we witness it is clear that the social agreement between state and people is seriously broken. The imperative must be to rebuild the legitimacy of government and police in the eyes of the public and to keep doing it. The Police Commissioner asserts that the protests were orchestrated as part of a plot to destabilise the state. Then, certainly, there must have been a social media component which is the damaging new element of the equation that helps fan the deepening fracture in society. Spreading an abundance of information, so much of it false, is making people turn away from expertise and reason, putting them out of reach of society’s norms.

In a magazine interview, Esther Duflo, recent joint winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, makes the important point that governments spend on education and health, which helps pull people out of poverty but people also need structure to help achieve their goals in life. She believes what most mobilises people in society is dignity, “They want status and a place in life. For a lot of people, this sense of self-respect comes from doing a meaningful job.” I tend to agree since work also brings security and independence. I also believe that governments know what the problem is. It is not necessarily easy to fix but they must aim to make those hot spots places where people live fit for humans, not vermin, and sources of wealth generation other than from drugs.


"An absence of dignity"

More in this section