By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” Apr 30, 2021)
The destruction that befell our country following the eruptions at La Soufriere volcano has been described as catastrophic and apocalyptic. Those persons who have not seen the loss and damage caused by the national disaster can be assured that the harm done to our physical infrastructure is enormous. Fortunately, no one lost their life, but it may be too early to gauge the health fall out from thee eruptions.
And what a response demonstrating goodwill and solidarity it has been! Cuba, St. Lucia and Venezuela, within days of the April 9 eruptions, formed a humanitarian bridge in conjunction with the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) to coordinate the transhipment of relief supplies into SVG. The Red Cross and other goodwill and relief organisations were quick to offer assistance, which in quick time, helped to alleviate the shock, pain and suffering caused by the displacement of up to 15,000 nationals.
Immediately, Dominica and St. Kitts pledged to house up to 300 citizens at their expense. Other CARICOM nations expressed willingness to take our people into their friendly embrace if the need arises. It was truly a case of regional solidarity in action. In a time of great need, the region did not disappoint. Caribbean people demonstrated that they are each other’s keeper.
Even so, Plain Talk remains gravely disappointed. We are particularly disappointed in the disparity of the assistance. The poorer countries offered much more than those with greater means. Little St. Kitts and Dominica offered EC$1 million, tiny Montserrat offers EC$150,000, along with donations of essential supplies.
Trinidad sent 260 tonnes of relief items, including water, food essentials, sanitary supplies, tents, medical supplies, hygiene materials, cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment (PPE), water tanks, and buckets.
Venezuela sent 50 tonnes of supplies, while Cuba sent doctors and other medical experts. Both countries remain under the aggressive, oppressive and suppressive heels of the U.S. economic embargo. Yet, they offered what they could.
Rihanna, Sean Paul, Nicki Minaj, Buju Banton, Koffee, Dwayne Bravo, Usain Bolt, Alison Hinds, among others, offered their talent to participate in a virtual effort on May 23 to raise funds for the relief effort. Every cent received should be put to good use.
St. Vincent is a country in great need. PM Gonsalves admitted that there was “extreme poverty here”. In October 2020, he quarrelled with a poverty report leaked to the opposition, which claimed that about 37% of our citizens lived in poverty. Our problems were compounded when the volcano erupted. This is the context in which we should view Gonsalves’ plea, asking the world not to forget SVG in “its midnight hour of need”.
Out of that appeal, the United Nations launched a plea fund with the hope of raising US$29 million. Plain Talk hopes that the generosity of the world helps us to raise even more money. Still, our confidence is shaken when we consider the paltry assistance offered by rich and powerful countries in the wake of the destruction.
The British government initially offered a stingy 200,000 pounds. Raked over the coals in the UK parliament, and having received a black eye from public opinion, the government added another 600,000 pounds.
There was also an international appeal to raise just over US$2 million to enable the International Federation of Red Cross to deliver assistance and support for 18 months to 5,400 displaced people.
Norway offered US$150,000 in humanitarian assistance. The European Union pledged US$250,000 to be administered through the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies. President Biden, through USAID, offered US$100,000 in immediate relief assistance. Canada said it would give $440,000 in immediate relief assistance. Taiwan chipped in with US$300,000.
None of the donations from the wealthy countries tops those offered by the resourced starved countries of our region. We think something is radically wrong in a world where little Dominica and St. Kitts offers more to distressed and needy people than the powerful and rich United States of America, Canada and the European Union.
In a time when everything should be done to offer solace and comfort, we conclude that the rich and powerful nations have not come through for SVG as they should have. The paltry donations from these rich states offer ample evidence that SVG will have a challenging time digging itself out of this sadly depressing situation we currently face.
If the early reaction to our plight from these countries has been so limited, one shuddered to think what happens when the thunderous noises of the volcanic eruptions cease and SVG is no longer headline news.
What becomes of our rehabilitation and developmental efforts when another crisis or disaster grabs the attention of the world? We will be forced to borrow more and sink deeper into debt to clean up and rebuild.
The world is awash with money and where rich, powerful countries do all in their power to capture the lion’s share of this wealth, we look on in astonishment at the blatant disregard and contempt with which the plight of the poor people and developing countries are frown upon.
Crises like that which envelopes SVG make absolutely clear that there is more than enough resources on this earth to allow for a better standard of living for all the inhabitants. However, the central problem is the collective manner in which resources and wealth are produced and the private manner in which they are hoarded rather than distributed.
SVG’s plight, made much worse by the volcanic eruptions, are destined to continue until there is a complete realignment in the economic, financial, trading and humanitarian architecture in the world. Until then, genuine humanitarian solidarity will remain a fleeting illusion to be pursued but never attained. The donations granted by the rich and developed countries to us in this great time of need should convince the most optimistic that the road ahead will be rougher than we imagined.
Those persons committed to real and genuine change must strengthen their conviction that a new and better world is possible, necessary and inevitable, but we have to struggle to achieve it. No time is better than now to begin that fight.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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