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Covid spurring political and personal battles

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When first the impact of the COVID pandemic hit us over two years ago, there were few among us that thought we would still be grappling with it today, on the verge of the year 2022. Today, not only has the disease accounted for the deaths of over 5 million persons worldwide but it seems to be constantly recharging its batteries in the form of new variants and, as evidenced in the emergence of yet another offshoot, the Omicron, is creating alarm just as controls and restrictions were being eased.

Given the deadly experience over the past two years and the novelty of the new strain, there is an understandable tendency towards panic reaction, especially in the European Union and the United Kingdom, and restrictions of travel to and from Southern African countries are being imposed. Yet, after blaming those countries for the origin of this new strain, it is now being revealed that strains of the new variant had been reported in Europe before the supposed “discovery” in southern Africa.

It immediately recalls the experience with AIDS, originally blamed on African countries, and people of African origin, before scientific facts began to challenge the early assumptions. What is even more worrying is that such unsubstantiated claims about origin only fuels the skepticism, already dangerously high, about official information on the virus.

Southern African countries, led by South Africa, which itself first reported the presence of the new variant, have complained bitterly about what they se as unjustified and discriminatory attacks on their economies. It is not just the restrictions on personal travel which hurts, but even more the economic effects, virtually closing the door to trade and economic transactions especially at this time of year.
Indeed, while the spotlight tends to be on restrictions of personal freedoms on one hand, and the devastating effects of the pandemic on life and limb, it is the longer-lasting damage to the economies of countries big and small, which is of even greater significance.
On both counts though, social as well as economic, the pandemic and the responses to it, are fueling serious political, social and even personal battles all over the world. Whether it is in our own SVG, in Singapore, Australia or France, clashes have broken out between those opposed either to vaccines or the process for the implementation of the vaccination process, and those charged with the responsibility for law and order.

Having mentioned France, it is instructive to note not only the protests in France proper, but what is happening in the so-called French ‘territories’ in the Caribbean, particularly the so-called ‘overseas departments’ of Guadeloupe and Martinique. There, the French have stubbornly refused to respect the demands for an end to colonial rule and to allow the people of these Caribbean territories the right to improve the deplorable conditions of poverty and racial discrimination as the rest of the Caribbean is doing.

It is therefore no surprise that in addition to the open protests about vaccination in France itself and, given the restrictions, the clamour for individual freedom, the conditions, especially in Guadeloupe, have given rise to violent protests and riots. France has responded in typical colonial fashion, refusing to heed calls for dialogue and instead sending in troops to “quell the disturbances”. It is not much different from what was tried in Algeria or North or West “French Africa”.

This combination has complicated the situation and, with the help of the international media, attempted to deflect attention away from the problems caused by continued colonial rule and to blame it all on anti-vaccination protests. Of course, these are present but the root of the problem lies in the racist nature of French colonialism and its stubborn refusal to come to grips with the reality of decolonization. In addition, there are the underlying economic problems, including what the late Professor George Beckford had described as “persistent poverty”.

Guadeloupe is by no means the only country where underlying problems and conflicts are being used to exacerbate the differences on approaches to handling COVID, particularly the vaccination process, the only proven scientific answer so far.
We have our problems here at home, but it is so sad to note the vitriolic language and confrontational approaches by those in opposition to the government’s vaccination policy. The language itself does not suggest any search for solutions. Instead words like “immoral”, “evil”, and “wicked” are used to describe those aiming to try and curb the spread of the virus and to protect the health of the population.

More worryingly, it seems that those who continue to fan the flames of protest are doing so by encouraging workers to make sacrificial lambs of themselves while those organizing the protests have little to lose personally. Significantly, the emphasis has never been on alternative policies to halt the deadly pandemic, indeed it is being dismissed as a figment of the imagination.

Workers are being encouraged to give up their jobs, because “we will win in courts”. When will be the court cases and who will mind the suffering families in the meantime is another issue, Opposition politicians vow to reinstate those who surrender their jobs? But that same Opposition has failed to win elections for 20 years now, how could one have confidence in reinstatement when it has failed to demonstrate it can win, much more reinstate?

Now we are even having attacks on Cuban health workers, being recruited in case there are gaps in our health system which we can ill afford at this time. Do we forget it is to the same Cuba to which we had to turn to fill gaps in our health personnel needs? These misguided attacks must be firmly rebuffed.

What we need are solutions and national responsibility, not irresponsible agitation.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.