The 2021 COVID-19 Guardian Columns

Pandemic privilege and entitlement

December 15, 2021

There was always the risk that pandemic measures would disrupt social dynamics in ways almost always witnessed at times of national emergency and disaster.

Hear me out. This is no fantastical Marxian excursion. The challenges to class privilege and entitlement have overwhelmingly proven to be real during the current period. And though, in relative Caribbean terms, there is a high level of egalitarianism in our twin-island republic, we live under unequal circumstances that are now in full, plain view.

In most instances, a hurricane would sweep through the region over several days and pay no attention to who lives where or what role they play in society. What kind of car they own, how expensively furnished is the property they occupy or how much money is in their bank account.

One hundred years ago, the “Spanish Flu” rampaged through the Americas for close to two years and, 100 years later, the hurricane seasons of 2017 and 2018 killed and destroyed without regard for prevailing notions of invincibility.

It is true that protections, mitigation measures, and adaptation to such challenges are better engaged when resources are less of a problem. But there comes a point when this matters not.

During the 1918 pandemic, lower transmission levels in the Caribbean were recorded in areas where there was low density housing – unlike the heavily-populated settlements where the poor resided. However, trade and commerce were heavily disrupted affecting profits and the well-being of the business class.

At times of storms and hurricanes, those houses reinforced by stricter (more costly) adherence to disaster-resistant building codes are more likely to survive than lower-budget options designed purely to put a roof over the heads of families.

So, yes, there are factors that help shield some groups of people from the worst effects of such episodes. But, in the end, there is no absolute protection.

“I am at the complete mercy of the hurricane!” exclaimed the prime minister of Dominica, Roosevelt Skerritt, on his Facebook page while Hurricane Maria ripped the roof off his official residence in Roseau in 2017 and ravaged the island.

Back in 2004 our hearts broke when we drove into St George’s in Grenada (my pick for the most beautiful Caribbean city) and the tower of the St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, together with some walls, was all that was left standing at the site of the beautiful 19th Century structure.

Yet, the active effects of hurricanes or earthquakes rarely span years. The volcanic crisis in Montserrat covered the period 1995 to 1997. 

Among the lessons learnt, must be that while there is a level of protection for the well-resourced, there is a point at which such privilege outlives its protective impact.

For instance, it took a while for some (not all) to realise that “COVID can indeed happen to people like me”, despite inequitable enforcement of the regulations and sustained insistence on privileged exemptions.

I had to explain to someone recently that while people with the brand of car she drives are highly unlikely to be on “PH” duty, framing public health regulations to cater for this would leave police officers with a helluva judgment to make when deciding whom to stop and who should be allowed to pass unmasked.

Decision-making of this kind has however clearly been engaged in the selection of private premises to be raided by the police, and the blocks/districts subjected to enhanced pandemic surveillance. I have raised this point before, so won’t return to the obscenities observed. But you get my point.

In this space, I have mentioned before the phenomena of transportation, employment, technological, and financial privilege. Every single day, I witness their unfolding. Even journalists ought to be minded to watch their employment and access privilege, having earlier being accorded essential service status.

The astute would also recognise accompanying political dynamics, based on hierarchies of authority and influence, that can be both positively and destructively disruptive at the same time.

We are in the midst of a storm that threatens to linger. Getting through this in one piece requires much more from all concerned. I must say we are not doing as well as we possibly can. Not everyone seems prepared to take play their part.


The digital reality 60 days later

December 1, 2021

Sixty days ago, to the day – at approximately 2.20 p.m. on Thursday September 23 – in his capacity as minister in the Office of the Prime Minister, Stuart Young announced the possible arrival of “digital vaccination cards” in “four to six weeks.”

Because I have been keeping close tabs on this component of our pandemic management, I set my counter at that date and time – 60 days ago.

Then, 47 days ago, on October 15, the ministry of health provided an “Update on National COVID-19 Vaccination E-certificate Platform.” It was actually a warning against private digitisation efforts and not a useful “update” on anything.

I had by then noted the casual imprecision of the initial announcement and promptly tweeted the information (@wgibbings) straight-up without comment. Follow me on Twitter and find the post.

With knowledge of the field of IT project management gleaned through domestic association, rather than acquired professional credentials, I remained cautiously optimistic. Targets for such projects are typically set in accordance with precise critical paths.

I had also followed the global digital discussion over the pre-pandemic years so have been acutely aware of the multi-dimensional nature of such an undertaking. It is not a simple task.

For instance, I found myself smack in the middle of a discussion on Jamaica’s at-that-time proposed and contentious National Identification System (NIDS) at the 13th Internet Governance Forum in Paris in 2018. Techies, governments, human rights advocates, administrators, journalists, telecoms operators – all of them in attendance.

This is clearly not an exercise for the guy at the office who can safely upgrade your laptop to Windows 11, reset the wireless router, or update your website. Our previous attempts at virtual solutions, including vaccination appointments, have clearly made gratuitous and near exclusive use of such limited skills.

Most importantly, management of such exercises is highly-reliant on the “digital mindset” of the clients interested in the deliverables – whether it be a NIDS or digital vaccination identification.

The people in charge must “believe” it has useful application and remain prepared to advocate for its deployment. However, there are influential people who boast about skills involving prehistoric analogue devices and their absence from the virtual world.

Additionally, those of us with human rights concerns, privacy notably, would be interested in the categories of information included, together with where all the associated data are to be hosted. If this dynamic was behind the October 15 dispatch, it did not say so.

Such concerns have been explored elsewhere in such a manner as to dismiss the suggestion that manual systems (in our case, pens, and paper) are up to the task. But this is one that cannot be left to the IT brainiacs alone.

But, yes, there are human rights compliant solutions up for examination. Hopefully, this forms part of the 60-day-old planning and implementation process.

Sadly, nowhere in the competing (and often destructive) narratives about pandemic management has there been any suggestion of a realistic, digital strategy. One does not get the impression that finding a way out of the current crisis forms a part of the agenda of those who first introduced the challenge as a “manufactured crisis.”

If a “revolution” is to occur, it must be in the application of digital solutions to the very human reality of a pandemic; not in mocking the grief over those who have died by dragging fake, black coffins through the streets. Or being implicitly envious of the growing infernos in Martinique and Guadeloupe. Or cheering each official stumble along the way.

There is absolutely no hint of an alternative strategy from the small space we occupy in a global crisis. So, we’re stuck with a ticking clock.

The fact is, the prevailing digital gap has been found not only to be generational, but multi-sectoral (both private and public) and politically pervasive.

Inconvenience also remains the preferred option – “stamped” hardcopy “proof of address” requirements by some agencies being only the most recent official depravity, alongside concerted acts of discrimination against the young. But more on these another time.

In the meantime, I have scanned, scaled down to pocket size, printed and laminated my vaccination certificate. Even the “crapaud foot” handwritten rendition of my name is legible, and I have used the mini version once at a “safe zone” without complaint.

Both my feet are firmly planted here, and I continue to count the hours and days. More of us should.


Children of the pandemic

November 24, 2021

Whose heart did not break on Saturday with the announcement that a “male child” had died after testing positive for COVID-19?

The “neighbourhood baby” had hopefully not recognised my grief as, through adjoining chain-link fences, she later that afternoon shared good and bad home-school experiences.

As a country, we have already received reports of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) while other complications, albeit generally mild, among toddlers and other young children have been recorded here and elsewhere.

Right now, there are COVID-infected children in our parallel health system, at least one of them seriously ill.

Some countries are considering use of COVID-19 vaccines on children as young as 6. And, in T&T, the PM has already indicated that, pending WHO approval, such a regime would become mandatory, as is already the case with other vaccines.

All of this is occurring despite early pronouncements by some that, medically, children basically had nothing to worry about. It has been found wise to pay attention to the WHO experts.

As for my own area of expertise, more than six years ago, I worked on Our Children, Our Media: A Guide for (Caribbean) Journalists and Broadcasters, edited by Barbadian journalist, Julius Gittens through a collaboration including UNICEF, the CBU, the ACM and the OECS.

The intention was to develop a newsroom resource for more competent and sensitive media coverage of matters involving children. In the process, we encountered stark evidence of pervasive societal neglect and ignorance.

I have used this space time and again to stress the fact that the rights of children are habitually violated by Caribbean societies prone to perpetual bungling of our development agenda while reinforcing violations rooted in tradition, religion, and culture.

It is not that we can be routinely found guilty of gross cruelty and neglect, but that recognition of the rights of children is among the more misunderstood and under-valued facets of life in our region.

The pandemic period has highlighted this through a combination of well-meaning but deficient official interventions together with selfish, uncaring adult behaviour by regular folks.

Administering a system of “safe zones”, for instance, appears to have overlooked the specific needs of the under-12s, as initially evidenced by a regulatory lacuna.

This gained attention last month when “water-parks” were included among the first areas to acquire “safe zone” status together with bars and gyms.

By that time, the collective impacts of home-bound schooling, restrictions on open-air recreation (including trips to the beach) and limited movement away from home had already taken their dismal toll.

Now, none of this is to suggest that there has not been justification for some protective measures. We do not stand alone in this. It is simply that people believe the interests of young children are not being diligently considered.

Official thinking might well be that even if some measures are subsequently found to be off target, we would have erred on the side of extreme caution.

But even so, our country needs to be assessing the impact of all of this on our children – inclusive of their recognised rights to “leisure, recreation and cultural activities” - as defined under the Convention on the Rights of the Child – and access to, at minimum, primary education – another embedded provision of the Convention.

However, achieving these under pandemic conditions has, sadly, found us short on realistic but creative solutions. We appear to have been unaware of the fact that in an otherwise well-endowed country there persist deep and wide social and economic inequities.

Early recognition of this came via the fact that access to virtual learning is subject to vastly uneven access by sections of the national community to both the internet and appropriate devices for deployment as a platform for teaching and learning.

We also apparently became belatedly aware of the fact that domestic conditions in many, many instances do not provide appropriate spaces not only for learning but also for wholesome recreation and caring human interaction.

I am currently part of a regional journalistic exercise examining the incidence of child abuse, the employment of underage labour to boost household incomes, and psychological impacts - including the reporting of self-harm and other behaviours - in the pandemic.

In too many instances, these are of purely marginal concern. Our governments would do well to pay greater attention to this under-served element of our times – the children of the pandemic. This can have the impact of salvaging what’s left of our humanity in the post-pandemic phase.


Risk reduction and common cause

November 17, 2021

It is tragically remarkable that for a region used to a variety of natural and social hazards our pandemic performance has exposed weaknesses in the manner in which inherent risks are engaged while remedies gain approval or suffer from a lack of broad support.

To some extent, the claws of political preference typically dig into the neck of the more cautious responses, though there appears to exist an even deeper self-destructive Caribbean malaise.

Among the more gruesome manifestations, in recent times in T&T, has been the public defaming and denigrating of the competencies of public health operatives professionally engaged in assessing and managing recognisable medical risk.

This has been accompanied by, at minimum, passive approval of everything from initial COVID denial to resistance to pandemic measures, to vaccine hesitancy.

It is of course true that nobody in the world has navigated the hazards even close to perfectly. Wealthy, industrialised nations to which we small island states instinctually turn for instruction and guidance have been routinely getting it wrong.

At each turn, though, homemade overnight epidemiologists here have offered prescriptions on the basis of presumed superior awareness and performance on the part of countries that have themselves slipped and slid along this tedious journey.

Today, through the lifting of the state of emergency, a step is being taken in the midst of multidimensional perils that are epidemiological, economic, and political in nature. It is a risky move that requires scrupulous management by those running the show, but even more resolve among the rest of us in the form of personal and communal responsibility.

There are a few who have from the start proposed reckless disengagement, ostensibly out of concern for the economy and other areas of public life.

To them, lockdowns that have been imposed almost everywhere in the world have, in our domestic context, evidenced ignoble social motives and impacts.

This came to mind more than a week ago when the World Bank Report on Caribbean Resilience was introduced to Caribbean journalists. My concern then had to do with the presumption of relative social peace and political cohesion in pursuit of well-intentioned developmental goals.

Our pandemic experience has witnessed this critical link between common cause and the achievement of risk mitigation targets.

For example, our vaccination campaign has stalled at the hands of both ill-informed vaccine hesitancy and tacit campaigns not remotely disassociated with the undermining of the credibility of the public health effort. There is a common thread we can trace through all the virtual timelines. Spend some time on this and work it out on your own.

All of this ought to have been inconceivable in view of that fact that in our part of the world, we are forced through geography and historical antecedent to countenance frequent threats to our well-being and even our survival.

However much we lay claim to divine residency, our little islands regularly confront hazards that too often manifest as disasters - the pandemic being just one of major significance.

The WB Report estimates, in recent years, annual GDP losses of close to 3.6% as a result of natural hazards and disproportionate exposure to “the variations of faraway economic cycles.”

When you add to these factors, natural perils, pandemic conditions, and the persistence of criminal violence and other forms of social deviance, what you are left with are threats way in excess of our individual capacity to adequately respond as nations. T&T is no exception.

Though the WB Report does not zero-in exclusively on the pandemic and focuses more heavily on natural hazards, there is guidance to be found through the issues for priority attention in T&T.

Living with all of this requires coherent interventions alongside the direct measures we introduce to adapt to and to mitigate potential loss. But they must be “whole-of-society” undertakings.

Additionally, learning to “live with it” was never meant to be a function of moving along as if the hazards are capable of disappearing on their own. They won’t. The WB Report opines openly on “a new generation of shocks” even as the old ones prevail. This is the sad but inescapable reality. And we cannot face this alone, neither as discrete communities nor as tiny nations.


Rights and the digital options

October 20, 2021

In this pandemic era, this space has harped continually on our country’s relative unfamiliarity with two key, associated areas of active engagement – human rights and digital imperatives.

Last week, for example, I focused on clumsy, jittery, and uninformed debates on asserting a narrow selection of human rights in the face of pandemic obligations.

This summarises the fact that leadership on questions of rights is too often expressed in measures of political shibboleth and left to conmen and charlatans prepared to abandon the wider cause at the first sight of power and influence and money.

I have also probably spent too much time griping over the fact that both in private and public spaces we have moved far too slowly to embrace digital solutions to the difficulties COVID-19 has presented. There is no substantial qualitative difference between private sector and public service responses.

The fact is these two areas of concern - rights and digital options - are far more closely related than they often appear.

Everything from the border closure, and accompanying managed repatriation, to distribution of welfare support, to vaccination appointments, to the facilitation of international travel, to management of our system of “safe zones” – all so awkwardly engaged as to embarrassingly suggest primordial acquaintance with their requirements.

Yet, there remain important gaps in the process to take us through this period of daily tragedy. And they relate both directly and tangentially to the level of maturity we can exhibit in identifying real questions of human rights and modeling modern, technological responses that do not challenge them.

For one, people concerned about digital rights would wonder at the slow pace at which questions of the digital divide are being addressed – particularly the social and physical infrastructure that permits access to solutions.

This is all at the centre of current concerns surrounding virtual learning, the transacting of business and now, the employment of vaccination status as an enabling feature of the conduct of life in the public space.

I remember meeting a former public administration minister at his office 12 years ago and marveling at the extent to which he had applied to his own workspace some of the technological applications for which he had been advocating as part of a national response to emerging challenges and opportunities. Whatever happened to all of that?

Fast forward to the pandemic. The requirements are even more urgent as we pay attention to the dignity of humans, observance of their rights, and the application of the most appropriate solutions. When approached in this way, digital rights start making eminent sense, and the need to address the digital divide becomes even more urgent.

Access to the internet is now widely recognised as a social good and there is a five-year-old “non-binding” resolution of the UN General Assembly describing it as “a human right” with no meagre relationship to access to official and other information. People who produce the occasional press release on human rights ought to already be on the public stage reminding us all of this.

In finance minister Colm Imbert’s budget presentation he mentioned a perception of being behind in “the Digital ID race”. As Jamaica found out the hard way, it’s a transaction with demands surplus to a mere sprint.

While attending the 2018 Internet Governance Forum in Paris, as a freedom of expression advocate, I participated in a discussion on the Right to Privacy in the Digital Age. I told people here about the experience, and they wondered what the hell I was doing there.

An Indian expert with a law office in the USA spoke of Jamaica’s contentious National Identification System (NIDS). This is not as straight-forward as was being projected in Kingston, she said. The Jamaicans had by then long understood. T&T was nowhere in the picture at that time. Regionalism appeared to mean nothing.

One White Paper, numerous public consultations, one successful constitutional challenge, numerous political pains, and almost three years later, the NIDS legislation was passed in the Jamaican parliament only last week.

During the course of the backs and forths in Jamaica, two main issues dominated – rights and digital imperatives. The current discourse here has unfortunately not yet reached anywhere near there, neither as a question of rights nor as one of several clinical solutions to the pandemic challenge.

Pandemic learnings

October 13, 2021

If nothing else, the pandemic has made rapid learners out of all of us. Epidemiology, pharmacology, economics, global trade and travel, and constitutions have been rich with overnight specialist opportunity.

It has been as easy for naturopaths to acquire speedy expertise in epidemiology and public health as it has been to make the simple switch from theology to biology or from stocks and bonds to pandemic management.

There are now writers of fiction who currently offer specialist direction in biochemistry and physiology, and medical practitioners who know everything about communication and behaviour change. A knowledge of video cameras is also apparently adaptable to expertise in electron microscopy.

Yet, one of the more striking things about the current period has been the emergence of brand-new concern about the scope and nature of human rights. Suddenly, people are recognising linkages between medical imperative and a right to decide and even a right of free expression.

Selective application of choice, some now argue, is all in order as a matter of “rights.” Not all, of course, because women should not have access to reproductive rights and people of the LGBTQ community should not have equal opportunity under the law.

It has not been an easy ride, this novel concern about human rights. Pervasive unfamiliarity with even some basic tenets has fuelled loud but largely meaningless debates about vaccine mandates, freedom of movement, and the emergency powers of the state.

You can tell when people are grasping at a straw to which little attention has previously been paid. Skip the parts about rights being universal, indivisible, and inalienable. This is rapid, homemade administering of bush medicine. Get to the point. You do not want to take the vaccine.

As has been the case with medicine – and specialisations within the discipline - people with a sound grounding in the law ought to have been rushing to the front to provide the required guidance.

But there has always appeared to have been a reluctance by the legal fraternity to become meaningfully engaged.

As someone concerned about and actively engaged in advocacy in favour of press freedom and freedom of expression for decades now, I have often wondered about the lack of enthusiasm.

A senior legal practitioner once confessed to me that this area is not a naturally occurring concern within the fraternity, except when needed to bolster popularity or to benefit from a lucrative brief. There are notable exceptions, of course. But such professionals constitute a small minority.

As evidence, it took the Media Association of T&T (MATT) and the T&T Publishers and Broadcasters Association (TTPBA) – voluntary industry organisations – to remind the government, albeit through scarce legal counsel, that even with the best intentions, data protection and cybercrime legislation as conceptualised by politicians here can have the impact of criminalising acts of journalism and other forms of public interest communication.

When that point was made at hearings of the Joint Selection Committee of Parliament on the Cybercrime Bill 2017, there was no groundswell of popular interest or expression.

The lack of support was hardly surprising. When some of us marched for press freedom on November 20,1998 against the backdrop of perceived governmental ill-intent for the media sector, there were people at the street corners jeering and casting hateful glances.

During parliamentary debate on the abolition of criminal defamation in 2013, government, opposition and independent senators were almost unanimously dead set against the view that, with very few defendable exceptions, people should not be imprisoned for their expression.

Now, suddenly, “freedom of expression” is deemed dependable to address the concerns of people who wish to enter “safe zones” without being vaccinated.

Only a week ago, someone posed a question to me on social media about proposed vaccination cards and “freedom of expression” (in quotes).

I think I lost a social media follower when I responded tersely and impatiently: “Why is freedom of expression in quotes? There have always been acceptable derogations of the principle. Lots of literature on this.”

But who really goes to the “literature”? Who truly believes in this stuff?

The 2013 Senate debate was instructive. Our post-colonial default routinely errs on the side of prohibition, except when a good time is to be had by most.

I am not fooled by the overnight interest and concern. There is a nuanced, informed debate to be engaged on some of this. I am hearing, for example, about a national ID card.

While we await more, take the vaccine please. It will protect you and others. That’s an easy skill to learn.


A digital solution

September 29, 2021

A little over 35% of our adult population currently awaits the limited reopening of businesses in the entertainment, leisure, and hospitality sectors on October 11.

There have, unsurprisingly, been mixed reviews about the system establishing spaces reserved for fully vaccinated customers and employees.

Additionally, as we have witnessed everywhere else, criminal minds have recognised opportunity. A friend of a cousin’s neighbour has even claimed that fake certificates are going for $2,000 apiece.

Set against the fact that safe and provably efficacious vaccines are available for free, I must conclude that willfully accessing the market for forged $2,000 certificates (with severe criminal penalties attached) is among the manifest mental health challenges of the current era.

The purported trade in fake certificates however targets a distinct failing of the government – its inability or reluctance to employ digital alternatives to the old ways of conducting official business, including activities of the public health sector.

Minister Young has suggested that a digital certificate is in development and should be available in a few weeks. The ministry of health is meanwhile validating the paper version that thousands of us are preparing to carry around in our pockets and purses for the time being.

I was hoping these exercises would have occurred simultaneously. The fact that they are not however suggests to me that we will have to reserve pocket space for the old version for the time being. We will also have to prepare for two authentication exercises, instead of one.

Some pandemic-era casualties of the mindset that has driven these kinds of shortcomings include the earlier, lethargic tabulating of patient data, and the bungled process of managed repatriation.

We have also witnessed disruptions in the administering of pandemic relief, repeated failures in the orderly scheduling of vaccination appointments (when it was in high demand), chaotic customer arrangements that persist at state agencies and now, the refusal to have applied a digital option to record vaccinations as a first and not last resort.

The government has done most things related to the pandemic right, but it has habitually got this one dead wrong. It will take much more than a new digital transformation minister to properly address it.

This malaise ought not exist at a time when T&T can lay claim to a disproportionately high number of world class IT professionals. The ones I know have groaned in agony through the numerous missteps that have generated needless anxiety, concern, and hostility.

So, here we are, more than seven months after the first vaccines arrived, juggling paper versions of the national vaccine card - the old Yellow Fever/Tetanus card, the new COVID one, the one needed for international travel (which could have been an option from the start, to avoid yet another rendezvous with officialdom to get one), and a proposed digital certificate.

I am not privy to the processes being employed to introduce this instrument, but I am hoping all involved are not about to reinvent a wheel that has already been assembled, assessed, and prescribed by the WHO (whose advice we have otherwise faithfully adopted).

An August 27 document published by the WHO sets things out as clearly as humanly possible. The T&T team currently at work on our version of a digital certificate should not proceed without carefully studying this published guidance.

Digital Documentation of COVID-19 Certificates: Vaccination Status includes detailed technical specifications and an implementation guide. Let’s hear more about how this is being employed in our context at the next press conference, please.

True, this is a multi-dimensional undertaking that includes some crucial elements including equity issues (should a handheld device be required, for example), ethical usage, patient confidentiality and rights, and other risks being discussed in informed circles.

Then there is the assertion that all of this constitutes a form of social apartheid, based on shaky science.

This however confronts a growing realisation that for the country, the region, and the world to confidently get back to business there is a need for deliberate, enlightened state and individual intervention to achieve an elevated level of protection.

For now, determining pandemic “safe zones” is not based on a strategy to eliminate all risks, but aims at reducing them within the confines of designated spaces. The rest relies on personal responsibility. It’s the least we can do to signal a commitment to getting back on track. Appropriate digital technology will enhance its value. Let’s make the move.


From denial to disruption

September 22, 2021

Those of us who have been paying close attention to national, regional, and global public affairs for a long time, cannot fail to recognise the similarities between the challenges confronting climate change and those currently afflicting the pandemic.

I am no expert on either, but I have a little background that has, on both matters, guided me to close communion with the science involved in understanding them.

Editing and co-authoring two volumes of journalistic resources to assist in media coverage of climate change, also contributed to an understanding of how ill-informed, disruptive agendas sometimes work against science.

Pre-2020, I was following the debate over flattening and eventually driving downward the statistical curve tracking global carbon emissions. Today, we are witnessing attempts to “flatten the (undulating) curve” of COVID-19 cases and deaths and changing the case/fatality ratio.

There are parallel concerns about the preservation of lives by reducing COVID-19 cases and managing the more serious risks of a changing viral environment. In several ways, they are cross-cutting. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom have been speaking on the two issues recently and have been using the same language of urgent necessity.

Though these two global crises manifest themselves differently, they share the common attribute of human or “anthropogenic” causes and effects. Put another way, human behaviour has overwhelmingly influenced their propagation and impacts.

At different stages, they have both also been subject to significant levels of denial (both official and private), with accompanying campaigns to discredit the science, and attempts to disrupt and delay the required interventions to remedy both the causes and the effects.

For example, there are people and countries that have consistently denied the anthropogenic features of climate change, arguing that temperature changes (and all they bring) are entirely the outcome of historical climatic cycles. Some still hold such a discredited view.

Correspondingly, the “COVID-deniers” (from whose ranks we can surely identify some of the earlier “climate change deniers”) were at first finding comfort in the belief that declaration of a pandemic was based on spectacular fiction. A conspiracy involving so many unrelated, conflicting, disjointed parts as to render them wholly unbelievable by the sane.

This, after all, was a “plandemic” to satisfy one or multiple grand conspiracies.

In the same way irrefutable trends in climatological metrics can no longer be rejected, the existence of a dangerous virus that has spread around the world cannot now be denied, even by most of the initial disbelievers who have now morphed to the next levels of disruption.

They refused to wear masks, and now do so for their own protection, but advocate for herd immunity through gratuitous community exposure that will claim only those who they believe ought to be dead anyway.

For both climate and the pandemic, their strategy has been to re-direct questions of science that prescribe a way out of a situation of the crisis. But, in most instances there is no realistic alternative short of resort to the “do nothing” approach.

“Do nothing”, incidentally, had in the early years of the climate science been offered both implicitly and explicitly as a one way out of the observed trends.

I have been looking closely at some usual suspects of recent decades and have found, among several of them, common anti-science cause and uncanny similarities in modus operandi.

The deniers (having been proven wrong) that have morphed into active anti-vaccine advocacy – to be distinguished from those who are merely “hesitant” – are more likely than not to subscribe to the view that marginal theories not supported by the best available science are more worthy of attention than mainstream observations by people with proven, specialist expertise.

Both countries and private individuals, particularly (but not solely) from positions of privilege, are proving to be among those to be learning about life the tragically hard way.

Hopefully, at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Scotland in October/November, there will be countries coming to the table with dramatically revised agendas and renewed interest as the climate crisis unfolds before our eyes.

As we move from phase to phase of the pandemic, there are people and countries reviewing initially tentative approaches - now not afraid to confess to earlier folly. But not for one moment should we ignore those who have moved from denial to disruption. They exist. Beware.

The law’s unequal pandemic hands

September 8, 2021

Find me a better story to illustrate our country’s inability to address law-breaking than the fact that somebody I know lives in a community where there continue to be regular curfew parties. This is even though the MP, local government representatives, the local police station and some senior operatives within the hierarchy of the police service know about these activities.

I have seen supporting photos and videos. Once, I even drove slowly around the area (during non-curfew hours) and witnessed the “thump, thump” priming for the evening’s event. Somehow, some evidential photos and videos traveled through the communication/gossip circuit (which includes lines of contact with the police) and landed in the mobile inbox of the presumed main culprit.

People in the area now fear that because the perp is wealthy, well-known and might even be engaged in forms of highly rewarding unlawful behaviour (and while the hopeful shield of anonymised complaints and media coverage has not helped) they are now exposed and at risk.

This is perhaps lower-level/low-priority activity when set against murderous organised criminality that refuses to go away. Whatever the press releases say. Whatever the political gun talk. Though the statistics speak of numbers and trends, the underlying conditions that perpetuate murder’s persistence and durability remain.

Almost every tiny crack of opportunity in the wall of current lockdown measures seems to bring misery and death. Like the illegitimate state of emergency of 2011, quiet curfew periods are a temporal illusion. A heavy lid on a simmering brew while the fire blazes.

There are big men and women, young boys and girls right now planning the next attack. There’s an unpaid bill. Somebody has strayed onto forbidden turf. Things have gone wrong. There is no way out but cold murder. Hold that … and keep the change.

What all of this appears to point to is systemic incapacity. It has not mattered the political administration, police leadership, civil society activism or gun-holding status of the population. We are simply not getting very far on this question of reducing broader vulnerability to crime in all its manifestations.

True, this signifies a wide net of joint responsibility. But it also rather depressingly points to the sub-standard quality of specific leadership on this question. Being in this situation now is an indication of undeniable past failure, but it also points to current shortcomings.

The unsophisticated and ill-informed public debates over gun ownership, for example, do not engender a high level of confidence on the part of those of us in the public gallery. This is symptomatic of the deeper malaise of poorly matched competencies.

There is a view to be explored, for instance, that gun ownership by citizens is unlikely to reduce the risk of death or injury at the hands of an armed criminal for a variety of reasons including the ineptitude of gun owners. In response, there are also those who would contend that the high prevalence of guns can have a net deterrent effect.

There is a real debate to be engaged. As with everything else, there are numerous perspectives. But that is not the discussion T&T is having currently. What we have is a quarrel over who gave guns to whom, and under what conditions. Who does not believe that varieties of favouritism are routinely extended?

Meanwhile, we speak of “illegal quarries” even as we pass them by. They’re not easy to miss. They are in full public view. Both state and private agencies buy from them. Their owners and operators frequent polite society. They’re invited to the parties and host a few of their own.

All of this leads us to the uneven application of the heavy hand of the law. Yachts versus pirogues. Big houses versus smaller ones. Fancy cars versus the little ones. Homes with swimming pools and those without.

Whether we are talking about the curfew fetes that remain untouched by police hands or the arsenal of guns hoarded, there is an established view that criminality is not the stuff for egalitarian treatment.

Pandemic measures have exposed these longstanding imperfections though we do have the chance to address them. But it does not appear that we are prepared to do the required work. It does not look like an antidote is on the horizon. It seems that the heavy hands of pandemic laws are decidedly unequal in dimensions and reach, and will remain with us for the time being.


Independence and a solitary destiny

September 1, 2021

Acutely mindful of the fact that as the pandemic progresses there is likely to be a drastically reduced appetite for it, I am still not seeing a clear path to serious political or economic independence for countries of the Caribbean, including T&T, without meaningful regional integration arrangements in place.

It has taken us 59 years and yet another pandemic day of high vulnerability and socio-economic fragility to recognise the futility of aspirations based on a solitary destiny. For, unlike some in our region we in T&T have never really considered continental destinies of any kind – except perhaps for past notions of a Mother Africa and a Mother India and recent, scattered nonsenses about FDA approval and Second Amendment provisions.

Ironically, the continental parties to Caricom integration – Belize in Central America and Guyana and Suriname in South America – have often positively nuanced the value of an alliance that exceeds mere institutional collaboration. In a very general sense (though there have been issues), they have also been among the least recalcitrant and problematic in conjuring a sense of harmonised economic conditions.

For certain, this pandemic era will not find the integration movement in the same condition as it met us. There were already signs of a contrived dismantling, and convulsions of different types. The Golding Report of 2018 left all options (including a wide exit) open to Jamaica. The Bahamas has not stuck an additional toe past the door since 1983, and its snubbing of single market conditions ought to have sounded the relevant alarms very early.

We are also being somewhat delusional about our ability to make any serious difference in Haiti. I know there is a lot of goodwill and conviction and cultural solidarity, but it has long been my view that the problems of Haiti – both systemic and episodic – are way beyond the capacity of the rest of us to address individually or as a collective.

Yet, there is much that can be gained through diplomatic solidarity, even in the absence of evolving economic integration. It’s not dissimilar to our relationship with Cuba – a country that has never expressed an interest in joining Caricom. However much we can romanticise proximity to a militant, defiant state and consistently oppose unjust sanctions and other pressures, a process of integration capable of rescuing us cannot reasonably include Cuba.

Meanwhile, the more tightly knit OECS grouping is already several steps ahead of the rest of us. There are lessons to be learnt from them. Monetary union has assured a high level of durability and the free movement of people solidifies a deeper sense of community.

It is not that they do not argue all the time or that there aren’t key differences among them but dismantling the institutions of integration is, for the OECS, an inconceivable option.

This makes available to the wider grouping a solid core that can provide a level of leadership of the process. This is in contravention of the belief that the traditional MDCs are better placed to fill the breach. I have always held such a view. Which, of the so-called “bigger” ones has offered up quality leadership of the process over recent years?

Clearly, economic success has not brought the required qualities to extract the benefits of joint approaches to regional problem-solving. T&T has been dramatically inconsistent, The Bahamas has not been interested, as has been Jamaica, and today Guyana with its new petro-dollars is not positioning itself for too much of a meaningful role in collective Caribbean action, as it turns increasingly inward to correct persistent socio-economic imbalances.

Historical antecedent and human resources, and not contemporary political predisposition, more strongly guide Guyana’s relations with T&T today.

I meanwhile shudder to think what could have become of all of us had several institutions of the integration process not existed in January 2020. Had we not had a CARPHA or CXC or CDEMA or a collective diplomatic thrust as we challenged global vaccine apartheid and made our voices heard on issues of supply.

True, all of these instruments need to be refurbished and sharpened. But we have nowhere to go without them. Let’s be clear on that. Let’s also be certain that a new integration is required, even for a proudly independent T&T.


A habit of negligent neglect

August 25, 2021

There used to be a pothole in St Augustine that stayed there so long – spanning political administrations both at the local and central government levels – that I eventually assigned it a name. I remember the moment. Barry White was playing on my USB at the time.

When the left front wheel hit “Barry”, the music skipped dramatically to Earth, Wind and Fire. Years later, “Barry” was gratuitously packed with asphalt and pebbles and stood out like a disfiguring facial mole for months. It was, for all intents and purposes, “repaired” – together with numerous rims, front ends, and shocks.

It reminded me of the time my then recently-licensed son was driving us east along the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway – arguably the busiest roadway in the country - near Aranguez.

It was the time of “the greatest ever minister of works.” Inexpert car handling however has a way of seeking out the potholes of charlatans. My lower back reminded me for some time after, that they don’t teach wheel-changing at driving lessons. Both tyre and rim had to be replaced.

Everybody, I am sure, has a pothole story or two or three. A situation in which a minor flaw in a roadway turns, through regular everyday use and our habit of negligent neglect, into a gaping chasm of wheel and suspension destruction and human distress.

Last week, for example, at Wallerfield, an entire car was devoured by what had apparently evolved from minor to major - following the cycle of road depression-to-pothole-to-human depression.

GML’s Shastri Boodan had by then taken pictures of “The Mother of all Potholes’ at Camden Road in Couva.

At some point, the negligence comes back to bite you on the ankle. It’s like what’s happening up on the increasingly inaccessible Cumberland Hill these days. Getting up there in anything less than the usual transport reserved for technical equipment and fuel tells you nothing about the true situation.

The name, “Cumberland”, rings a bell? If not, it’s mentioned at paragraph 8.326 on page 982 of the “Report of the Commission of Enquiry Appointed to Enquire into the Events Surrounding the Attempted Coup D’état of 27th July 1990.”

In those lines that immortalise the role of my former media colleague, Bernard Pantin, the importance of Cumberland Hill is made clear in ways even some of us in the media business did not quite realise at that time.

Bernard’s enterprising intervention was no photo-op by an opportunistic politician with, at minimum, joint responsibility for the current state of affairs up the hill. But it was a rescue mission that recognised the exceptional importance of the facilities at Cumberland Hill - not only to most broadcasters but to national security.

If anything, especially following that defining moment of 1990, Cumberland Hill ought to have become one of the most secure pieces of territory in the country. Instead, what do we find in this home of negligent neglect?

The T&T Publishers and Broadcasters Association (TTPBA) along with senior security officials and other key stakeholders such as the Telecoms Authority (TATT) have long been expressing concern not only about the deteriorating state of the road leading to their facilities, but also overgrown bushes, squatters, and the absence of appropriate security arrangements.

No rocket science is necessary and even some political points can be earned from a proper response. It’s almost all there in the TTPBA’s 13-point missive of October 2015. Numerous expressions of concern also pre-date that important submission.

Effective action ought to have included withdrawing responsibility for the site from a lethargic Diego Martin Regional Corporation and placing it in the hands of national security agencies.

It is, in that light, amazing that last weekend’s face-saving political excursion did not include the national security minister and simply focused, from all reports, on the facilities of just one (the state broadcaster TTT) of close to 20 concerned parties, including the security forces.

Hopefully, given Minister De Nobriga’s longstanding responsibility (having previously served as chairman of the relevant regional corporation) he took the opportunity to reinforce serious previously held concern, that has unfortunately not been converted into action.

This one is much more than “Barry” or Wallerfield or Camden Road. It’s a national catastrophe waiting to happen. This is no ordinary rim-crunching pothole. If there is one challenge of this kind not made for habitual neglect, it is this.


Turning the pandemic pages

August 18, 2021

Live long enough and, eventually, you’ll occasionally be skipping the op-eds, the comics, and the horoscope, and go straight to the Death Announcements.

Back when the pages of the Guardian would almost cover the average dining table, Uncle Vin would open the newspaper out wide, and we’d be reading it upside down from the other side so as not to be a bother.

He would call Grandma and ask whether she remembered “Mr This” or “Mrs That” and they would try to guess the ages of the children and the schools they attended or the jobs they had.

It was not regularly the case that any of this mattered to the grands. In the fine print, would only sometimes come a familiar name in “the grandfather or grandmother of …” column.

Then, one day, many years later, I saw the picture of someone I thought I knew. It was him alright. We’d counseled at vacation camp together. We also once reunited as members of opposing cricket teams in Sangre Grande and vowed to keep in touch … which we never did.

But there he was, in black and white. A tentative passport smile. Eyes open wide as under the torture of an impatient photographer.

Not long after, my close friend Dana died suddenly. We’d limed together the night before and decided on ambitious strategies to stop smoking cigarettes.

Obituaries, my camp/cricket friend, and Dana later converged as a single emotion when, at Radio 610, I discreetly protested the preparation of obituaries in the newsroom.

It was not about matters of death but, putatively, departmental intrusion – as if in our newscasts we did not already read aloud the names, ages, and addresses of those who’d been murdered or killed in car accidents or had died by suicide. The motion was denied.

I have, many years later, gone to the coldly titled “Report of the Commission of Enquiry Appointed to Enquire into the Events Surrounding the Attempted Coup D’état of 27th July 1990” more than once to find people.

There are nine identified victims. The rest are namelessly included in “Table 4” - 15 (from gunshots) at POS General Hospital; seven at the Red House (2 Police, 1 Muslimeen and 4 “others”); one (Muslimeen) at TTT and one sentry at Police Headquarters.

There are grounds for doubting the summary number - an exercise as urgent as telling the stories of those who died in 1990. And to do so to render the tragedy less susceptible to the vagaries of folkloric untruth or the transformation of victims into casualties of some kind of post-facto noble deed/s.

Today, death once more has become a single story confronted by daily figures, statistics, and graphs (understandably) without names. One COVID-denier who has silently retreated and is now a pathetic anti-vaxxer posted last week on social media that all this great fuss about the pandemic was over an infinitely small number of people who have died “from the virus” (a disease once openly described by the same creep as fictional).

Attached to that claim was a small, unverified statistic. There was, instead, an implicit meaning of divine or natural injunction. “They woulda dead anyway.” This is, after all, a required culling of the herd in the process of determining the survival of only the fittest.

This is not the best way to greet someone who now often skips the features pages and what the sports pages offer. It is the kind of thing that invites rage.

These days, and unlike Uncle Vin’s clumsy broadsheet, the app stares back brightly at you. There are colour photographs and, sometimes, substantial biographies. You try to match the ministry’s online “dashboard” with names and ages you actually know.

There are statistics, like Gloria’s, more difficult to find. Only that you know her son could not awaken her from troubled sleep – her breathing more laboured with each passing day.

Gail, though, helped change the Couva graph one tragically anticipated morning. You wondered then whether the anger you felt was not what flows naturally from the inevitability you wished you had the power to change, and not the rage deliverable to those who rail against reality.

Live long and wide enough and you’d understand that death is not to be denied. Those grinning in the darkness of privilege and outright ignorance reside on pages to be quickly turned. I can think of far less charitable options.

The buss head agenda

August 11, 2021

Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, Dr Ralph Gonsalves had not long landed in Barbados to be treated for a head wound, allegedly at the rock-wielding hand of a vaccine-status protester back home.

Then came the turn of Barbadian demonstrators who noisily breached designated Bridgetown perimeters on Saturday as they protested contemplated measures to mandate more widespread vaccine compliance.

Not one full day later, on Sunday, police officers in St John’s, Antigua had to bring out the teargas as hundreds protested talk of approaching mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations.

There have for weeks been smaller, scattered events featuring similar placards and campaign messages in Georgetown, Guyana. In the French departments of Martinique and Guadeloupe the demonstrations have been far more intense in opposition to pandemic measures dictated, in large measure, from Paris.

Heavily policed Jamaica has also witnessed its share of flare-ups linked to the suggestion of forthcoming regulations linked to vaccination status.

Here, in T&T, an unlikely alliance is being forged to move from passive opposition and irritating online trolling against the science of vaccines to active resistance and advocacy.

In Haiti, where COVID denial was only recently official policy, the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse represented yet another signpost along a longstanding continuum of instability and ungovernability.

Not far away, in Cuba, (currently on its knees due to rising infections) the opportunity is being employed to voice longstanding discontent with continued authoritarian rule. Unprecedented public demonstrations have had to be violently subdued.

Ironically, total vaccine uptake in the vaccine-producing island has barely passed 40 percent. In fact, the share of second-dose patients (about 25 percent) runs behind Barbados which currently stands at not much more than 27 percent.

Yes, in each case there are different politically flavoured backstories. Name one Caribbean country in which political adversaries agree on the way forward on vaccines.

We are fresh from election campaigns in several countries. There is the stench of both recently-shed and longstanding political blood in the air.

St Vincent and the Grenadines remains in the throes of a volcanic crisis that has decimated its agriculture, displaced hundreds, and drained the country’s treasury.

As an aside, it is unbelievable that the official opposition has resorted to a form of victim-blaming in the case of the prime minister and his injury. It betrays unfortunate denial of the slippery slope some politicians have chosen to engage.

Keep a close eye on Dominica (where there is now an extended curfew) and St Kitts and Nevis where the opposition leader has deployed the same political sleight of hand by declaring that his party’s “pro-choice” campaign does not equal “anti-vaccine” messaging.

On Monday, Grenadian authorities were hard-pressed to deal with lawless “jab-jabs” in the face of a cancelled Carnival.

During the period, we have been witnessing the fact that for all our rancorous bravado, our countries of the Caribbean are made of far more brittle stuff than we like to concede.

Unlike what I have seen written about us elsewhere, the flimsiness is not measured by a routine descent into caudillismo as has been the case in Cuba and elsewhere near here, but in the clumsy engagement of self-governance and ensuing self-harm.

That COVID-19 is seen to offer up political opportunity rather than a chance at cohesion proves the point. In the process, we have been bustin’ our own heads.

We have previously killed one another with guns in Jamaica, Grenada, Guyana, Suriname and right here in T&T ostensibly over the thin fabric of things in which we believe. Scratch the surface and what you find is a battle for the hearts and minds of ordinary people who only wish to go safely about their business.

Instead, at each turn, and at every single step there are rocks being hurled at our heads – many of them hurled straight up, only to return to original sender with bloody results.

Machel Montano had it down pat: “Dey come out to buss meh head/The blows dey pelting like dey want to buss meh head/Doh matter wat dey do meh I doh bound to dead.”

Truth be told, we are dying. Too many of us. We bussin we own head.

 

Regionalism and the pandemic

August 4, 2021

I have had cause more than once to (rather unpopularly) invoke the cause of collective, regional action to address the demands of national-level pandemic management in the Caribbean.

It is true that we often have to determine whether some convulsions are actually in our house or somewhere in the neighbourhood. Like the wailing of children who have strayed naughtily outside to play. Such are the endemic crises of identity.

Sure, Caricom missteps and country-level unilateralism have undermined some elements of the wider argument, but such a situation is insufficient to conclude that finding our way out of calamity can routinely emerge from either solitary or disloyal action.

OAS implosions and a re-invigorated CELAC (not without its own potentially terminal challenges) also mean that at the hemispheric level there is likely to be a post-pandemic reality characterised by major shifts in the nature of the institutions for organised discourse and action.

Add to this the growing multi-polarity of global influence and power, and what we have is a future that will likely countenance numerous new arrangements.

Not ideology, not cultural preference but enlightened self-interest may well present itself as the best available option, in collaboration with a sense of community that’s different from what we currently recognise.

Let’s all see whom we back first, second, third and last at the next Olympics.

All of this appears to be happening as global geopolitics are increasingly being highlighted in values associated with the shenanigans of “vaccine diplomacy” and “vaccine apartheid” – terminologies that have gained currency in the application of “moral authority” as a key variable in international relations.

I know for sure that both the fears and aspirations emerging from such realities are not all pie-in-the-sky. As leader of a regional journalistic exercise examining multilateral funding of measures to address the pandemic, I have witnessed firmer grounds for collective pursuit of our aspirations than the delusion of single-country initiatives.

It is more likely than not that the current period will serve to re-align the institutional linkages if it doesn’t render them irrelevant. The experts and academics will have to examine this. There is nothing in the barren political space in T&T to provide guidance of any kind on this.

But, already, the fissures have emerged to challenge the foundations of a number of regional and hemispheric points of convergence, even as new areas of opportunity arise.

Earlier this year, an Inter-American Task Force, established by the Inter-American Dialogue, convened twice to specifically examine cooperation and coordination on health policy in the Americas.

Its report, released less than a week ago, is as useful for pandemic specific guidance as it is for nuancing the manner in which we engage the processes of integration in coming years.

As is usual (and this will have to change) the Caribbean, as presenting a specific variety of inter-related challenges, is omitted from the analysis along with some valuable assets it brings to the table through the durable experiences of Caricom and a much more cohesive OECS.

Greater guidance on this important point and with specific reference to clinical dynamics in the Caribbean, is however accessible via the work of PAHO, which is currently led by the eminent Dominican public health expert, Carissa Etienne.

The report of the IAD Task Force is however useful for purposes of identifying important shortcomings of regionalism in its current manifestations and in proposing valuable points for consideration.

For example, the report is clear that “the ability to respond regionally to the acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic and recovery depends on coherent health governance that relies on the principles of solidarity, transparency, trust, and sustainability of cooperation across the region.”

There is an abundance of applicability of such principles to the Caribbean, including but not limited to Caricom. In my view, the manifestation, or absence, of such qualities will point us in the direction of the substructures upon which integration will continue to prevail or to die.

We ought to be more urgently aware of the fact, as the report suggests, that COVID-19 “has evolved from a health crisis to a global political crisis.”

It is a crisis alright. But I think somewhere in there is a goldmine of opportunity the more enlightened will recognise. We are used to such formulations in the Caribbean. There is room for hope.

The great unmasking

July 28, 2021

Wesley Gibbings

Caribbean politicians and their surrogates have surely been learning a few new tricks during the course of the pandemic. This is no longer purely a matter of recruiting “social media” teams at election time to discreetly propagate lies, half-truths and innuendoes.

You know them - the paid operatives who troll, seek and attempt to destroy alternative views and opinions, together with reputations.

There are now both open exponents and those who remain disguised. “Experts” in unrelated fields who don’t mind slipping the occasional untruth into otherwise bona fide discussions in order to skew perspectives politically. They’re not that hard to spot anymore. I have been known to call them out from time to time.

No, T&T was not the only country in the Americas to shut down when the virus landed. No, we were not the only ones to impose a regime of managed repatriation. No, mandatory mask-wearing was not an over-reaction. Yes, we might all get the virus, but the objective is to ensure we all don’t get it at the same time since our public health system would become hopelessly overwhelmed.

Some friends and colleagues have advised against obsessively retaining a vast catalogue of receipts. But it has been hard to resist the temptation since, globally, there have been deadly links between the pursuit of political advantage, through deception, and pandemic imperatives. This thing has cost lives.

Among the factors than have contributed to the behaviour of these masqueraders is the fact that considerable political dialogue has been taken online. Ironically, some of the more recognisable exponents of the deception also have a legacy media presence.

This has been accentuated over the past 18 months as Caribbean lockdowns have taken electoral campaigns mainly indoors and onto virtual platforms – with social media leading the way for purposes of political messaging.

Sadly, and almost everywhere, a level of COVID-denial has accompanied subliminal messaging tagged to opposition politics.

Politicians of diverse ideological hues have either been openly repudiating or simply not fully subscribing to their own warnings about the risk of infection.

As we witnessed in T&T last August, there was a sub-text of outright denial in an attempt to promote a notion of conspiratorial contrivance involving state medical experts and politicians, all linked to electoral advantage.

It has thus been easy to understand how the momentum of this now-shattered fantasy should now transfer to current appalling and defamatory attacks on the public servants involved in the management of the pandemic.

It is a well-known strategy that has led to tragic outcomes, even outside this region.

In each case, social media has been identified as a known contributory factor. This has led the technology multinationals to take action to diminish the impacts of false and misleading claims. These include everything from the very fact of a coronavirus to resistance to ameliorative measures and, today, to vaccine hesitancy and anti-vaxxer sentiment.

We have witnessed the progression here. Practically the same people who were in denial over the initial presence of the virus progressing to resistance to mask-wearing and social distancing are now promoting anti-vaccine hesitancy. And, even when they have latterly agreed to change their tune (just-in-case), there are side-stories related to brand preference (“de Pfizer, de Pfizer”).

You can spot them from a mile on social media. Political surrogates “expressing concern” barely months out of committed, outright and active denial.

Some people who research social media usage have described the “social mediatisation” of politics through the employment of media logics that exceed the mere mechanics of dissemination and now bear life in the political messages themselves – the impact of “framing”.

So, if a politician accuses public servants of “premeditated, state-sanctioned murder” through clinical mismanagement of the pandemic, there is sufficient subliminal echoing of the claim when “hospital efficiency and effectiveness” are persistently and negatively cited either en passant or explicitly.

You can tell, though the “framing”, from where the passing comment emerges. It’s not unlike the name-calling and insults directed at Dr Parasram and his team even prior to the accusation of murder.

Social media can unmask almost as much as it conceals. This is not about genuine concern. It’s all about the politics you support or oppose. Some of us can see you as clear as day, even through the Saharan haze.

 

Some sad facts of life

July 21, 2021

Wesley Gibbings

Today, we could have spent some time on the highly nuanced, delicate, and complex issue of mandatory vaccination in the workplace and vaccine certification to access services here and abroad.

This issue has, however, already activated the muddled minds of online trolls fresh from failed campaigns that rode the now-unwheeled bandwagons of outright COVID-denial, mask-wearing scepticism, global domination conspiracy theory, and, of course, longstanding anti-vaccination activism (except when a yellow fever certificate is needed to travel to an exotic location).

Unlike this marginal bunch, when it comes to this subject (and much like the pandemic itself), I have chosen to pay almost exclusive attention to the experts and their reasoned variations on the themes of public health objectives and the requirements of ethics, constitutions, and labour law.

As an acknowledged amateur on these subjects, I try my best to look, listen and learn. Three ‘L’s to match the pedagogy of today’s three “W”s – except to the latter I have added a fourth – “Watch your WhatsApp”.

So, no more from me on that for now, except to say that among reasonable people unencumbered by privilege or political hubris, there are options to be weighed and opinions to be considered by us regular folks interested in resuming healthful living in the persistent presence of the coronavirus. If you remain in denial about all this, no one can promise to rescue you from yourself.

There would have been more from me on this but then, on Sunday, I encountered PM Rowley’s online outburst on the purported snub of Caricom by a Port-au-Prince focused diplomatic grouping whose joint pronouncement on the situation in Haiti, as far as I can see, has barely been as irksome to the rest of Dr Rowley’s regional colleagues.

This might well be so because some others are following the advice of those who are mightily careful about rocking a geo-political boat that has brought into alignment a noteworthy coalition of forces. Under prevailing states of acute national and regional economic vulnerability, the sheepishness is understandable, but hardly acceptable against a backdrop of basic self-respect.

The fact is the prime minister, fresh out of his assignment as Caricom Chairman, is accurately and forcefully noting the collectively contrived omission, by visitors, of the regional body as a factor in the resolution of the Haitian question.

As argued right here last week, notwithstanding the dysfunctional nature of the relationship, Caricom’s credibility when attending to the problem of a family member cannot be ignored in the crafting of a resolution, however temporal.

The Jamaica Gleaner has laughed off the suggestion of Caricom “facilitating a process of national dialogue and negotiation” in favour of a paternalistic instruction from the “Core Group”. Such a summation betrays an absence of the self-esteem mandated by the revised Treaty of Chaguaramas and in fact proposes the activation of a regional network of mere “fawning vassals.”

But while the prime minister is quite right about the “Core Group’s” disrespect it is not entirely accurate to give the impression of Haiti’s wholesome engagement of the Caricom agenda.

That country has absolutely not been a reliable ally on the troublesome question of Venezuela, among other foreign policy dilemmas, and there are experts who can argue about the efficacy of an “aid” if not “failed” state among the ranks of a group of developing countries with social and economic aspirations way beyond the perimeters of sheer survival.

Haiti is also a “de jure” but not “de facto” participant in the CSME, and its nationals continue to require visas to enter a majority of Caricom countries, including T&T. Only Montserrat, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Suriname do not insist on a visa.

Guyana recently, and rather inexplicably, joined the visa list. Even Barbados, which has prime ministerial (regional quasi-cabinet) responsibility for the CSME within Caricom, reversed an earlier, highly publicised decision to remove the restriction.

This Haiti affair is not going to be easy. Though we need to resist the habit of “kowtowing and genuflecting to those who see us as unworthy and irrelevant” and to be confident, it is difficult to contemplate any kind of meaningful resolution without recognising a role for these guests and visitors.

This is a sad but very evident fact of life.

 




A coalition of the willing

July 7, 2021

Wesley Gibbings

There is no denying that stringent pandemic measures, wherever they have been applied worldwide, have expanded the ranks of the poor along the entire scale of economic deprivation.

The experts have different ways of describing the shifts and evaluating impacts. But what we are witnessing in T&T and elsewhere in our region is an undeniable and exponential decline in overall national individual and household resilience.

“Need”, it must be observed, significantly overwhelms the excesses of perceived “greed”, especially when poverty rears its head.

The data on indigence had in recent decades appeared to have withdrawn to the margins of most discussions. Today, there is evidence of its emergence right here, and not only among the recent migrant population.

In T&T, clear vulnerabilities have long been in evidence. A paucity of authoritative data has not assisted us in understanding encroaching new realities cloaked in references to a growing “informal sector” and anecdotes related to the “working poor.”

At this time, though, we can benefit from more informed dialogue involving a coalition of the willing.

It is true that the generating of national wealth, while dramatically slowed, has never quite ground to a complete halt, but there are indications that, at the current rate, we will eventually confront a tidal wave of deprivation and need.

The application of emergency social protection measures has, no doubt, tempered the incoming tide. It is idle political nonsense to speak about “nothing” being attempted to address emerging needs, however clumsy the implementation.

However, rest assured, the deluge is coming if we do not find a way to assure forms of sustainable relief not only to fill welfare gaps but to establish protective measures for at-risk low and lower-middle income families.

In the face of declining national external and endogenous revenue streams – note the finance minister’s entirely valid anxieties related to taxation – there is the difficult question of who, directly or indirectly, foots the bill.

People opposed to joint, national responsibility on such matters (for instance, re-introduction of a property tax and greater personal and corporate tax compliance) need to explain clearly and methodically what they propose to do in the face of an advancing tsunami of welfare needs.

There is no doubt that the menu of actionable options could have emerged out of a more inclusive process of national dialogue. That is an entirely valid point. But who, outside of some sections of the business community, seriously proposed to come to the table with anything that recognised active, contributory roles for themselves?

So, what we are left with is a decision to err, if we must, on the side of extreme caution, even though the assessment of risk must extend outward from core medical concerns and take into consideration some unique realities outside of the realm of science.

The food and beverage services sector, for example, is among those in danger of disastrous collapse. But it must be realised that this not a homogenous field of play. For example, family kitchens providing meals and beverages do not present the same level of risk as fast-food chains. “Curbside” deliveries by this group can also reduce the risks associated with congregating and excessive human contact.

Surely, the CMO and everybody else knows this has been happening anyway, but under clandestine conditions that can turn the safe to the unsafe. Official openness on this can avert new areas of risk and bring greater orderliness to practices that never really stopped.

It was also disheartening to listen to people from the tourism sector in Tobago claim that limitations on direct arrivals into the island effective July 17 were not openly and frankly discussed with them ahead of time.

I am sure they understand the concerns that led to such a decision, but arrangements to address their concerns could and should have been worked out in advance. They appear to have been willing to talk.

I chose to highlight just these two examples within this limited space because here are two groups of stakeholders who have a vested interest in ensuring that medical goals are in harmony with their need to survive. And, if they prevail, so do the country’s prospects for emerging out of this crisis without confronting the worst impacts of poverty.

There are people willing to play their part in mitigating the worst social impacts of pandemic measures, but others who believe the interventions weren’t required in the first place. A coalition of the willing won’t include them. But the rest of us can raise our hands.

 

Lessons of the other pandemic

June 16, 2021

Wesley Gibbings

I have tried in vain on several occasions to direct attention to some important lessons we have encountered (as opposed to learned) in the 40 or so years the world has engaged the “other” pandemic – HIV/AIDS – in order that we come to terms much more efficiently with some similar imperatives of the COVID-19 challenge.

It may well be that this is already underway at our regional universities - narratives on lessons of the former in order that potential pitfalls of the latter are recognised and addressed.

As with HIV/AIDS, the “long haul” is also the most likely scenario. I am however unaware of any serious work to help us understand why for instance, so many decades later, there is so little recognition of the fact that pandemic management has requirements in excess of the efficacy of medical science.

As a consequence, ministries of health, medical doctors, hospital managers, and too few health communicators have borne the brunt of multi-disciplinary, multi-dimensional leadership on the subject in these early days.

Additionally, because of the design of modern society, politicians are both obliged and eagerly inclined to engineer public policy responses that measure the heavily clichéd balance between lives and livelihoods together with the social peace and well-being expected to flow from both.

The fact of the matter is that nowhere on this planet has any government or cadre of health professionals got this entirely right. Remember the time we thought Sweden and Singapore and a few others had all but conquered the virus?

There have, over the years, also been spikes and troughs when it came to HIV. Yes, it is true that the viruses in question are different in nature and impact. For example, you cannot become infected with HIV by human aerosols.

But the effects of both viruses are similarly mitigated through a combination of technology, clinical innovation, and behaviour change.

Following clear public policy mishaps in the 1980s, HIV health communication experts focused more heavily on programmes promoting a greater sense of personal responsibility. Some journalists back then kept a close eye on these things in the absence of today’s social media labyrinths. I did.

There had to be the systematic dismantling of entrenched myths and emphasis on culturally specific messaging tools. Today, there are the requirements of social distancing, mask wearing, hand washing, testing and now, vaccine acceptance.

Some of these come up aggressively against cultural norms and sacred belief systems as was the case when messaging HIV/AIDS.

The thing is, both scenarios have flowed through eerily similar passages – HIV denialism and discovery, the integrated deployment of technology and behaviour change, the requirement of more widespread testing, and the dilemmas entangled in law and human rights.

Last weekend, for example, Prof. Rose-Marie Belle Antoine in masterful fashion described the constitutional determinants when considering employment practices in the face of COVID-19. Go find it and keep the clipping. You will need it later.

A similar juridical problématique also emerges regarding the treatment of HIV-positive workers, immigrants, and other members of society. True, one situation relates to vaccination status and another actual infection, but they both criss-cross broader questions of health status, public policy, equity, and human rights.

It has been the educated guess of many researchers and people in the field that, like HIV, COVID-19 (and its variants) will be with us for some time to come. But, unlike HIV (for now), there are COVID-19 vaccines.

Additionally, while there exist effective, specific treatments (though no cure) for HIV, none currently exists for COVID-19 – at least according to real experts who comprise the vast majority who are studying this.

Additionally, in both instances, key questions regarding the pharmaceuticals industry have been raised. Decades of research on an elusive HIV vaccine have informed approaches to research and development, and related intellectual property issues to which the industry and countries such as ours are currently paying attention.

The “other” pandemic remains with us, albeit far less tragically than it did 30-40 years ago. It changed the world I occupied as a child, teenager, and young adult. It has since never been the same.

We will get through this dark period. But it won’t be tomorrow. And, if we learn from yesteryear, we should know there will be no return to the ways of 2019 and before. What we have are the lessons of times past. We ignore them at our peril.

 



Rules without a referee

June 2, 2021

Wesley Gibbings

Let’s be honest. Our undeniable creativity as a people sits more comfortably with the disordered imprecision of art than alongside the rigid, empirical requirements of science. We have a way of comfortably finding the grey between the poles of black and white, and the blacks and whites between the reds and the yellows.

In our world, there is little space for the finite or the precise. It’s in our language. “You’re some kind of ass, or what?” Or: “He living right round de corner. Go, go, go … and if you see a pile of rubbish. Stop. Because you pass the place.”

Pinning us down is like capturing a drop of mercury on linoleum. We’re not the stuff of fixed co-ordinates.

So it was that we met the pandemic. It could not have been real. This had to have been the kind of wind that blows at Mayaro in the dark of night, and you hear the roof sailing off into the Atlantic, but it hasn’t. The day comes and the sun is so bright it’s darkening the shadows even more than the night that had brought them to your bed.

A pandemic. A virus of measurable shape and size, with spikes like coiffured rambutan that reach for and cling to the lungs. The stuff of finite metrics – numbers, rates, percentages. You either live, suffer, or die. In our space marked by imprecision, rolling seas, and moving clouds now comes the fixed gauge of a different sky.

It is true, though, that even so, there remain as many knowns as there are unknowns. Nobody has been getting this completely right. Masks. No masks. Hard surfaces. Aerosols. Vaccines. Lockdowns. Children. The open air. The closed spaces. W.W.W. Yes, sufficient room for imagination and shifting poles. Yet, the fixed arrangement of life, suffering, or death.

Now, into the breach appears science astride the colours of art. Precision’s embrace of the imprecise and everything in between. Perfect space for the unresponsible and the uncommitted. Fertile terrain for everything from dotishness and foolhardiness to smartmanism and dishonourable intent – all on splendiferous display last weekend as we read and re-read the legal prose meant to keep us home on Monday and tomorrow.

It had all moved me to note intemperately on Twitter that “the lure of the technicality sometimes triumphs over good sense and a duty of care.” For, in this space of so many greys and shades resides the irresistible urge to capture opportunity through doubt.

“See what you can do nah” became “stay at home.” It had to be at some stage that persuasion should turn to compulsion – not as first or second or third resort, by a mile, because Atlantic breezes may never take the roof away.

It is also because compulsion requires the application of law in all its imprecision, incapable of pronouncing on the lawful that can be wrong, and the unlawful that might be completely right. Revolutions have occurred to authoritatively challenge these points.

It is to these areas of grey falls the challenge of personal responsibility – its denial mocked many years ago by “Sguvament Fawlt” – my poetic paean to what Lloyd Best had preached as the creed of “the unresponsible.” So incomprehensible at times of partisan strife that because “sguvament fawlt” for everything, this can’t be my responsibility and if it is, there is always smooth resort to loophole and technicality – “not guilty” as substitute for innocence.

There is a truth to collective responsibility and the leadership to make it possible. But solely as a function of human beings acting in accordance with the will to survive first as individuals, then as families, herds, and communities.

Last Sunday, Indian scholar and family-in-law, Prof. Dinesh Mohan, addressed us posthumously at his own “memorial meeting”, following his death from the virus. It appeared to have been a recorded lecture to a young audience. He quoted the late Russian-American poet and Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky.

“Life is a game,” said Brodsky, “with many rules but no referee ... Small wonder, then, that so many play dirty, that so few win, that so many lose.”

It’s a lesson of the pandemic we are learning every day.


Messengers and their messages

May 26, 2021

Wesley Gibbings

At a time like this, it helps that I have been around the block a bit over several decades of work in the fields of journalism and development communication.

Unlike what is being repeatedly touted by some content creators, health communication is actually a discrete discipline with intellectual and academic requirements differing substantially from “PR”, journalism, corporate, and even some areas of development communication.

The gap is not unlike the difference between paediatrics and psychiatry, and competence in virology and epidemiology. It is possible to be deeply knowledgeable in one area, and clueless when it comes to the other, even though they all belong under the broad umbrella of the practice of medicine.

What comes sharply into view through the application of health communication interventions is an ability to influence positive behaviour change through the deployment of communication tools to deliver researched and tested messages through selected messengers and/or messaging platforms.

There is a lot of confusion when it comes to public communication and its accompanying professional skills. There are a few expert health communicators among us who have operated at senior levels regionally and internationally. I am not one. I offer no such service. 

It however bothers me that what is being persistently offered as “public education” and “public awareness” by some is the usual goody bag of costly, shiny stuff. I have been reading. I have been listening. 

They have offered videos and audio material featuring celebrities - presumably, Rikki Jai for Caroni and Beenie Man for Laventille - roving speakers mounted on vans election campaign style (because the politicians do it and the mesmerised hordes come out to vote that way), banners, television spots, leaflets, and everything else with the potential to generate financial surpluses or to finance fees.

I am yet to see anything resembling reasoned risk and mitigation analyses, based on principles of proper health communication, either from the Ministry of Health, the central government, or the “PR” touts. As with management of the coronavirus, this is the stuff of science not magic, or personal charisma, or privileged access to mass media.

The prime minister, minister of health and their charges must certainly realise by now that a scattershot approach to their messaging has not been reaching the several shifting, diverse audiences. Frequent press conferences are but one tool - limited in reach and effectiveness.

There is also, of course, contrived ignorance with malignant intent. Nothing we can do about that. But for most citizens, precise, relevant information guided by a process of targeted messaging is needed to influence communal and individual behaviour.

It is thus good news that the Publishers and Broadcasters Association (TTPBA) - in association with the Advertising Agencies Association (AAATT), several private sector organisations, and professionals in the fields of marketing and communication - has pulled together a focused campaign aimed at addressing just one of several key messages.

In this case, the joint exercise takes aim at personal responsibility.  All major media enterprises have signed on to the campaign and have decided, despite shaky revenue streams and without compromising editorial independence, to freely support delivery of a singularly important message with relevance to public health measures, the vaccination programme, and wider questions of COVID doubt.

Of course, this is not all there is to it. There is no grandiose claim accompanying this gesture by these groups. But it will help bring order to the current, scattered approach to communicating pandemic messages.

In some instances, there exist counter-messages designed to undermine the core thrust of pandemic measures. Fair enough. Space must also continue to exist for competing perspectives, to which proper informational and journalistic “weighting” must be applied.

In the meantime, the government would do well to encourage the active participation of all sections of the country in the communication of messages. It’s the surest way to immunise us from the viruses of political malpractice, ignorance, and disinformation.



Exploring emergency solutions

May 19, 2021

Wesley Gibbings

More than one year later, a state of emergency remains incapable of getting you to wash your hands. Yet, there is no denying an unprecedented public health crisis.

Throughout recorded history, our country has encountered several public health emergencies. The COVID-19 pandemic is the first to lead to declaration of an SoE, as far as I know.

There were four polio outbreaks between 1941 and 1972, more than one cholera threat (the last being in 1992), and numerous alerts including the yellow fever outbreak of 1978 to 1979 and the Ebola threat between 2014 and 2016.

The frequently referenced 1918-1919 pandemic only reached as far as the Public Health Ordinance of 1915 to isolate patients and to inspect ships entering the colony.

Contrastingly, the labour disturbances of 1936-37 led to an SoE in June 1937. When similar conflicts re-emerged in 1965, another public emergency was declared.

There were also SoEs in 1970 and 1971 – triggered by the black power demonstrations of 1970, followed by labour unrest together with “guerrilla” activity, a year later.

The 1970 SoE lasted seven months, from April 21,1970 to November 20, 1970. The 1971 SoE lasted over eight months between October 19, 1971 and June 30, 1972.

The 1970 emergency targeted militant activities associated with the uprising and gave the police wide-ranging powers of arrest and detention. Horse racing and sports meetings were notably “exempted under written permission of the Commissioner (of Police).”

The 1971 version was equally draconian and its definition of “public place” included “any highway, street, public park or garden, any beach and any public bridge, road, lane, footway, square, court, alley or passage, whether a thoroughfare or not; and includes any open or enclosed space to which, for the time being, the public have or are permitted to have access whether on payment or otherwise.”

Then came the Jamaat al Muslimeen insurgency in 1990. An SoE was declared by acting President, the late Emmanuel Carter on July 29. In keeping with the 15-day limit on such a measure, a sitting of the House of Representatives was convened at the Central Bank Auditorium on Friday August 10, 1990.

Remarkably, several MPs who had been held hostage during the siege of parliament attended the sitting and contributed to the debate.

The government, in the absence of a wounded PM ANR Robinson, moved to extend emergency measures by three months. This was supported by the official opposition under the late Patrick Manning but vigorously opposed by the UNC, which grew out of a splintered ruling NAR and was launched in 1989.

“The most important issue in the country is whether they (the government) should stay in office - it has been for a very long time,” UNC leader Basdeo Panday however told the House. “Nobody is tackling the real issue in this nation, that is, the issue of alienation.”

The country’s next encounter with an SoE came on August 3, 1995 when then acting President Emmanuel Carter issued a highly controversial proclamation declaring a state of public emergency “in the city of Port of Spain” to force the involuntary removal of House Speaker Occah Seapaul from office.

The constitution was invoked on account of a threat “at so extensive a scale, as to be likely to endanger the public safety.” There has been some debate on usage of the term “limited SoE” to describe the proclamation and there have been discussions regarding its lawfulness.

Seapaul was placed under house arrest and she subsequently demitted office after a curfew around her house was imposed. This followed a month-long tussle with and open defiance of the Patrick Manning administration following her role as a prosecution witness in a fraudulent conversion case. That SoE lasted one weekend.

In my view, this was a spectacularly dangerous abuse of the constitution.

I am also among those who have questioned the invoking of emergency powers through the August 21, 2011 proclamation by President Maxwell Richards on the advice of the Kamla Persad-Bissessar administration.

The identical constitutional provision of 1995 was invoked in 2011. This time it was rationalised by National Security Minister John Sandy as not being “based on trivialities” but as an “informed … inevitable response to criminal intelligence and other (never revealed) security developments.”

The September 4 motion on a 3-month extension was met with votes of “shame” from the then Opposition PNM. Requiring a simple majority, it was nevertheless passed.  

Enter SoE 2021. Unlike 1995 and 2011 there is clear compliance with constitutional provisions. Apart from opposition MP Dave Tancoo’s “knee jerk” description, there is little serious independent contention so far. Let’s see what happens in 15 days.

 

The missed digital leap

May 12, 2021

Wesley Gibbings

There must come a time when T&T recognises the mandatory nature of the transition to new technologies, most of which rely heavily on AI-moderated content alongside digital and virtual human and other transactions. We are, sadly, nowhere near there yet.

It is thus quite easy to batter the government for patent hesitancy and negligence, though they are not the only ones. In 2021, ttconnect is hardly the spectacle it used to be. A chaotic vaccine registration process, ridiculous delays in the system for payment of pandemic penalties, flaws in managed repatriation, and the poor administration of relief measures come painfully to mind.

A recent media interview with “digital transformation” minister, Allyson West, generated little inspiration. Yes, the health ministry may or may not have said that things were “under control”, but when it comes to the substantive issue of the application of digital transactional solutions, one would have thought that such a judgment would have been the exclusive prerogative of this fancy-sounding ministry.

You see, “under control” for the ministry of health means ledgers and paper files and pens and pencils and clipboards and trained medical personnel cast in the role of administrative clerks. “Under control” to a ministry of “digital transformation” means something completely different … or at least it ought to.

It may well be that Sen. Hassel Bacchus is the “tech guy” in his capacity as junior minister, but how many of us can say we have heard anything from him lately that has generated any degree of hope that the current administration is, at minimum, en route to the required leap into the 21st century?

I am also around this sort of stuff quite a bit and know that either hope or despair can be acquired through the “languaging” of the required processes and the level of sophistication displayed when describing the prevailing virtual environment.

Though not the finest exhibit for the study of digital transformation (he admits to preferring cash and cheques to the ATM), the prime minister nevertheless appears to understand the dynamics of what is required. He said in an interview that he recognises the digital connection to “accountability, transparency, and speed …” There is, of course, much more to it than that.

He also confessed to a lack of state human resources to achieve such an objective. More than that, I would add the absence of digital mindsets that conceive of data and information and problem-solving differently. Young people are much more cued-in than the rest of us when it comes to this.

Until I see the 20 and 30-something year old techies with stuff plugged into their ears (listening to crap music) and fingers punching the keys of hand-held devices while actively and seriously engaged in the process of digital transformation, I will continue not to feel optimistic about our prospects.

Young people have in fact been actively left out of the conversation. Even so, I have been advised by one of these young techie types that the older (and presumably wiser) heads still have a key role to play since they understand the traditional systems and bring breadth to such matters. But let’s give the digital natives a chance to bring us the solutions.

It was also not my intention to focus solely on the state sector here. There is this myth of private sector superiority that has come sharply into focus during this pandemic period. The response to the digital requirements of the day is lagging woefully behind the required pace of change.

The banks have not stepped up to the challenge. Neither has the insurance industry. True, they have attempted to provide selected services via ad hoc online measures. But almost all appear to be awaiting an eventual return to the status quo.

There is also a wide variety of other private enterprises that have insisted that occupied office space is preferred over probably more productive virtual environments. Bosses who continue to believe that “normalcy” denotes warm bodies dutifully seated at desks overflowing with paper files.

True, the beleaguered retail sector has responded with a moderate level of creativity and has invested far more thoughtfully than the much better endowed financial sector in leaping forward. But we still have a long, long way to go. Digital transformation is not yet at hand. Let’s at least start by acknowledging that.


When the looming storm arrives

May 5, 2021

Wesley Gibbings

Were this not such a deadly game, it would have been amusing to witness the silent, strategic retreat of Chavista hacks in T&T who were, up to not long ago, denying the tragic disintegration of Venezuelan society. Early alerts on this, according to some of them, were the product of the propaganda of “western media”, CIA operatives, and agents of the Venezuelan political opposition.

Even as some of us were receiving independent, first-hand (pre-embargo) accounts of dramatic economic decline and social deprivation, these characters were insisting that the reality on the ground was quite different.

In 2017, one committed Chavista, who is now a senior official in his country, even called for a Caricom “fact-finding mission” to Venezuela to unveil the truth, claiming that during a private trip he had found a “reality that I witnessed with my own eyes significantly at odds with the impressions and images presented by the powerful western media corporations.”

Trini Chavismo sycophants were slandering journalists for regurgitating what they described as a false narrative of despair. For myself, I had warned of a looming storm.

Meanwhile, another dynamic was at play manipulative of ignorance of the constitutional basis for installation of Juan Guaidó as some kind of “acting” or “interim” president in January 2019.

It was extremely difficult to make clear to people occupying bipolar geo-political space that a healthy dose of scepticism ought to have been employed.

I had followed UN Security Council deliberations in 2019 and listened carefully for a reasoned analysis of how Articles 233 and 333 of Venezuela’s constitution applied. Serious international experts could also find no vital legal basis.

Yet, some could not understand that a refusal to recognise Guaidó on these and other grounds did not necessarily mean unqualified support for the Maduro regime. Such a nuance has proven to be highly problematic for states such as ours that have chosen a path of independent deliberation.

Today, a growing number of influential countries, including the EU, are backing away from previously immovable positions on this question. Embargoes have also proven to hurt the people of Venezuela more than they have its political elites.

It has since then been to our credit as a country, that we have resisted international and hemispheric bullying on this issue. Antiguan diplomat/newspaper columnist Ron Sanders has repeatedly and competently highlighted the challenge and its subtleties.

Our country has however been paying a high price for steadfastness on this issue – both as the subject of savage T&T politics and as a player on the international diplomatic stage.

Even some Caricom partners, with proven ambivalence on matters related to the regional process, have joined with others to collectively knee us on the neck over this question. This has not been easy for T&T.

Yet, all of this should not erase official culpability on the question of the orderly accommodating of people fleeing the nearby chaos.

However important to the immediate crisis at hand, T&T’s registration process is less than a half-measure when considered alongside enactment of a coherent refugee policy in keeping with obligations under international convention and law.

It may well be that had a clear official strategy been in place (note that T&T acceded to the 1951 Refugee Convention on November 10, 2000 … multiple political administrations ago) there might not have been the current improvised responses and accompanying, cynical political opportunism.

True, this would still not have fully addressed current, dangerous xenophobia and fearmongering forced to the forefront of the pandemic challenge mainly by partisan elements.

But we should be aware that blaming “de Venes” for a virtually exclusive role in the current COVID-19 spike can become the spark that ignites the flame of racist hostility and even more discrimination and violence against Venezuelans here.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has been a virtual voice in the wilderness on all these questions. For its pains, it has been made to endure more than a fair share of attack from all concerned. There has been a bleak shortage of informed public commentary, misplaced scepticism from official quarters, and absolutely nothing of value from the political opposition.

Meanwhile, we are playing with fire. How many times in history has a humanitarian crisis turned to gruesome aggression against the already victimised? Look around you, near and far, and tell me what you find.  


Nursing the pandemic away

April 28, 2021

Wesley Gibbings

It’s more than a little amusing to listen to positive testimonies, especially from some quarters, about the high-quality service being received from the public health sector during the current vaccination rollout.

This is where my constant harping on the equity issues takes on special significance. And I am not going to get into the fact that, over the weekend, some people parked their cars and walked in areas they sped pass only days before for fear of criminal violence. They have since been busy on social media sharing stories of amazement and surprise.

Having recently advised everyone of the need to check our individual privilege - even as the worst impacts of the pandemic have not touched all - I am constantly weighing my own experiences against the tenor of the public discourse I have promoted.

For instance, I have long known that the underpaid, under-resourced, routinely disrespected, and overworked nurses in public health are among our most valuable national assets.

My sister, Vanda, has been a nurse, midwife, health counselor and general goody two-shoes, all her life. Through her, I got to know Port of Spain General Hospital inside out. I also came to recognise chronic neglect and under-appreciation by almost all concerned – from patients, to doctors, to governments.

Dating back to the late 1970s, I also encountered a system prone to taking some of its most important people for granted. We have accordingly been a global supplier of high-quality nursing resources.

The sometimes-awkward militancy of the Registered Nurses’ Association has to be understood within this context. So, yes, we don’t have to always agree with everything they say or do, but it is important to understand how some current issues have evolved.

None of this, of course, is to divert attention away from the contributions of other hospital staff – ward attendants, nursing assistants, interns, and junior doctors. But it is simply to draw attention to the fact that I am among those completely not surprised at the first-rate service reported in recent days.

Last Thursday, I paid close attention to the nurses at the St Helena Health Centre. Near criminal misinformation on the availability of “walk-in” services was addressed with dignity, understanding and patience.

The clearly overworked nurse with needle in hand, politely refused the photo-op. I understood why, because I have witnessed the same on hospital wards. Unexpectedly extended shifts. No medication. The absent doctors. Anxious, and sometimes unreasonable, patients and their families. Then, somebody snaps …

At St Helena and elsewhere, the 100-year-old system for recording the process - including hand-written binders and cards - became, uncomplainingly, the responsibility of people trained and competent in specific medical areas. This is the only reason why there is a claim that the largely manual system has worked well. Be clear. It has not!

Anyway, those of us who arrived at St Helena on the basis of a fixed appointment recognised the dilemma and, for the most part, rode it out without much fuss. It was clear that the nursing staff was not going to turn a single patient away, as long as there were vaccines in hand. Over the years, and there have admittedly been exceptions, this is a quality that is more often on not on display.

Among the nursing staff are people who have hardly had a breather since declaration of a pandemic over a year ago. Many have not had a vacation, and some are going well beyond the bounds of complete exhaustion.

On April 9 last year, people were asked to stand where they were at 10 a.m. and applaud the work of those who were only just beginning their long tours of pandemic duty. It angered me greatly that the COVID deniers and “plandemic” bunch were expressing their lack of support for the simple gesture.

As we stood in our yards in St Joseph, the children next door cheered and applauded loudly. Not far away, the church bells chimed. Many of us always thought an end to this would not have arrived any time soon. We probably need to offer applause again, with special emphasis on these professionals who are now doing us proud, and not surprising some of us.

Official misstep and private folly

April 21, 2021

Wesley Gibbings

In relative terms, we are still in the early stages of the national vaccination project to help take us over the exceedingly difficult COVID-19 hurdle. The other facets of the challenge – masks, social distancing, and hand-washing – have experienced uneven levels of success. On the evidence, we still have some way to go on the latter and have barely started on the former.

The objective realities of 2020-2021 differ greatly from the circumstances that prevailed in 1918-1919 when we last experienced pandemic conditions. Today’s realities favour efficient communication and easy access to science when it comes to both official action and personal/communal behaviour change.

Yet, the new age has not guaranteed the absence of official misstep and private folly. For example, in T&T, while most state interventions have been on target and correct, there have been several stumbles along the way.

Some of these include early misapplication of the policing of lockdown measures when the soiled undergarments of social inequity were in full, embarrassing view. I have written before about uneven police enforcement and the prevalence of privilege. This continues.

Additionally, and contrary to the propaganda, T&T was not the only country in the world to apply stringent managed repatriation/entry measures (over 30,000 Australians remain locked out for over a year now) – though there could have been greater orderliness in and better communication on its early application.

It is also a fact that there was never a complete border closure here. Aircraft and marine vessels bearing food, supplies and specialised personnel in the energy sector never stopped coming. Citizens have also trickled in.

This, in part, establishes the silliness/slanderous nature of the assertion that new infection data are being generated, through official sleight of hand, to impose a regime of extreme official control. Or to suggest that it is “de Venes” – whose apparent absence from the HDU/ICU units belies scientific conclusions about the ratio of mild to severe infections in the case of this virus.

There has also been a refusal to recognise the value of readily accessible technological solutions. An online platform to address the repatriation effort, for instance, took far too long to appear and continues to be problematic in its application.

We have also not employed the young digital natives to work alongside experienced heads to resolve the near fiasco that has been our vaccination registration process. As I have said, in relative terms, it is still early days. Let’s fix this, please.

Because the manual systems of 2021 in T&T still mirror what was used in the 1918-1919 pandemic, there has been low confidence in the registration process. This has led to almost everyone I know seeking appointments at multiple facilities all over the country. This is ill-advised, but it is perfectly understandable that nervous people would choose to do so. A proper system would have dealt with duplicate reservations at different centres.

There are people who live in St Ann’s who have had their vaccines in Mayaro! This emphasises not only technological backwardness, but the lack of serious connections between people in their various communities and the institutions that serve them.

The use of a 1-800 number and/or WhatsApp messages does not come near to what I am speaking about. Look at how it’s being done in the OECS islands. Google the other options. The experts in these things I have polled are looking on in despair and disbelief.

Right here, weeks ago, I called for an orderly process (especially since it took us a while to acquire our first serious instalment of vaccines) to register willing citizens to receive their doses.

Among the several things that could have helped us avoid the confusion was a system of local government that permitted communities to play a more important role in action on their own behalf.

As proposed in successive diagnoses and prescriptions, anomalies in the geographical matching of state agencies and institutions, alongside the boundaries of regional authorities, would have been rationalised.

New roles for local authorities would have ensured far more intimate community knowledge. Both the monitoring of adherence to pandemic guidelines and the current fuss over vaccine registrations could have been more efficiently addressed.

If COVID-19 has done anything, it has been to efficiently throw our shortcomings back in our collective faces. We have not been short on either official misstep or private folly.

 

COVID’s faltering digital legacy

April 7, 2021

Wesley Gibbings

Nothing against the health minister, but these days we ought to be hearing much, much more from his cabinet colleague, Senator Allyson West.

For, when (not if) this crisis ends, among the legacy outcomes must be the accelerated “digital transformation” of T&T society – a task assigned the minister and her team of experts, if not for exclusive execution, certainly for overall coordination and moderation.

It must not be that our emergence from this dark period should find us short on the key tools of modernity. Not the ministry of health. Not the ministry of finance. Not the ministry of works. But an entire cabinet-level portfolio has been assigned the task of moving T&T to where we ought to have been at least a decade ago.

This, of course, includes the “digital transformation” of public health care. It should be Senator West and not only Minister Deyalsingh facing the understandable impatience of citizens at this time.

From the highly problematic managed repatriation exercise (which only very late in the day employed an automated platform) to the renewal of passports and drivers’ licenses. To business registrations that are now mostly virtual but require manual pickup. To receipt of social welfare benefits.

Now add to these, online registration for the vaccination programme which was not ready in time for the already delayed arrival of the COVID vaccine.

This column is being published on Wednesday – the day virtual appointments are supposed to be possible. Check it out and send your comments to the editor.

For the elderly, being at the top of the vaccine line should not have meant standing in the sun outside the Diego Martin health centre on Saturday only to be turned away for being there on “the wrong day” – whatever the prior, obscure dispatches.

Anxious people should not have had to be told by impatient health ministry employees at the other end of the telephone line that they “not ready yet” to make appointments for the vaccine. Calls to the advertised numbers over the long weekend ought not to have been met with a “mailbox full” message.

No. No. No. Asking people, who are being described as among the most at risk, to call an over-burdened telephone line or to venture out to the health centre to make an appointment to have the vaccine is not 21st century best practice. It is shameful and cruel.

Almost eight months ago I suggested in this space that Senator West’s new ministry should have urgently begun assembling a cadre of young digital natives who understand and speak the language of real change.

Such a transformation, I had proposed, ought not to have focused on doing the old things better, but rather on doing new things well.

Standing twelfth in the line, holding a highly unimpressive “piece of paper” in my hand for over an hour at the Revenue Office in Tunapuna a few weeks ago, I concluded that this was not only about facilitative law at the hands of the attorney general. It was about the psycho-social leap from an analogue past to the digital present.

It is about the fear of obsolescence occasioned by automated processes that perform selected chores infinitely faster and better than humans.

Has our Central Bank, even as it issues fancy new notes, paid attention to the fact that the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank has gone live with the pilot of DCash digital currency?

It cannot be that a country such as T&T – known far and wide for its inventiveness, creativity, and innovation – is incapable of making the psychic transition.

In the meantime, at government offices, our women are targeted and discriminated against for adherence to silly dress codes and the cashier closes for lunch - at the time most convenient for the employed.

Now, don’t get me wrong, such a pathology is not peculiar to official agencies, though it is more evident in that space. Our private sector has lagged behind as well. The ease of doing business with business is almost as hard as the ease of doing business for businesses in T&T.

Time to up our game. We aren’t doing well. A true digital legacy is yet to unfold.


COVID denial and other depravities

March 10, 2021

Wesley Gibbings

I spent most of 2019 “on the road” as an international advocate for freedom of expression and press freedom, writing, and training Caribbean journalists. I also launched a new collection of poems.

Assignments rolled seamlessly from one month into another. January 24, 2020 even found me overnighting at Piarco - part of an itinerary that included Costa Rica, Panama, and Guyana (twice), the latter to participate in the last-minute preparation of journalists for the country’s problematic March 2 elections.

Sleepless, with medicated “pre-existing conditions” and feeling sick as a dog, I soldiered on. On arrival at Piarco from Panama, a guy with a hand-held thermometer aimed it, with assured imprecision, at my sleepy face.

I returned from Guyana on January 28. There was bronchial illness, mild fever and other “flu like” symptoms. Straight to my GP and a cocktail of drugs. I had to puff from an inhaler thingy that resembled what my asthmatic wife and son sometimes use to keep breathing.

After more than 40 years, I was unable to attend the February 9 Panorama Semi-Finals, but paid my online subscription to the WACK livestream set up a laptop, projector and a couch, and pretended to feel, smell and hear a Grand Stand crowd.

There had been lots of talk about a virus out of Wuhan, China. That is what the thermometer at Piarco was all about. Leaving Jamaica in December, there was one solitary guy with a surgical mask in the line. A lady behind me snickered.

“Driving on the road is a health hazard. But people buying out useless masks,” wrote one early COVID sceptic in this very space weeks later. The prime minister teased a journalist who insisted on wearing one. The WHO said “maybe”, then “yes”. We all, at some stage, got things wrong.

The day of the WHO pandemic declaration – March 11 - found me among media colleagues and CARPHA officials discussing COVID-19 coverage. We joked about new ways of greeting each other, even before the news broke.

The early political messaging was that “scare tactics” were being employed to keep a clueless population in check in an election year. This, after all, was “nothing more than a bad flu.” COVID denial and scepticism – openly endorsed by people who are supposed to know about these things – became the stuff of political sloganeering. T&T officialdom, we were told, was spitefully over-reacting.

Some even said the virus would be useful in the culling of the aged and infirm and so end the attendant strains on T&T’s faltering, socialised public health system. That our leading professionals at the Ministry of Health were doctoring figures and analyses and not patients.

That there was an ethnic dynamic to the restrictions. That (even as the sceptics followed not one single MOH press conference or watched my series on TTT) important areas of pandemic management such as mental health were being ignored. That there was no testing.

Perched from the vantage point of financial and professional privilege, public commentary in some quarters spanned a spectrum comprising willful ignorance, open malevolence, COVID denial and scepticism, and anti-vaxxer doctrine.

For sure, there has been official bungling from the beginning to now – vaccine acquisition is a case in point – but to attribute malice and ill-intent is to cast an unacceptable slur not only at the politicians but at everyone else engaging the huge challenge. It is like kicking a country in the face while its ears are to the ground.

Such has been the contempt that everyone - from the Swedes (“Look at me. Look at me. No mask!”) to the Americans to the Brits - has been cited as best practice models to assist in correcting our evil, misguided ways. I look at our declining infection rates and recognise something completely different.

To me, true success or failure is expressed in measures of human suffering and death. I have been told this is “nonsense”. What counts is the health of the economy.

In all my years of confronting the depravities of public life and dialogue, I have never witnessed such a morbid descent. There is justifiable concern over the unacceptably slow acquisition of vaccines, yet little to suggest corresponding concern about pervasive deployment when they arrive.

Ask your MP, your teacher, your doctor, your stockbroker, your cleric, your favourite newspaper columnist if he or she plans to take the vaccine and is willing to encourage others to do so. You may well find yourself confronting a dark pathology you never thought existed. Then you’d recognise your own role in all of this, on behalf of everyone else.


Watch your privilege

February 24, 2021

Wesley Gibbings

Early in the pandemic, someone in the international media development community (whose identity I cannot recall) advised journalists to be aware that in many situations, though not in all, they would be reporting on the phenomenon from a position of high risk but also of relative “privilege” and advantage.

It’s not the kind of message media people are in the habit of receiving, but I thought it was good advice, not only with respect to free movement and access to officialdom, information, and some services, but also to what is being described as “employment privilege” - as many appeared to have held on to their jobs.

Here in the Caribbean, journalists were in some instances assigned “essential service” status, as in T&T. In Jamaica, journalists were even granted special access to COVID “hot spot” areas. In Barbados, media workers have been high in priority for receipt of the vaccine. And, everywhere, journalists were the first to access public health updates and other information. 

Things have not been at all easy for them (I am no longer at a News Desk), but the advice to journalists reflected an alert that others were sounding on forms of privilege that include age, gender and gender identity, race, nationality, class, and access to services – all of which have attracted the attention of those with an interest in equity issues in the face of a public health emergency.

Only last week, PM Dr Keith Rowley and WHO Director General Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus jointly drew attention to uneven levels of national access to a full complement of vaccines (Covax notwithstanding) because of an inability to close deals with pharmaceutical companies and to promptly pay for big purchases. “Vaccine equity” was the term used.

But as is the case with journalists and media, there are other internal dynamics that point to domestic forms of inequity and the consequential application of privilege.

It has been proven through research that health and disease are often patterned in accordance with social and economic status. We can already see that some sectors have been disproportionately impacted by pandemic measures. For instance, COVID “clusters” observed in several countries in our region have starkly made the point.

Socioeconomic status and the outcomes of health measures are proven to have an inelastic relationship. “Spatial inequalities” is the term used by some experts to describe differences in the availability of health care, household income and capacity, and things like diet and nutrition.

One community in our region, for example, was regularly targeted for police action and public ostracism because of a repeated failure to observe curfew conditions. Then it was found that among the reasons for the breaches was the unavailability of potable water at the times people were free to leave their homes in a district where household supplies are not the norm.

There were also many here who could not understand why the need for frequent trips to the corner shops during last year’s lockdown. And it had to be explained that in numerous households throughout the country, food and other supplies are acquired weekly or when cash comes to hand.

Last week I saw a Tweet from a regional professional which suggested that “all people have to do” is social distance when using what everybody else knows is a shoulder-to-shoulder public transport system.

Then there are the regular dispatches, from the sanctity of their home offices, of those who wonder why “stupid” (a word that has been used) people line up outside banks, supermarkets, and other public places to do things that can otherwise be executed online – on computers employing Wi-Fi they do not have.

Even occupational privilege has pitted medical professionals in the private sector versus salaried public service medicos. Have you noticed the slander and open contempt? Our own Chief Medical Officer and Ministry of Health staff have been repeated victims of ad hominem attacks by private sector colleagues – accused of everything from outright incompetence and lying, to sheep-like compliance with political agendas. Easy targets because the right to respond is not routinely within their reach.

On April 9 last year, as we rallied symbolically in support of doctors, janitors, police officers, port workers, soldiers, prisons officers, nurses, and other workers in the “essential services” who were trying their best under brand new circumstances, I observed the restrained responses by some to the National Applause Initiative.

I stood outside my home clapping enthusiastically and sobbing at the same time while the children next door cheered and applauded. The silence from some then taught me much about today’s subject.

 

Securing our joy

Wesley Gibbings

February 17, 2021

Last week’s admonition in this space to more carefully manage our single, tragic story of murderous stories and to signal a measure of hope had perhaps come much too soon, endangered as it was by an understandable yet strangulating charge of “distraction” and under threat of being consequentially dismissed and ignored.

Today, there continues to be much at stake and on offer. The undeniable legitimacy of spontaneous and magnanimous (even militant) public expression of grief and pain has been there to turn attention to offers of solutions – many (but not all) of them carefully and thoughtfully crafted.

For example, the Write Yuh MP campaign run by a consortium of NGOs promoted a variety of official and informal interventions to address the issue of Gender Based Violence (GBV). 

There have also been numerous observations and proposed actions taking direct aim at institutional deficiencies that jeopardise prompt justice such as underdeveloped policing practices, ineffective application of laws, corruption, and bureaucratic sloth.

At the same time, we are witnessing a thirst for revenge and ensuing judicial (and extra-judicial) vengeance, a measure of COVID-aware recklessness, fearmongering via cynical campaigns of disinformation, and the omnipresent spectre of opportunistic political advantage.

Amidst all this though, there must be sufficient room to consider the other stories of our lives – many of them not unrelated to the scourge of crime and violence – but almost all capable of either securing or stealing our joy.

Some have been captured in the numerous submissions of civil society organisations and individuals and include proposals for reform involving everything from the constitution to the system of justice to community life, culture, and education.

Then there is the collateral damage sustained by events, people, and things through the combined impact of pandemic conditions and the co-morbidities occasioned by socio-cultural and economic dysfunction.

Yet, it was our very Carnival tabanca over the recent weeks and days that, even through the tears, provided a conduit for possibility and hope.

Only Sunday, on Duvone Stewart’s weekly Pan Chronicles event on Facebook, there was 9-year-old US-based Hannah Roldan – granddaughter of the late iconic pannist Ken “Professor” Philmore.

Reciting an Andrea Phillip poem, the young lady silenced an otherwise rowdy online audience with a poem that lamented the absence of regular Carnival events while at the same time offering comfort and confidence.

“No Panorama lime/No Drag time/No flag woman or flag man/No old talk from a fan/No food and no drinks passing/No Carnival reminiscing.”

“Virtual stages and shows set the bar high/All involved must get a bligh/Bringing the vibes and filling the voids/this is for T&T history books, not the tabloids/This one took us by surprise /Change will come because we will rise.”

In Phillip’s verse came diagnosis, treatment and promised recovery through the voice of Hannah, the perfect young messenger. Ironically, the context of Duvone’s introduction to the poem was the attention earned by Pan By Storm – composed by Phillip and arranged by Philmore – when played by Fonclaire at the Panorama Finals in 1990 (note the year).

That performance (and many of us thought Fonclaire ought to have won) came only months before one of our country’s darkest hours the following July. There was the cruel violence, almost complete official unpreparedness, and expressions of bewilderment - notwithstanding the warnings - that the country had come to such a pass.

There are people who walk among us today who shunned the call for unity. Who reckoned that we had all “looked for it.” Who ascribed to the tragedy, indications of a failed state. Who muttered quiet support. Who bemoaned a “lost generation” – 30 years ago.

We who heard Fonclaire, and last Sunday listened to young Hannah, know that the straw that currently rests heavily on the camel’s back should not be the one yearned and barely out of reach at the river’s edge.

I am not for one moment about to succumb to hovering despair. It took a cancelled Carnival in pandemic times to teach us that there is more to us than the depravities that from time to time stop us dead in our tracks.

Nothing and nobody must steal our joy.

 

Integrate or perish

January 13, 2021

Wesley Gibbings

Since its launch in 1973, the Caribbean Community and Common Market (Caricom) has grown quite used to more than its fair share of self-inflicted and externally generated vandalism. The year 2020 came along, looked at a difficult 2019, and offered it a partially imbibed beer. “Hold this,” 2020 appeared to have said.

As if internecine conflict, impatience, and agitation over misapplication of single market imperatives weren’t enough, along came COVID-19 and its challenge to brittle national institutions and a collective regional will that had begun to seriously question itself.

It was not the best set of circumstances for a movement generally beset by self-esteem issues. Almost everywhere, over the years, subjected to claims of second-class status. One of the most durable integration movements in the world pre-dating similar efforts and models in Africa, Latin America and the Pacific has been made to appear as if it is of inferior quality and status.

So much so that however chaotic and ill-conceived, the Brexit plan resonated favourably with some across the Atlantic. The Bruce Golding Report launched missiles over the Caricom bow. T&T basically withdrew its leadership role. Others were considering a place in a futile Bolivarian fantasy, while a few (erroneously) believed there was a favourable North American embrace.

As a consequence, by 2020, the Caricom Caucus within the OAS was in shambles. The region’s hemispheric and international voice became a discordant chorus and delusion fed notions of unequal regional sovereignty. The Caricom bubble was set to burst.

Along came the pandemic and unprecedented challenges to health, education, food, and economic stability. Had it not been for the regional process, I however contend, several countries of the region would not have come this far relatively intact.

For instance, I have little doubt that without the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) there would have been the collapse of early Caricom pandemic coordination with tragic results.

Yet, holding things together became increasingly important for the regional movement as borders and shipping lanes closed and as the world withdrew into itself against a fast-moving scourge. Caricom and its institutions needed to come to the rescue. Among them, the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC), UWI, CDEMA, the RSS, and Caricom IMPACS.

The “Caricom is a waste of time” bunch are probably busy Googling these (deliberately employed) acronyms because ignorance continues to be a principal characteristic of their assertions.

The year was also notable for its stresses on a wide variety of national institutions. For example, there were seven national elections in Belize, Guyana, Jamaica, St Kitts & Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, and T&T. The three continental Caricom states – Belize, Guyana, and Suriname – changed political administrations.

Electoral boards laboured under pandemic conditions to conduct highly unusual political contests. Though Guyana’s March 2 elections were held on the eve of tightened restrictions, the ensuing intrigue and machinations were only settled when recourse to the CCJ was employed. In that sense, it was a Caricom institution to the rescue … again. This time on behalf of the region’s fastest growing economy.

It has also become increasingly clear to some countries that the options they considered, once eventually delinked from Caricom fraternal ties, are increasingly distant illusions. Talk of the “continental destinies” of Suriname and Guyana currently reside below the rubble of imperialistic designs and a hostile and indifferent neighbourhood.

Belize is now the subject of renewed territorial claims at the hands of Guatemala. The fanciful North American aspirations of Jamaica and The Bahamas experienced more than one brutal reality check in 2020. They do not want you, dear brothers and sisters.

It is nevertheless true that 2021 finds us with some hard decisions to make. Haiti needs to determine whether it will continue to come along for the ride. The Bahamas will soon find the Caricom cherries to be selectively picked are beyond its reach. And Jamaica needs to make up its mind about its future in the fold.

To help transact all of this and more, an upgraded Caricom Secretariat needs to be equipped with both the assets and habits of modernity to ensure safe passage for those in its care. It is nowhere near where it ought to be. Member states must also ramp up their self-confidence. We need Caricom for this rescue mission on which we are all now embarked. Integrate or Perish, was how it was once expressed.

An absence of moral certainty

January 6, 2021

Wesley Gibbings

There are few things that undermine the credibility of leaders more than the absence of moral reliability/certainty on matters of urgent public interest and concern.

Legal people use the term “moral certainty” to signal a conviction based on factors that exceed reasonable doubt. Philosophers, and those types, discuss “moral reliability.”

There is also “legal certainty” which provides parties with the confidence they need to make and hold to important decisions. I am adapting all of this for use in association with the concept of “moral authority.”

This contrasts with situations in which one thing is said and another habitually done, or when there are repeated promises to do something and no obvious intention to do so is ever in evidence. It creates a scenario under which there is no certainty that a threat will be carried out or a promise delivered.

All of this has a tragically corrosive impact on public confidence that’s exceedingly difficult to address. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. Nobody, for instance, honestly believed that a declaration of “zero tolerance” regarding the (ab)use of fireworks, squibs, scratch-bombs for Xmas and the New Year had any value whatsoever – no matter how elegantly couched the press release or forceful the media appearances.

In my neighbourhood, as everywhere else in this country, we prepared for habitual official failure, not for fulfilled promise. People sourced sedatives for their pets. Nobody I knew could have sworn to the conviction that the police and others in authority would have satisfactorily addressed this periodic assault on animals, babies, the aged and the infirm. Instead, we were all typically left to ourselves. Nothing new. This is not UNC/PNM ting.

It however defines an absence of moral authority and the degrading of a climate of moral certainty – that feeling that we are or will all be in good hands. Every man/woman was instead left to him/herself.

Almost as bad as the neighbourhood assaults has been an official declaration of “success” in addressing these issues. This includes promised action against President Paula-Mae Weekes’ “zessers” and “wessers” – those compulsive party-goers who would never let a pandemic stand in the way of a good time.

The day after Boxing Day, I sat on a flight bound for Tobago. “Wessers” was the word I used on Facebook to describe most of my fellow travellers. I am no fêter, but I know one when I see one. I pick up on the evidence quite easily. Even when there is relative calm before the storm. The absence of substantial luggage (it’s coming with the cars on the boat). Face masks that shield the mouth, chin, and neck. Or none at all around the hotel premises.

They assembled in “clusters” on the beach. I’d heard the talk. Somebody in the know messaged me with locations and times. The chop-chopping near Pigeon Point was the sound of firewood being prepared. There was traffic on the road. I told Bill there would be “zessers” to the east and “wessers” to the west. I had planned to be back home by then. No sedatives for Oreo, my cat. Only safe haven under the couch or wherever else she chose.

But wait. Had there not been a stern warning? Had there not been the media appearances and press releases? Had we not all heard this before?

In the end, we may find that application of the law has less to do with all of this than the soft tissue of our social and communal compact and the official reach of moral suasion. The arrangements for cohabitation. A duty of care. The realisation that it is entirely possible for something to be both lawful and wrong.

True, as is the case with gun control, the sale of fireworks and other explosives can be prohibited/more firmly restricted. True, the current regulatory emphasis on possession and usage, as against importation and sale, needs to be addressed.

But it may well be the case that the true, lasting solution can be found in responsible citizenship made comfortable by a belief that when push comes to shove there will be those who have our backs. There will be confidence. There will be the moral certainty/reliability of officialdom. That is not currently the case. It is insulting to claim otherwise. We should not put up with this.

 

 

No comments:

Dear Comrades

Comrades, it is absolutely understandable that media performance in the pandemic should come under intense internal and public scrutiny. At ...