We Need to ‘breathe’!
I am back this week on a theme I started last week as I reflect on the Black Lives Movement. I said then that we need to show solidarity with the struggle in the US but as we did in the days of the Black Power Movement, have to make the link with our own struggles, that might have nothing to do with racial oppression but with demanding opportunities to grow and to make a determined effort to move off the plantations in our minds. At the meeting of Parliament earlier this week I was reminded that we also need to be able to ‘breathe’. This was after looking at a few protesters outside Parliament. Among them was Joel Poyer who was among public servants with whom the Court found favour as they petitioned against the system of promotion. The other was “Bigger Biggs” whose placard said “Ah carn breathe! Tek Yo bewitched knee out me kneck”. This was addressed to the Prime Minister. He had a case before Court about illegal entry on to his land, surveying and dividing it. The first thing that greeted me today as I sat before my computer, was news that the Court had ruled in his favour in a relevant primary matter. The substantive matter is still to be heard.
We have for obvious reasons been following the struggle in the US for their rights and against oppression. But while doing so and sympathising with those struggles, we have to look carefully at our situation and to ensure that we all could ‘breathe’. The COVID-19 pandemic is creating a different world and hopefully a different St Vincent. The meeting of parliament earlier showed clearly that there is a wide gap between our fears, concerns, interests, and expectations and those whom we have put in charge of administering our business. The government, through its majority in Parliament, got approval for a loan from Taiwan of EC$53 million to construct Parliament and Court House buildings and to renovate the existing building. This was Wednesday’s talking point and most likely will be for the rest of the week. What astounded people were statements by the Deputy Prime Minister to the effect that Vincentians are not suffering much during this pandemic; admitting that there was some unemployment, but that government had programmes to deal with it. This ran counter to the Minister of Finance’s exposition on the fallout facing the country with unemployment being up 10 percent since March, and about the severe impact on tourism and the depressed retail and commercial activity. Sir Louis might have read too much into the Finance Minister’s comment that the country was “weathering the economic storm as well as can be expected”, whatever that means.
What is disturbing is the signal it sends. This is the worst possible time to put emphasis on such a project. When the IMF approved support for SVG in May, it stated that it was to help cover some of the needs and to ease the impact on the population “including increased spending on health and social protection.” What signal could this be sending when we give priority to putting down a new Parliament building, granted by funds we borrowed? We are facing a pandemic impacting not only on the health sector but on the economy as a whole. People are hurting. Tourism workers are laid off or working at reduced salaries. Business is at a standstill. The Government is at the same time providing funding for start-up Microenterprises projects. Under normal conditions this is commendable but at a time when existing small enterprises are suffering, some at the point of collapsing, is this the correct climate for starting new businesses?
This is a time for serious reflection that hopefully will guide the way forward. The wrong solutions can set us back greatly. We are not out of the woods as yet. We cannot overreact but must provide support to those who are really hurting while we carefully plot the way ahead.
Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian