The moving New Year’s address of Pope Francis is in stark contrast to the language that has been coming from leadership in this country.
Little emerges that is poetic or inspirational in this place. Indeed it has been a surfeit of crudity for the last five years with talk of “jammetry”, “ignoring she kyat”, “sh..t-kicking”, “buying underwear for my wife”, “no man ain’t digging up on my bottom”, the “smell of vomit”, “shut up”, a woman is “a golf course” to be “groomed” lest she turn into a “pasture”, and various other crassness accompanied by abusive, authoritarian castigation of critics, one described as deserving of a “swift kick in the pants”. The abrasiveness has wounded the national soul.
And, as with human nature, where language is coarse, action is sure to be cruel. Take the plight of thousands of nationals stranded abroad by the pandemic, all “pining to come home”. I have already termed the Government’s handling of this situation a “brutal chapter”. And over two months ago, the Prime Minister admitted, “After eight months we really need to close this chapter.” But after almost an entire year, the chronicle of cruelty continues while politicians and privileged persons, their sons, daughters and dogs, move in and out of the country with no trouble. Noting the Prime Minister’s daughter was visiting from New York, a mother, stranded for a year in North Carolina, said she too was longing to see her eight- and 12-year-old children.
Ordinary citizens have suffered tremendously. In Atlanta, facing winter, they were “sleeping in pavilions and other outdoor spaces because they had run out of money to stay anywhere”. A single mother spent months in a small wooden structure in Jamaica, begging neighbours for fruits on their trees to feed her one- and four-year old children. Eighty-five-year-old Kedar Gajadharsingh yearned for months to return home and died grieving in England. An ailing 73-year-old from Tobago, Cuthbert Pantin, in the US for surgery to avoid going blind, sent 22 e-mails to National Security Minister Stuart Young and his ministry, pleading to return home, but received no reply. Such brutal unresponsiveness!
President Paula-Mae Weekes says citizens are “fobbed off” by politicians with “hackneyed excuses and promises of action, heard ad nauseam... with nothing to show for it”. Thank you, Madam President, for adding your potent voice. Last Friday, Shara Graham, who has been helping nationals stranded in Barbados, said, “The pain, the frustration, the anxiety, the anger, the tears, the hardships, the post-traumatic stress disorder, the loss of income, the loss of life continue to be a daily nightmare for so many. And, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. This border closure situation continues to baffle so many of us.”
The administration’s brutality has brought international humiliation. In the British House of Commons, a Member of Parliament called on our Government to exercise “common humanity” and bring home nationals, his High Commissioner in Port of Spain adding, “It’s what we would expect anywhere in the world.” Demonstrating compassion, the Canadian government granted approval for 400 of our stranded farm workers to access healthcare and employment insurance while waiting to come home after almost one year, their officials working to provide bedding, clothing and accommodation during winter. The situation attracted Canadian media attention, one newspaper quoting farm owner Brett Schuyler describing it as “gut-wrenching”. On the other hand, as the media also reported, Jamaica transported its farm workers back home. It took acute embarrassment for our government to consider allowing the citizens to return.
Months ago, little Barbados demonstrated largeness and magnanimity, rescuing 33 of our retirees who had missed the return deadline by a mere four hours, reaching Barbados after travelling all the way from Dubai. The words of Barbados’ Attorney General, Dale Marshall, says it all: “We reached out to the Government of Trinidad and Tobago to take their citizens. But they declined. We made a humanitarian decision. We could have denied them landing rights into Barbados, but they would have had to return to England” where thousands were dying from Covid. I wrote then, “Thank you Barbados for saving our citizens! PM Mia Mottley and her cabinet should hold their heads high in Caricom. Rowley and his bunch should wear sackcloth and ashes. They have diminished this nation in the eyes of the world.”
It all raises profound questions about the character of this Government and the level of civilisation we have attained as a nation and society. What in heaven’s name is the purpose of a state if not the security of its citizens? The state is the shepherd that goes looking for one lost sheep while the rest of the flock is safe within. We have thousands of stranded, suffering human beings outside. It is the inescapable responsibility of the Government to bring all back home. And shouldn’t we, at least once in a while, experience gentle, stirring sentiments like those of Pope Francis instead of unending vituperation from the top? But alas, as VS Naipaul warned, we are becoming the third world’s third world, coarse and cruel.