The price of silence

Paolo Kernahan -
Paolo Kernahan -

THIS WEEK'S column is an abridged account of unremitting struggle; one woman's fight to be heard – to merely survive.

Lockdown saw the end of many jobs and businesses in TT. While the country has, for the most part, returned to plodding along in the best manageable way, for thousands there has been no way back.

Worse still, critical support promised by the State never materialised for many forgotten citizens.

Evelyn Cummings (not her real name) is a mother of two daughters. She started a job in March of 2020 at an internet cafe catering primarily to students. This opportunity came along at just the right time. She had been unemployed for several months before that. When this cafe gig turned up it was a God-send, albeit one that didn't last. Within a fortnight of lockdown measures her job perished.

With the rent due and daughters to care for, Cummings applied for rental assistance, the salary relief grant, and a food card. Here we are are in 2021 and she has received nothing.

Cummings is a proud woman. She didn't tell me that. It's a profile I assembled from a few questions I asked her. She has worked since she was 17. As a single parent, she has been raising two daughters without ever having turned to the State for help. That's all changed now.

She jumped through all the bureaucratic hoops, doing the paperwork shuffle and hoping for the best. Never one to disappoint, the public service apparatus fed her into their grinder. Cummings joined countless others sending e-mails to dead-end addresses. She has played phone tag with numerous apathetic public servants. A constant refrain was "call back later." When? Later!

Beyond e-mailing the void and calling the call-back crew, Cummings used precious cash travelling to various offices. She'd hoped showing up in person might be a more effective path to answers. This was a costly miscalculation, fraying her already anxiety-riddled mind.

Her landlord was getting frustrated too. Unpaid rent was piling up. Cummings was served notice to pack her georgie bundle and a desperate situation became hopelessly dark.

Still, she chased hope after having been told her applications had been approved. However, that one flicker was extinguished when she was subsequently advised the date for payment wasn't "set in stone." The only thing set in stone, it seems, is the public service.

Meanwhile, Cummings's life slowly unravelled. A last-minute loan intervention by friends and family allowed her to stay in her rented home. The consequence of that reprieve though is accumulated debts in excess of $30,000.

Her 14-year-old daughter went to live with her grandmother. There isn't enough food in the fridge at home for them both. Whatever provisions she is able to rustle up come from a benevolent friend who owns a grocery.

There is no job in sight. Any prospects for assistance from the State have dipped below the horizon.

Cummings is a member of a Facebook group of citizens who number in the thousands. She is not alone in her suffering, and yet, she is.

On paper, this shouldn't be, given the Government's oft-repeated claims of grandiose spending to soften the impact of covid19 on society's most vulnerable.

The Minister of Finance announced at a media briefing last year the Government had spent close to a billion dollars by May 2020 on what was broadly described as covid19 relief. Spent was the word used.

Somewhere in that astronomical figure was funding for the salary relief grant and other support measures.

With such unimaginable sums being thrown around, how can it be that so many have yet to get any help at all? Where did all of this money go?

Now, illusions, as you know, only work if audiences give themselves over to the conjurer. There are consequences for swallowing wholesale what we're told by any government.

A reluctance to interrogate the “facts” we're supplied precipitates real suffering. In a broader context, it keeps us mired in backwardness.

So, never relinquish your right to question those in authority. You will be dismissed as a rabble-rouser or a troublemaker with a hidden agenda. No citizen, though, should be cowed into costly silence. No one should be made to feel bad for speaking the truth to promote change for the better.

When we ignore our responsibility to challenge the Government there is a price to be paid – even if you aren't the one paying it.

Today it's Evelyn Cummings with her broken life. Tomorrow it could be you.


"The price of silence"

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