By Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk”, April 3, 2020)
“Therefore, the prudent keep quiet in such times, for the times are evil.” — Amos 5:13
St. Vincent and the Grenadines is going through trying times. For the last 10 years, we were struck with hurricanes, droughts, storms and landslides. All delivered body blows to our people and the economy. And now this: the Coronavirus Pandemic may set us back like no other disaster. It is as if the gods are against us, although if you listen to high officials, especially those in the political class, you may be tricked into thinking that God is a Vincy.
In times like these we must avoid the error of doing business as usual. Most of all we must fight against our inner urges to play politics with this issue. In the past, we warned against claiming bragging rights for a fall in the homicide rate for we never know when a drug deal gone bad could breed death and destruction. Similarly, we caution against the temptation to bat outside our crease and claim Vincentian exceptionalism because thus far only two persons tested positive for the virus.
(Editor’s note: Since the writing of their article, the number of persons in SVG to have tested positive has risen to seven.)
Donald Trump claimed that the coronavirus was a hoax only a month ago. Today, the United States has the highest infection rate in the world. The now celebrated response of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was not so stellar early on. On March 18, Cuomo publicly declared he wouldn’t approve a “shelter-in-place” order for New York City, even as New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio suggested residents prepare for one, because, he said then “the fear, the panic is a bigger problem than the virus”. Currently, New York has more than 50% of all infections in that country.
No country in the world wants to see its entire social, political and economic life ground to a halt. SVG cannot afford to shut down, the fierce urgency of now is upon us. This period demands discipline, determination and self sacrifice. Our leaders are required to put down the political guns and hoist the national flag of statesmanship. Together now takes on real importance. Politics can wait. We cannot be like the callous Donald Trump and tell people if you are going to die, hold until after election day, then go meet your maker.
Under no condition should politicians try to steal a march on the other side. Scaremongering must be banished. Equally, the care and concerns for the safety, health and welfare of citizens coming from politicians and others cannot, must not be cavalierly rubbished as scare tactics. We are currently walking on a tight rope. What’s the best course of action? How do we keep the nation safe and sane? Should we move in a measured way and play wait and see or hide and seek with the virus? Alternatively, do we follow our neighbours and lockdown the country in the hope of controlling the spread of this scary and potentially deadly virus?
Some say follow the science. The scientific reality indicates the virus, galloping there and creeping demonstrates a determined certainty. It’s coming.
We live in a lake called the Caribbean Sea. Those neighbours closest to us, Barbados, Trinidad, Grenada and St. Lucia have all taken drastic actions determine to protect the health, safety and welfare of citizens. What is the peculiar and exceptional Vincentian reality that demands that we take a different course?
Like the rest of our sister isles, we have asked for and received help. While we are doing what we can to stay ahead it was announced that we had all but six ventilators in SVG. Last week Friday, Health Minister Luke Browne disclosed that we will be get 18 more soonest.
Last week Wednesday evening, PM Gonsalves got probably the largest listening audience in his entire political career. Citizens were all ears. Obviously, those who uncritically support the ULP were effusive in their praise. However, many persons expressed profound disappointment. The speech was too long. At least two staunch ULP supporters disclosed they fell asleep on Gonsalves words. For us the speech did not correspond to the moment.
Gonsalves could put a speech together. However, he never convincingly explained why his approach was different from his CARICOM colleagues closest to us. He never explained why he continued to allow international travel into our country, particularly from North America, particularly since by the time of his address, the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic had shifted to the United States.
There is no information in the public domain which points to Gonsalves directing and mandating that flights from certain regions be temporarily curtailed. Air Canada landed last Thursday. American Airlines was schedule to arrive from Miami on April 1. The airline cancelled the flight either for the safety of the crew or for the shortage of travellers. LIAT stopped flying.
However, as airlines cancelled flights, Gonsalves was callously disregarding the science he touts, offering a 50% reduction in departure taxes and encouraging Vincentians and foreigners to engage in inter-island travel. Now you can’t be more reckless than that!
The call by the state to have people self police is another joke. As we saw with the AIDS epidemic, young people are convinced that God is not ready for them yet. They could not care if Good Friday falls on Christmas. They have strong rum in their veins and nice time on their mind.
To effectively deal with this problem we must throw a broad net to ensure that all your policies close all opportunities for spread and contamination. Across our country social distancing is not working. We close the schools then encourage parents to send their children on hikes. Preachers at funerals delight in the captive audience and engage in long sermons enquiring as to where those in attendance will spend eternity.
The minivans are still packed with passengers going too and from work. Some businesses try to limit the amount of people in their premises, but customers stand near each other on long lines as they wait for service. There is no recommendation from state and health officials for the use of mask.
Too often in SVG, supposedly learned and experienced leaders, become afraid of their own shadow. They are scared that opponents may gain politically because of their handing of a crisis or a given development. However, our history is replete with examples where this view is grossly overblown and far removed from reality.
Our only concern is to ensure our people remain sane and safe. Any other calculation should be disavowed.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].