Letters & Opinion

How US sanctions directly contribute to Saint Lucia’s COVID conundrum

The COVID Conundrum is hitting home harder, the number of positive cases topping the hundred mark and bursting our protective bubble, as the nation’s fisherfolk claim to be victims of official neglect and fishy business, as cases rise.

The number of confirmed positive cases having considerably increased in October multiplying in the first week of November, the COVID chickens are like coming home to roost, as the island starts paying the high-dividend cost of not having moved early enough to cut our loss.

Community Spread is nearing or at panic proportions, while the real panic grows amid ongoing discussion, debates and quarrels in a Blame Game over whether the Corona chickens flew through the back door or walked in through the front gate.

Fishermen had their licenses suspended for a week, the Prime Minister insisting that fishing boats continue to illegally and dangerously traffic possible COVID cases across the small channel from Martinique.

But the fishers insist the Marine Police know who the non-fishers plying those waters for non-fishing purposes are — and should instead act to interdict them, instead of preventing genuine fishers from earning a daily bread at sea.

And then, the conspiracy theories about the fishing ban having nothing to do with COVID, fishers complaining even louder about being perhaps the only vital national sector that’s received no COVID assistance to date.

And then there’s the dangerous trend of stigmatizing hotels where COVID cases have been detected, resulting in uniformed or otherwise known workers being unfairly stigmatized by insensitive minibus drivers and others in the wider community, as was the case with our hard-working nurses.

Government is reluctant to accept that airport entry protocols were not sufficiently robust to trace COVID cases among visitors who might have contracted the virus after taking the required pre-flight tests, but the fact that some at approved hotels did test positive has blown sky-high the myth that the airport measures were adequate.

As if things were not bad enough, Britain went into its second national lockdown for one month this past Thursday, cancelling 1,500 weekly visitors with bookings to stay at local hotels.

Same with France and Germany as Europe contemplates similar month-long lockdowns.

Saint Lucia has moved from among the islands with the least to the most positive cases in the busted bubble and is getting all the blame, our only retort, so far, being that COVID has killed no one here!

But while we continue to mix words and invent new arguments, the virus continues to spread from north to south, east and west, young people are being affected more frequently in diverse places, more traced contacts are ending-up in quarantine and more people are panicking about slow test results from an overwhelmed system.

The closure of the vital UK strikes another hard blow to the hotels’ efforts to reopen.

But unless the system is radically tightened at the ports of entry (including sea ports) and until COVID protocols are seen as being equally applied to visitors, there will be no end to the negative reports and reactions — and discovery of new cases coming through the front door.

The authorities also need to be more open about the problems we face as a country and people, instead of trying to give the unbelievable impression that we have things under control.

Barbados and Jamaica both this past week indicated they will no longer treat a documented negative test for visitors on arrival as an automatic pass-mark; and under new rules, visitors will now have to undergo a second test on arrival, as well as undergo necessary hotel restrictions in the four days they await the results.

Not that there isn’t a backdoor problem.

Illegal entry into Saint Lucia is illegal — even by Saint Lucians returning home — as, emergency or not, there are rules that nations abide by, including movements between countries or islands.

Even if the prime minister admits the fishers ‘are not 100% responsible’, the government’s action simply made life harder for them by depriving them of seven consecutive days of doing the only thing they do to earn a daily bread, while the reports of backdoor trafficking continue.

With the fishers grounded at Ground Zero in their communities and COVID deepening its community spread, the complaints of inequal application of the COVID restrictions to visitors continue, with more publicized videos of visitors’ boat rides and private boats continuing to ride the waves.

The natural expectation is that with the government saying the real COVID threat is through the back door across the sea channel, the Police Force’s Marine Unit would spring into action.

But here again, that is absolutely impossible for two reasons:

First, the Unit has only one or two boats equipped for effective action in that type of surveillance, which is woefully inadequate for the COVID task at hand; and not being outfitted as a national Coast Guard, it cannot effectively guard our coasts.

But the second and overriding reason why the marine unit cannot guard our coasts has been the ongoing US sanctions, the restrictions, the embargo the US has maintained under the Leahy Act, on assistance to the Royal Saint Lucia Police Force — and all its units — due to the unresolved IMPACS case.

The Saint Lucia government has not been able convince President Trump or anyone in the US government, in the past four years, to lift the sanctions — until and unless the Saint Lucia government takes the IMPACS cases to court.

As a result, the US has, for many years now, under the provision of the act (which also applies to Colombia and El Salvador) stopped providing arms and ammunition to the Saint Lucia police force, or any other form of assistance that will cost the US taxpayer, including funding for equipment and operational support for the Marine Unit.

So, believe it or not, the IMPACS case is also ‘Coming Back Home to Mama’, haunting and biting us once again, this time like COVID-19 ‘Turkeys Flying Home to Roast’ for Christmas 2020.

What is to be done?

I don’t have the answers, but I have been calling for six months and will continue to insist, if only by repetition, that we need to have Mandatory National Testing for COVID-19 as the only sure way to know what our real situation is before planning an appropriate fightback.

Community spread is now already widespread nationally and we cannot continue to rest on being able to say that no one has died yet from COVID.

So, will we wait until the inevitable first COVID death to start getting more serious about doing what we have to, to get the true national picture and follow the science?

We cannot continue to be afraid that a national test might reveal ‘too many cases’ for political comfort in an election year, or that mandatory testing will violate the rights of those who simply don’t want to test.

The only way to really fight COVID effectively is with real figures and not selected statistics.

We have the ability to do better and to fight COVID harder, but there must also be the political will and the social patience – both – instead of being told blah like: ‘We have defeated COVID before and we can do it again…’

The Leahy Act is still like a large fish bone in the nation’s throat and with France under tightened lockdown and the number of cases in Martinique also increasing dangerously, the backdoor entry business will continue to flourish as Saint Lucians there seek to bite the bullet and take the chance of either carrying home or contracting the virus during the crossing.

Insensitive commentators are saying that if fishermen cannot have enough saved over years to last one week, ‘they are in the wrong trade’, while others who couldn’t care less claim the week ashore would have replenished the sea sufficiently to allow the fishers to make-up in one day, or two.

But as all this fishy, backdoor business once again confirms, the COVID crisis affects the less privileged the most and that not all sectors get equal attention and treatment, or even half as much as they wish.

The fishers are complaining that incentives introduced by Prime Minister Sir John Compton in the 20th century and increased in the 21st century by Dr Kenny Anthony’s Labour administration have remained untouched since 2016.

For as long as the Marine Unit cannot sufficiently protect the island’s shores, the vast majority of the island’s genuine fishers will continue getting an unreasonable share of the blame for a game they are simply not playing, with Peter paying – every time — for Paul.

But while successful US administrations – from Reagan and Bush to Clinton to Obama – have repeatedly shown their punishments will stand when it comes to application of their domestic laws in the Caribbean, we continue to lose sleep speculating, even worrying, about which candidate will become the next US President.

And the COVID count continues to rise…

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