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Svg needs a reality check

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Whatever one thinks of the motives for persons engaged in weekly protests and picketing, primarily around the Parliament building, it is at least a welcome sign of persons exercising their democratic right to express their views. In the long run, if more and
more people are prepared to stand up and speak out, then it ought to increase popular participation in what we call the “democratic process”.

Having said this however, it is also important that as we agree or disagree on what we consider to be matters of national importance, that we never for one moment lose sight of our national reality. There is no one of a sound mind who would say that our country is in a comfortable or favourable economic and social state. Week after week the strains on the national budget give off ever louder creaking sounds placing formidable obstacles in our path of economic recovery.

A very critical element of our recovery is the area of tourism. In times gone by, when the economies of the Caribbean islands were largely based on agriculture, tourism was a useful add-on to our economic development. Those days have long gone. Today, tourism is THE essential ingredient in the economic development thrust of the Caribbean and even countries where for one reason or another, it was not central to the economy, as in Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Cuba, for example, tourism earnings are critical towards enhancing economic and social development.

The time of the year is also important for we are approaching the start of the northern winter season which provides a lucrative market for our tourism product. It must be remembered that the end of the 2019 season was affected as COVID-19 took hold and we lost substantially in 2020. The region can ill afford a third successive downturn.

This means that combating the coronavirus threat must be paramount for the entire region.

Given the rapidly spreading delta strain of the virus, which is already all over the Caribbean, all efforts are concentrated on measures to contain the spread of the virus.

Different strategies, ranging from restrictions to complete lockdown, have been employed by different governments, but there is one common factor. All Caribbean countries agree that the global strategy of vaccination, employed by nearly 200 countries, is the most efficacious.

 Now normally, it would have been full steam ahead, as was done in combating other health threats. But that was when we were not so “bright” as we appear to be today, and not so “politically aware” as we claim to be. Instead, a broad loose coalition of persons opposed to the vaccination campaign has emerged which is spearheading not just protests against the vaccination, but is actually engaged in physical confrontation with security forces in some instances.

One can argue about the premises or rights and wrongs of the campaign, but essentially the question must be answered, what is the best method to combat not just the health threat but the resultant economic collapse as well?  Much emphasis has been placed on personal rights and freedoms as opposed to the collective well being of the entire society.

But those in the forefront of the resistance must answer the question, what must we do to deal with the COVID threat? What alternative is being offered, or is there blind denial of the threat which has already killed millions all over the globe? By contrast hundreds of millions have been successfully vaccinated and there is no denying the results.

In some countries, SVG prominent among them, a curious coalition marrying opposition to the vaccine, opposing mandatory vaccination for front-line workers and, yes, political opposition to the government, has emerged and the lines between genuine reservation on vaccines and political opposition have been blurred in some instances.

In the Vincentian experience, the presence of Prime Minister Gonsalves as a larger-than-life factor has raised the stakes. His disagreements and confrontations with the political opposition and some trade union leaders seem to have incentivised the anti-vaccination campaign while his opponents, grabbing every local issue that they could, desperately try to turn the matter into one “for democracy”. Consciences and common sense are shunted aside as the campaign both to embarrass the government and even to remove it, (the Opposition has called for “fresh elections” less than one year into the life of the Gonsalves government), continues apace.

In turn the PM’s insistence not to yield the centre ground continues to spur his opponents to more extremism.  He engages almost daily in a range of personal interventions by media, taking on his opponents and himself heading the campaign for vaccination. It is an admirable and Herculean effort. Unfortunately he may have reached the stage of what is termed “the law of diminishing returns”, where people have been so saturated by his statements and appeals that further entreaties on his part do not seem to make much more of a difference. It was almost painful for instance to hear him appealing to nurses to “help me” by taking the vaccine, because nobody had demonstrated so much love for nurses and their welfare.  New initiatives, not more of the same are needed.

Meanwhile there are those who seek to ride the opposition bandwagon in the quest for publicity and a perceived political martyrdom, continuing to defy law and order and jeopardize peace and security. They seem to have hijacked both the anti-vaccination campaign as well as the Opposition’s own anti-government protests. So successful are they that leaders of the Opposition seem to be in thrall to them and seem incapable of providing clear political leadership.

It is a far from happy situation for SVG at a time when we need national dialogue and enlightened leadership.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.