Asking Vincentian students in Jamaica to pay US$1,339 — three times the usual price — to return home during the COVID-19 pandemic is “terribly unfair” says opposition Leader Godwin Friday.
Friday, speaking on his party’s radio programme on NICE Radio, said that the government should use money from the EC$74 million COVID-19 stimulus package to pay the US$75,000 that regional carrier LIAT is charging to repatriate 55 students.
“It seems to me terribly unfair to the students and I think this is a general view of most people that you would be asking them now, at this time, all of a sudden — they have finished their courses and they are ready to come back to St. Vincent and then they have to fork out US$1,339 if all seats, all 56 seats, that LIAT is promising to make available are taken,” Friday said.
He noted that if there are not 55 students who will make the trip home, the price that each student has to pay would increase.
“And that essentially transfers all the costs to the students,” he said, adding that students have budgeted for a certain amount of money for the rest of the year.
“We know what’s student life as you get down to the end of the term and you finally are trying to find money to buy food, far less to find extra money to travel to come home. I think it’s really outrageous, the airfare,” he said.
Friday said that the problem that the students are encountering was brought on entirely by the COVID-19 crisis.
He noted that LIAT – of which SVG is a shareholder — is not working its regular route and service but appears to seem to want to cover all costs associated in flying the students home from Jamaica.
“Since when does LIAT cover all its costs for any flight?” Friday said of the airline that Kingstown has repeatedly assisted in bailing out.
“The problem that we have here now is that the situation is creating a hardship for the students.”
Friday noted that the stimulus package that Parliament approved on April 7 included EC$2.7 million for LIAT.
“I raised the question about it, why LIAT and why now, and I was told that they have overhead expenses and so on, and they’re not flying because it costs more to fly than to park up the planes and that LIAT needs money to continue its operation.
“We voted for the stimulus package. And so we expect that now that the situation where the students also need some relief, they need some COVID relief too. So, if we can find $2.7 million to assist LIAT, we should be able to find money also to assist the students because they are affected.”
Friday said that is what the COVID-relief budget is for, adding that the students are directly impacted by the crisis.
“… to expect them to pay … US$1,339 as a minimum to travel one way from Jamaica home, that is outrageous. That is unacceptable. And I think the government should revisit that and make sure they assist them.”
He said that St. Kitts and Nevis paid the US$75,000 to bring its students home and Antigua did the same.
“Their priority there was to get the students home and figure out how to pay later, you know, Ministry of Education paid and they’re seeking to be reimbursed from students, I suppose based on their means,” he said of the approach taken by St. John’s.
“Here, we’re saying the flight doesn’t take off unless the money is committed upfront. And so what we’re going to do, leave students there?” he said, noted that Vincentian students in Cuba are similarly affected.
“… they are also complaining about the circumstances, that finding supplies and so on is becoming more difficult because all over the world, we’re having difficult situations with meeting your material needs.”
Friday said that the students have indicated that they are willing to pay US$400 that they normally do to get home.
“And if they’re willing to do so, then that’s the most we should expect of them and the least that the government can do,” the opposition leader said.