Features, Letters & Opinion

Am I A 2020 Covidiot, Or What?

Image of Earl Bousquet
Chronicles Of A Chronic Caribbean Chronicler By Earl Bousquet

I have tried my utmost best to better understand why and how Saint Lucians and Caribbean people generally react differently and the same to the COVID-19 challenge, unable still to conclusively conclude that we are all the same and that COVID-19 is in fact a non-discriminatory, equal opportunity virus that affects us all equally.

I mean, we all know that rain does not only fall on one house. But just try telling the now hopeless and helpless self-employed street-side vendor or unemployed restaurant bartender that he or she is equally affected as the Prime Minister; or telling a department store attendant that a 50% cut in salaries will affect the General Manager as equally as her; or telling me that a monthly half-pay salary will mean the same for a Grade 20 Public Servant as a Grade 10 officer.

When all this COVID-mania started to bite at the beginning of March, Saint Lucians and most Caribbean people were in different stages of a common panic mode. But not so now though, as the government balances the political see-saw between promising to reopen the country and promising not to do so and later regret.

I watch the walk and listen to the talk about ‘soft re-openings’ of ‘non-essential businesses’ and from what I heard about what people saw in Castries this week ahead of yesterday’s May Day holiday, I would not be surprised if we would have silently and knowingly lowered our drawbridges and opened the floodgates to a feared second COVID wave.

But then, since I am also duly advised by the highest of all local authorities that all COVID decisions are taken on the basis of health science and not party politics, I would like to assume that we that all decisions being taken in my interest by the ‘Capos Di Tutti Capis’ are in need in my interest — and the national interest too, of course…

Power and Responsibility always walk together hand-in-glove, but do not always share perfect matrimony. Many of us (in the press and everywhere else) love to claim the Powers that come with Press Freedom just as most citizens will demand observance and respect of their rights to Freedom of Speech — but not the equal expectation to accept the associated Responsibilities.

Few of us like to ‘fess-up’ and admit wrong or accept responsibility when things go wrong under our watch, one local trade unionist of a bygone historical era who promised to serve political the cause of the workers if elected having gone down in history as having publicly proclaimed: ‘The working class can kiss my ass, I’ve got the foreman’s job at last!’

Not so though, with the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) and the Prime Minister, who the latter often reminds us not to forget are ‘The only two persons’ making and taking the crucial COVID-19 decisions — and are therefore the only two sources to be entirely believed on COVID-related matters in this age of Fake News.

Never mind that, too many I know are still more interested in what The CMO would have last seen in the mirror before taking her place at the Command Center’s SD podium weekly, than in actually listening to and following the vital information she’s on their screens to deliver.

I must admit that the lady has a way with words and figures that Argentine Dr Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara would have quietly admired from someone trained in his discipline — and in the Cuban province (Santa Clara) where he still lives as an immortal hero. I am also sure than with her impeccable command of Spanish lingo (having learned everything about medicine in that tongue) the goodly CMO would have convinced Che why the 113 Cuban doctors and nurses who arrived here officially certified as COVID-free when  they left Havana, had to be quarantined for 14 days.

I cant seem to remember reading of another similar case of experienced doctors and nurses who arrive in a country to give emergency help to fight a virus being themselves effectively hospitalized for a fortnight to ensure their negative tests were not positive. But I would very much like to be proven wrong on this one as it is not a national achievement I even partly embrace.

I have my problems with how COVID information is being handled. Yes, GIS and NTN repeat and translate whatever is said at the Command Center, which is the best place for the public to access general information.

I recently put a microscope to some of the figures emanating from local COVID-19 Officialdom and some and what I saw concealed more than it revealed — like what George Odlum described as the ‘Bikini Budget’ that led to the rebel No Confidence Vote by Labour MPs that felled the Prime Minister Allan Louisy’s Labour government back in 1982.

Where PM Allan failed, PM Allen succeeded in saving his government from No Confidence Vote 29 years later. But when it comes to taking Responsibility for everything that comes with the power of being the only two persons responsible for everything COVID-19 related, this is another more serious matter of pandemic proportions.

I listened to the PM and his loudest MPs taking fulsome praise for the fact that Saint Lucia’s COVID-19 casualty statistics stood still for two weeks, without any new cases, no one being hospitalized and (thankfully) not a single death.

We are usually and understandably very quick to take and claim the responsibility for all that good news, but nowhere in the reports I have seen, heard and read (unless I missed them in the buried statistics) how many people are in and have been in detention and under supervised home care from month to month.

I once heard the PM indicate that 100 quarantined COVID-19 detainees had been released at the end of one month, but I didn’t hear whether they were replaced by another 100, which would have meant the same number in quarantine, but twice that number in full detail.

But not even on the PM’s Facebook Page can those who reside there get a daily statistical and descriptive count and a grand total of the number of persons who have been quarantined here and released from since quarantining through free two-week all-expenses-paid holidays at hotels and guest houses became our new patented trademark for COVID Health Tourism.

I don’t fully know where all the testing centers are here, but I do understand why most people avoid testing for fear of the results – never mind the free two-week free hotel holiday — and also because they feel that some people take longer to get test results than others.

Similarly, I don’t know why some constituencies were seen on TV receiving NEMO relief supplies stuffed and zipped in full Massy bags, while others received theirs in black plastic bags – or why a lady in ‘Georgeville’ was being reported online as boasting that she had ‘nine NEMO packages’, while many others complained of not receiving even one.

I may be classified ‘a Covidiot’ for daring to have suggested many times, over time in the past two months, that each CARICOM country should simply close-down for a weekend to ensure mandatory testing of every single person breathing air on land – every man, woman and child.

I mean, if we can do House-to-House campaigns to ensure every legitimate voter is registered ahead of every General Elections, then why can’t the government mobilize and train a National Volunteer Corps, to go from house to house across the island on a continuous 24-hour basis, to ensure every person in every community is tested?

This is the only way we will truly know how good or bad things are — and until and unless we have or find a better and more accurate way to determine where we are with COVID-19 today, we will never understand to what extent we are combating community spread.

I am neither amazed nor amused by the number of tests being carried out and the speed of results which I understand have to depend on an already the overly-overwhelmed Caribbean Public health Agency (CARPHA) in Trinidad & Tobago, which has to carry out the tests only on an unavoidable understandable ‘First-come, First-served’ basis.

I was never convinced that ten feet or even six feet of SD could work on any minibus anywhere, especially the officially-pronounced Saint Lucian allowance by announced edict for ‘Three persons in the back seat, two by the windows in each other seat, but only one next to the driver — and with all the windows wide open…’ And I am even less convinced by the latest Saint Lucia allowance for minibuses to now carry ‘Half their registered licensed capacity limit.’

I have avoided Castries (and everywhere else between re-designated geopolitical Zones newly numbered 758 and 759) like a plague — and will even more so, now that people are being officially encouraged and allowed here and elsewhere within CARICOM to reduce SD measurements and trust closer physical contact and communication, without any scientific proof that this gradual ‘reopening’ of the country ‘for business’ is more safe than risky.

With this week’s National Budget presentation preceding the May Day holiday weekend, many forgot that in these COVID Times, every day is a holiday during the States of Emergency.

As a result, too many were looking to the Prime Minister’s budget presentation to hear from him the things they are hearing from other leaders in other better-off countries that have announced ‘Stimulus Packages’ and other national assistance arrangements to cushion the COVID-19 fall in 2020 by offering at least small financial parachutes to everyone left hanging high and dry in the sky.

They saw and heard that every US citizen might get up to US $1,000 relief (per person), so many expected to hear that every Saint Lucian would qualify for at least $100, whenever or however.

Still unable to fully understand the official explanations and which online report to believe about who the government will pay-out with what money from where, when the Trade Union Federation President denies an official claim that the unions agreed to a pay cut and the PM later saying he never made any such recommendation or officer, many expected the 2020-2021 Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure to have been translated into an understandable explanation of who would get what COVID-19 allowances from the government – and where and when to collect.

With American and European businesses lining-up to compete with the poor majority affected the most by COVID-19 for government help with taxpayers money like they never saved a silver or copper cent, too many regional businesses thought the government Stimulus Packages would have included lifelines thrown to the Micro, Small and Medium enterprises that comprise over 95% of businesses in most CARICOM states, including the tens of thousands of self-employed persons to be added in most nations and territories to the vast majority of the 13,500 hotel and tourism employees sent home in Saint Lucia with not even a month’s salary, far less a financial parachute.

But, no such luck anywhere.

Finance Ministry officials here have had to buckle-up without seat belts — for the first time having had to prepare and present a national budget since 2016 without the Ernst & Young group’s leading involvement, I understand. And a COVID Budget at that…

At the end of the presentation and the Budget Debate, John and Joan Public in Saint Lucia are still wishing they’d heard what they were listening for and hoping they only missed it — one asking me on Wednesday:

‘Tomorrow is a holiday, so why didn’t Mr Chastanet just open-up the country and let people buy their rum just for the May Day holiday?’

I asked him how much ‘the Government’ borrowed in his name and his response didn’t bowl me over.

Looking me straight in the eyes he told me: ‘Dass not my business… Is Chastanet headache to know how much he borrow… All I want to know is how much money government will give me every day to live, especially as I never ever even had a job to afford to pay tax!’

Trade and Industry Minister Bradley Felix is admittedly under immense, almost intoxicating pressure, from all domestic and commercial quarters, to lift the official ban on alcohol sales and says the government is indeed contemplating whether to raise the ban on sale at supermarkets and by distributors — and what that would mean for rum shops, restaurants, hotels and other places usually selling intoxicating alcoholic beverages.

But while the government weighs the odds and balances the possible consequences and responses, more people are finding creative ways to buy and sell alcohol, while some on lockdown at home are drowning their COVID fears and worries in freshly uncorked bottles.

Meanwhile, those who have wondered what Prohibition was in the USA before Al Capone broke the barrier are learning the hard way, some so unable to not to quench their special all-day thirst that they even gulp-down a new alcohol-based hand and rubbing sanitizer invented by Saint Lucia distillers, perhaps to sanitize and quench their already severely-wracked COVID-19 brains.

Never mind all that, though, this second Mr Speaker Daniel having forgotten which Caribbean calypso lion roared that tune out of which den and when, he does admit that ‘A Deputy [Is] Essential’, even though assuring us and Her Majesty’s Loyal Subjects that he has surely and sufficiently fine-tuned his body over the past three years to function well and smooth enough to survive smooth-passage of all legislative Acts and personal bodily functions during each section of every sitting of every session of all House meetings, without fear of disruption or disturbance by or for disruptive bodily malfunctions.

For as long as this Mr Speaker’s appropriately modified bladder has been able to contain more than just the air we all breathe, for just as long has lawyer, People’s Advocate Martinus Francois, tried without success to give legal tender to his unending quest for being allowed to give his ‘Two Cents’ in a local court of law on why a Deputy Speaker is so essential that without one, the government can and should actually have legally fallen – by now, one month short of four years since the last general elections.

The learned Mr Speaker is also seeking learned advice from those he presides over as lord and master of all he surveys in his chamber, as to whether they feel a deputy is essential for him, which answer he already knows and (is probably) why he wouldn’t even ask in the Lower House, where the majority ‘Ayes’ always ‘Have it!’

Mr Speaker is also seeking learned advice that he can’t legally give himself on whether to adjust to the new global COVID trend of introducing Social Distancing (SD) to parliamentary meetings.

He didn’t allow the Public Gallery to be occupied for the last two Sessions; and while MPs and Senators were cramped into observance of SD protocols at the opening of the new session on Tuesday, Mr Speaker did indicate that converting to having a limited number of the 17 MPs attend while others could participate from home, would require a change of the Standing Orders — which, in itself, will require MPs to gather and vote or find ways to have their votes gathered and transparently counted.

Interestingly, the UK parliament is already meeting by remote SD, MPs only asked not to wear pajamas or display party symbols in their ‘e-messaging’ backgrounds. And in Portugal, the government decided to go ahead with due general elections by postal ballot, instead of banning voting for SD purposes.

I’m sure Martinus Francois would most likely offer to even give Mr Speaker some free advice on ways out of his legal quagmires. But I am also pretty sure that this Mr Speaker would first be wondering what would be the Quid Pro Quo, if any.

So, who will The Learned One and Only Mr Speaker consult on the difference between the essentiality of a deputy and the constitutionality of a violation of the same Standing Orders that require one?

Sounds like he’ll have to consult Erskine & May on this one.

But certainly not Theresa – especially as May Day will always unavoidably have to give way to June 20, the longest day of every year, even though it just might not count in people’s minds everywhere this year!

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