From the start, in an article titled “Brutal chapter”, I wrote on the Government’s cruel neglect of nationals stranded abroad by the pandemic. Recently, the Prime Minister admitted that “after eight months we really need to close this chapter”.
What took him so long? Can they now heal the trauma that hundreds of citizens would have endured? Can they remove the stain on Trinidad and Tobago? Sandee Bengochea, who herself was stranded, wrote of “Trini families living in airports, Trini babies drinking sugar water to survive, diabetics and cancer patients without medicine. Trinis grieving for their loved ones and Trinis begging for a lodging. Job loss and homes lost”. The Government should be ashamed.
It is a chronicle of cruelty. A single mother spent months renting a small wooden structure in Jamaica to provide shelter for her children, a one-year-old and a four-year-old. She said, “Sometimes we don’t have food and I ask neighbours for fruits on their trees to feed the children.” Has she been brought back home?
And there is another still stuck in St Lucia with her baby, “forced to pay $1,000 every month for an extension on my passport”. And who will deliver the young man stranded for the past seven months in Guyana, traumatised, his father eventually dying from Covid-19 at home and all requests refused to see his dad “for the last time”. One of six persons stranded in Georgetown, he pleads “please, we are here and we are desperate”.
And are those 11 desperate and despairing nationals who were stranded in a small hotel in India, elderly and ailing individuals, suffering from high blood pressure and diabetes without access to medication, brought back home? And what of the national in the US who wrote, “I am out of my medications for diabetes, insomnia, cholesterol and asthma. I fear I can get an asthma attack at any time”; or another in Britain, her savings exhausted, who said last week “this nightmare seems never-ending”.
The Express reported on the tragic end of 85-year-old Tunapuna resident Kedar Gajadharsingh. Yearning for months to return home, he died grieving, stranded in England. A pained daughter said, “I don’t know of any other country that denies citizens the right to return. We can never forgive the Government policy that denied my father. He was a proud Trinidadian, in excellent health, locked out of his country.”
The Government’s brutality has become well known. In the British House of Commons, Member of Parliament Steve Baker called on the T&T Government to bring home its nationals stranded in the UK, stressing, “it is common humanity to enable people to return home”.
This absence of humanity is no accident. It stems from either innate insensitivity or plain ignorance about the responsibility of a state to its citizens. The brutality was on display at the very start of the crisis when 33 retirees were subjected to unforgettable harrowing and inhumane treatment by their government. They had left for a cruise on the Indian Ocean when the pandemic struck. The group made a desperate bid for home, flying to Dubai, then London, and then Barbados, missing the return deadline by a mere four hours. But our Government entertained no entreaties for their return, even though their plane was heading to Trinidad and Tobago to collect British nationals. We opened our border for British nationals but not for our own. Shame!
The Barbados government tried its best. The words of its Attorney General Dale Marshall told a tale of compassion of one government and sheer brutality by the other. Marshall said: “We reached out to the Government of Trinidad and Tobago to urge them to take their citizens. But they declined. We had to make a humanitarian decision—one that was principled and correct,” noting his country had no legal obligation to accept individuals other than its own citizens. “Therefore, we could have denied them landing rights into Barbados, but they would have had to return to England” where thousands were dying from Covid. “We felt we were in a position to adequately receive these individuals so long as they were put immediately into mandatory quarantine.” Such humanity!
I wrote then, “Thank you, Barbados! Prime Minister Mia Mottley and her cabinet should hold their heads high at all regional and global fora. They have made their citizens proud. Rowley and his bunch should wear sackcloth and ashes for cruelty against their people. They have diminished this nation in the eyes of the world.
From the start I said the Government had an inescapable obligation to bring home its nationals stranded abroad by the lockdown. Britain’s High Commissioner to this country agrees. “It’s what we would expect anywhere in the world.”
But many of our citizens remain stranded and suffering. A letter last Friday in Newsday spoke of nationals in Atlanta “sleeping in pavilions and other outdoor spaces because so many months later, they have run out of money to stay anywhere”.
And winter is coming! The Government continues to fail in its solemn duty to its stranded citizens. The stain remains.