With less than a month into the period of the violent eruption of the volcano, it would appear that the process of settling in those persons evacuated and getting the administrative procedures operating smoothly is advancing with minor problems. But this might only be appearances if we are to believe the charges that are being made in political quarters.
We shall come to this, but I think it important that we put matters in their proper perspective. First we must begin to get a full appreciation of the magnitude of the tasks undertaken. Let us never forget that with all the volcano monitoring, the warnings and public education, the evacuation and resettling, and the massive relief efforts, that we are forced to handle a major national disaster in the midst of a health pandemic.
To make matters worse, we cannot ignore the social and political context of the current crisis. It is less than six months since we have held our third successive highly contentious general elections. The political wounds are still open.
Then, it cannot be ignored that the bulk of the volcanic “Red Zone”, consists of two hotly-contested constituencies, North Leeward and North Windward, from which most of the displaced persons have originated. Add to this now the social context, with itching fingers triggering the social media and irresponsible populism dominating talk radio. It is not an easy situation to manage.
For all these reasons we ought to appreciate the magnitude of the tasks facing this tiny nation and those who are leading the volcano relief and rehabilitation effort. Our thanks and praise should go out to Professor Robertson and his team, to NEMO, often what we would call our “washpot”, underappreciated and castigated for every perceived complaint, to managers of the evacuation centres and health and security personnel, to workers and management of our essential public utilities, and to Prime Minister Gonsalves, who for all that is thrown at him, has once again demonstrated his capacity to handle a major national crisis. Let us never omit the tremendous outpouring of regional and international solidarity and the generosity and commitment of local volunteers.
Already those with longer-term vision are casting eyes towards the difficult reconstruction to follow. This is vital and certainly will be the most challenging part of the entire exercise, but before we get there, let us not ignore some political rumblings as in the case of the volcano giving off early warnings. As in 1979, rumours have been circulating of persons in responsible position abusing their positions in regard to relief supplies. In a country like ours, these quickly swell into a flood. If not confronted persons without proof seize on rumours and pontificate on them.
For these reasons the recent allegations by the Leader of the Opposition may or may not have factual basis, but given our historical experience cannot be ignored. It would perhaps have been more appropriate if the allegations and whatever “proof” there might be were channelled through the P.M. and NEMO for investigation, (I don’t know whether this was done), but it is important not to lose perspective and begin to impute the worst possible motives to every problem.
Our crisis is too serious to allow political divisions to undermine national efforts. The allegations amount to charges of political discrimination in the distribution of supplies. This makes no sense, but it will easily gain traction in a politically-divided society. We need our leaders to be on the same page where the national effort is concerned and must guard against those who will continue to stoke political divisions in the midst of a crisis. How we handle these matters will be crucial to our forward progress and I keep reminding people that seeking cheap political advantage now will not count by the time that our elections next come around.
We cannot afford to become a society so politically-divided that we lose sight of common national goals for partisan purposes. Just look and see what that has done to a highly-developed country, economically-speaking like the USA, but which is demonstrating infantile political and social understanding. We must not allow this to happen to us, to let such politics dominate our thinking. It led to Donald Trump becoming President of the mighty USA. Just reflect on that!
Address our shortcoming, have meaningful consultation and healthy debate on policies, but let us not let the tail wag the dog.
Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.