Leader of the Opposition Godwin Friday says the first priority of a country is the protection of its citizens and repatriating Vincentians stranded overseas as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic is an obligation of the government.
“I would urge that anyone who is involved in repatriating our sailors that they do so and do so speedily. The situation ain’t going change in the next two weeks; it ain’t going change in the next two months. So we might as well bite the bullet and do it now,” he said Monday night.
Friday was speaking on the inaugural edition of NDP Monday Night Live, a Facebook Live programme of his New Democratic Party.
The opposition leader said that his position was the same regarding sailors on cruise ships, oil rig workers, and Vincentian students stranded in Cuba and Jamaica.
“I didn’t even think that this would be something that would be debatable. Of course, you must take care of your citizens abroad, and those who wish to come home, especially if they’re stuck in circumstances that are less than ideal or unsafe, you have to assist them to come home and that’s an obligation that the government has, and should exercise. Don’t wait for somebody else to do it,” Friday said.
“… your first priority is to protect the citizens of your country, you can’t leave them stranded out there,” he said, adding, “That’s our first duty. If other people wish to assist us in doing so, then so be it.
“We are happy to do so. But we can’t shirk our responsibility to look after our citizens no matter where they are.”
Friday was speaking in the context of the government’s negotiations with cruise lines regarding the circumstances in which sailors and oil rig workers would be allowed to return to SVG.
The opposition leader said it is “sickening” that the repatriation of Vincentians amidst the pandemic was politicised “based on really false reporting”.
He said that the NDP’s position has always been to secure the nation’s borders except for essential travel and for returning nationals.
“I mean, you can’t just simply say that absolutely nothing (no travel) because there are times when those circumstances outweigh the risk if you take necessary precautions.”
Gonsalves, speaking on radio on Sunday, said his government had developed protocols for the repatriation of these workers.
Among other things, the returning Vincentians must have a certificate of health issued by authorities in the country of departure, including their COVID-19 status.
An element that has generated much discussion is the government’s demand that the sailors undergo 14 to 21 days quarantine in hotels or guesthouses in SVG at the cost of the cruise line.
The government said that hotels and guest houses are charging EC$150 per night per person. The fee includes three meals daily.
Friday said that the sailors are “in difficult circumstances because they want to come home.
“And they are not being permitted now to come because arrangements that were being made by one of the cruise ship companies seem to have gone awry because the government and the company can’t come to some agreement as to how they would repatriate our people,” the opposition leader said.
“I think it is our responsibility if the companies bringing them here, delivering them to our shores, it is our responsibility to look after them once they are here. And we should make sure that that is done.”
Friday said this is a question of prioritising.
“And this is, to me, as a priority. These are human beings who are in difficult circumstances, their family members here … are concerned about them; they’re worried about them.”
He said Vincentians workers on oil rig workers in the Gulf of Mexico are in Louisiana and Mississippi since their work was terminated.
“…we have to look out for them too, and say, how we are going to get them home.
“The students are in Cuba who wish to come home, the students who are in Jamaica, these are nationals. We have to facilitate and make sure that if those who wish to stay on where they are until circumstances change, then that is a choice that they make. And, you know, hopefully it works out well for them.
“But those who wish to come home — and you can’t imagine somebody stuck on a cruise ship indefinitely. What is going to change in the next month or two to their circumstances that will make it any better than bringing them home now?” Friday said.
He said that the urgency to bring them home will be greater in a month because their circumstances will not be any different.
“Because the cruise ships are not going to suddenly start to be filling up with passengers and then they are going back to work.”
Friday said that currently the outlook is focused on living with COVID-19.
“It’s not a question of how are you just riding it out and sort of burying your head and hopefully it will pass and then you can go back to being normal. No. You have to learn to live with this and this will continue for a while.
“Those cruise ship workers are right to be concerned about how long they’re going to be there and to clamour for assistance from government. Who else is going to do it?”
Friday said that while his first concern is the safety of the Vincentian nationals, he is also concerned about the long-term impact of the stance of the government regarding the cruise lines.
“…we want to make sure we maintain good relationships with them so that our seafarers who make a living on the cruise ships can continue to do so. And the reason the cruise ships come here to get sailors is because they’re good. They do a good job.”
The opposition leader noted that some Vincentians have made a career of working on cruise ships.
“… they build their homes, they raise their families and this is something that we would want to continue after this crisis when the worst of it is over and the business resumes.
“And if, of course, we burn our bridges, then we can create problems for continuation of those people finding work in that industry. I hope that is not the case.”
Friday said he knows that the sailors want to be back home but “feel somewhat trapped outside.
“Well, they must know that we are advocating on their behalf; there are lots of people advocating on their behalf; their family members are advocating on their behalf,” Friday said.