The way forward cannot be business as usual
While some people outside the Red Zone have returned to their homes, the volcano remains suspiciously quiet, but in any event the nation’s thoughts and energies must be focused on rebuilding and resettlement in the areas affected by the volcano.
Infrastructural work on roads and bridges and water lines has to be given priority. Damage to homes and farmlands have to be attended to, once persons have access to those areas- all as part of the resettlement efforts. How prepared are we for this? Have we been having dialogue with the people who will be affected? Given the fact that areas in the Red Zone are areas that have the highest poverty levels, we have to do more than go back to square one. It is said that once lemons are thrown at you, you need to make lemon juice.
Vincentians in the diaspora and the regional and international community have responded expeditiously to meet the needs of the 18,000 persons who had to be evacuated. Hopefully, some of what was received could be diverted to address immediate resettlement needs. But it cannot be business as usual. Some of the infrastructural work has to be informed by an analysis of volcanic damage in terms of design and placement. With the amount of damage done to house roofs and to houses, building codes for those areas have to be reviewed and if necessary, readjusted. Rebuilding in areas subjected to water flows and flooding has to be avoided and new guidelines given and strictly enforced.
But what will be new? Monetary support is short term. How do we assist people in meeting their long term needs? Poor relief is not an option, although in this country we are somewhat unique in boasting about the number of people we have been able to put on Poor Relief. What can we, for instance, do to transform agriculture and fishing and to develop the skills needed? The James Mitchell administration had talked about developing historical and eco-tourism sites, giving people in those areas control over whatever can be derived from a new thrust in tourism that sells that service as more than sea and sand. This means that people have to be involved and groups formed like the Owia Heritage Organisation that in 2017 restored the gunpower magazine that was originally built in 1773. There are other historical sites scattered throughout the country. This can be part of a new tourism thrust that facilitates visits to those areas. While tourists visit, local delicacies can be prepared and their preparation demonstrated. Cultural activities can also be put on display. Let us develop those areas and not encourage people to flock to Kingstown seeking opportunities that do not exist.
The pandemic and volcanic crisis demands a complete rethinking. I listened to a discussion about the placement of the Diagnostic Centre in Georgetown, an area that had to be evacuated. One person defending its placement saw it as an effort to decentralise. But our discussion has to be broader than this. The facility was meant to address needs nationwide and not for a specific area. Take the example of someone from Chateaubelair needing kidney dialysis, say, for 2 days a week. It means leaving Chateaubelair at latest 7 am, getting to Kingstown by 8:30, then taking transportation to Georgetown by 9 am. The individual spends a couple hours at the clinic and then, while still feeling the effects of the dialysis, having to reverse her travel schedule. Then there is a cost to be added. Did it not make more sense having it in a more central location? It is however a done deal and cannot be evacuated.
We have to use this period when we are caught combatting the pandemic and the volcanic eruption to do some serious rethinking. Let us hope that readily available volcanic relief supplies do not encourage the continued expectation of handouts. Any paid work done in the communities involved must give priority to any skills that exist in those areas.
Desperately needed are community organisations independent of political parties that can work in their communities and try to bring people together without awaiting directives from the political elite. Let us use our recent experience to find a new way forward, one that realises that crises provide opportunities that must be seized without delay.
Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian