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Shades of 1979

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As I write this column, the House of Assembly is in the process of discussing, debating and hopefully approving a Supplementary Appropriation Bill triggered by a Recovery and Stimulus Package to address, partially, the serious effects from the COVID-19 global pandemic.

By strange coincidence, we enter the upcoming Easter weekend smack in the midst of a national crisis, as we did in 1979, the year of our independence 41 years ago. Then, it was not a virus, but a natural disaster, the eruption of the La Soufriere volcano, which had virtually thrown our country into chaos, and severely affected almost every area of national life. It provides us with an opportunity to reflect on that crisis and to consider similarities and possible differences both in impact as well as in our handling of both crises.

First, when Soufriere erupted on Good Friday 1979, (April 13 just three days later than this year’s April 10 Good Friday date), it was then impossible to gauge the extent of its destruction or how long it would last. We are in much the same situation where COVID is concerned, for while we have been fortunate so far, with a relative low level of cases and no fatalities up to this point, the global experience has shown that such a situation could suddenly balloon out of proportion and that it is practically impossible at such early stages of infection.

Secondly, the government of today is much in the same “monkey pants” as its 1979 predecessor, with greatly reduced revenue but significantly increased demands to meet the challenges of the time, funds to boost the health sector, provision for upkeep, ensuring public safety and security, support for the elderly, the poor, and the economically displaced, as well as having to creatively try to stimulate economic recovery.

The 1979 eruption, while affecting the entire country, hit some sectors particularly hard. Badly affected was the hospitality sector. The eruption was continual in nature and given the great heights to which the material was ejected, it posed a hazard to air traffic, not only in and out of SVG, but regionally as well. Thus, tourism was badly hit, though fortunately the eruption occurred as the tourist season was coming to an end. Easter activities naturally suffered, just as is happening at present, and the biggest hit was the forced cancellation of Carnival, just two years after the popular changeover to the June/July period. A street jump-up, to mark Independence was a minor compensation, something that the Prime Minister must have had in mind, when he spoke, perhaps prematurely of some sort of “mini festival” in August.

Worst hit of all, was the agricultural sector which was practically decimated. Fortunately this time, the virus is not one affecting our farms, though our farmers and fisherfolk are, like the rest of us, vulnerable. Whatever the hardships, especially in sourcing imports, we will have an opportunity via our agricultural sector both to fed our people as well as to stimulate the economic recovery. We must maximize this opportunity

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the comparison between the crisis of 1979 and that of today is the political context. Forty-one years ago, SVG was in what we call “election year”, in the final year of the term of office of the then Labour Party government, with elections widely expected before the end of the year. A similar situation obtains today, with the ULP widely expected to “ring the election bill” by year end. Given our political culture, it is tempting for politicians to try and use every possible opportunity to try and score political advantages.

Yet, when one has a national crisis, it is neither the time, nor appropriate occasion, for playing partisan politics.

A national crisis calls for a national response, national leadership and a unity of purpose to safeguard the nation and provide for the security and well-being of our people. A principled approach based on inclusion, consensus-building and placing the interests of the nation and within it, the poor, the marginalized, the vulnerable, first, must be our guiding light.

It might be of interest to those political aspirants to note that those politicians who behaved in an unpatriotic and unprincipled manner during the Soufriere crisis, spreading rumours, causing confusion and sowing division, paid the price for it at the December 1979 polls. Every one of those lost, some even their deposits. It is a bitter lesson to be learnt, early enough to be digested if one were to take heed.

The current crisis, like that of 1979, has exposed many deficiencies in our preparation for such events. But it has also highlighted of the patriotism and commitment of many of our people. Those on the frontline in particular, the medical personnel led by the Chief Medical Officer and Medical Officer of Health, those who have risked their health and life to assist others and secure the nation deserve our highest praise. So too do our security officers, those with the heavy responsibility of guarding the nation’s ports and entry points. We are grateful to all of them and many others on whom we rely to shepherd us through the crisis.

That is why it is useful to draw on the lessons of 1979, so that we can draw on the positives and correct our weaknesses. We may well be in for a long haul and all hands are needed on deck.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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