As soon as information began circulating about two confirmed cases of Covid-19 involving persons with no history of recent travel, public worry immediately turned to the southern coastline and the risk posed to the nation’s health by illegal migrants.
While there is as yet no epidemiological evidence connecting Patients #139 and #141 to such immigrants, the anxiety reflected public concern about the vulnerability of the southern coastline.
Underlying the public’s fear is the view that while the authorities are maintaining tight management of people and goods entering the country through the airports at Piarco and Scarborough and at the Port of Spain docks, surveillance and protection remain lax all along the southern coastline. Of the 140 identified points of illegal entry points to Trinidad, many are said to be concentrated along the southern coast.
While ineffective patrol of the southern coastline is a serious and long-standing problem which has served to undermine national security, promote gang networks and fuel crime with a destabilising impact on the society, it now exposes the entire country to the risk of Covid-19 infection.
Logic suggests that given the speed and ferocity with which coronavirus has been spreading through Latin America, the chances of the virus slipping through our weak defences are real. To date, just over 128,000 persons have died from Covid-19 in South America, right across from our southern coast. Leading these tragic figures is Brazil with 2.3 million cases and almost 85,000 deaths. In the case of Venezuela, a lot of questions have been raised about the integrity of its data. Even so, however, the official figures put the number of cases in that country at just over 13,000 cases. While managed migration is within this country’s capacity and capability, unmanaged migration is not. The entry of undocumented persons into our islands places the entire population at risk and undermines the investment made in protecting people and the economy from the virus and its fall-out.
We are therefore urging the authorities to ramp up the national defence against the well-known points of illegal entry and, in doing so, to draft communities into the process. We recognise that this is no easy task given the Coast Guard’s lack of resources. However, the urgency of the situation cannot wait for offshore patrol vessels with receding delivery dates or for more effective radar surveillance. We have to be imaginative and find inventive and immediate means for protecting our borders.
However, we expect nothing from the authorities until they are willing to admit to the scope of the problem and the extent to which they have been failing at it. If, however, they insist on denial then we will have to accept that we are sitting ducks in the face of open danger.
It was a colossal error by the Persad-Bissessar administration to cancel the purchase of OPVs for beefing up the protection of our borders. The fact that two years after the Rowley cabinet approved the purchase of two new patrol boats, the Coast Guard is yet to take possession of any, is another blot on the national record of border security for which the whole population stands to pay the price.