Express Editorial : Daily

True to form, AG Faris Al-Rawi has belatedly put in a defence on his mask-less, pal-hugging, arm-wrestling appearance on an online game show that is as blurred in its argument as he claims the lines on mask-wearing can get.

Initially juggling contradictory positions without so much as a mea culpa, he argued that his appearance was “taken out of context” and in any case, “it was no different from sitting down in a restaurant and having a conversation”.

Since this senior Cabinet member cannot see what’s wrong with this picture, we will spell it, not only for him but for Superintendent Roger Alexander, one responsible for making laws and the other for enforcing them.

First, some elementary points about personal responsibility. Mr Al-Rawi and Supt Alexander and everyone on that show frankly are a danger to everyone if they think that, especially in the midst of a new surge of Covid-19 infection, it was enough to take temperature and sanitise hands before getting so up-close-and-personal to others without wearing a mask and therefore breathe on each other.

Contrary to what the AG claims, his game show performance was not “like sitting down in a restaurant”. The reason restaurants are restricted by law to providing only 50 per cent dine-in service, thereby taking a financial hit for the public’s health, is to maintain the very social distancing so openly flouted on the game show.

He has learned nothing about Covid-19 in a whole year if he does not realise that he could very well have walked into that room and infected everyone, or have left the session having picked up the virus there and taken it home or anywhere else with him.

With this single act of carelessness and irresponsibility, Mr Al-Rawi and Supt Alexander made a pappyshow of the national effort to promote mask-wearing and social-distancing. If it is now okay to be unmasked while arm-wrestling and hugging people who are not part of one’s safety bubble, then we might as well all return to pre-pandemic norms with Dr Rowley himself foregoing masks and social distancing at news conferences and other events.

The apology eventually issued by AG Al-Rawi yesterday afternoon was so dodgy and full of qualifiers that he might as well not have bothered. Predictably, he argued that he had broken no law, when in fact the case against him is his breach of the very protocols that health authorities and the Government have been drumming into the public’s head from day one. If the AG cannot simply admit to an awful lapse in judgment then it is hard to see who can be held to better judgment.

It is shocking that, of all people, the Attorney General cannot clearly see how his actions can undermine the national effort. In other countries, senior members of cabinet have been fired or resigned for much less because they are presumed to be held to a higher standard. We in Trinidad and Tobago have never had qualms about actions that impinge on one’s moral authority to lead. It would therefore be surprising if, in this case, not getting a free pass amounted to anything more than a prime ministerial bouff and a few days in cold storage.

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The problem for St Vincent and the Grenadines and other Caribbean small states is that they’re not poor enough.

By standard World Bank macroeconomic measures such as Gross National Income (GNI) per capita, they’re not as badly off as sub-Saharan African countries.

The problem for St Vincent and the Grenadines and other Caribbean small states is that they’re not poor enough.

By standard World Bank macroeconomic measures such as Gross National Income (GNI) per capita, they’re not as badly off as sub-Saharan African countries. It means that when the bank and other multinational agencies decide on the allocation of aid and development dollars, they’re given less access and fewer concessions.

Correctly so, you could argue. The poverty and deprivation I saw in rural Sierra Leone in West Africa were far worse than I’d seen elsewhere, including Haiti. Added to that, the country hadn’t recovered from a brutish civil war abetted by notorious Liberian warlord Charles Taylor—the kind that saw unspeakable atrocities, such as soldiers carving foetuses out of the bellies of pregnant women.

SVG, Haiti and Guyana are underdeveloped countries, but not as much as Sierra Leone. However, regardless of the facts on the ground or the numbers in the computer, the bank recognised that GNI per capita was an incomplete measure of a country’s development.

All countries are rich or poor to degrees that are macroeconomically measurable. But when climate change can wipe out some of them, GNI measures can’t capture that. Additionally, in the case of Caribbean countries, they’re set back decades by hurricanes, as Grenada was by Ivan in 2004 and Dominica by Maria in 2017.

A Caribbean or Pacific small island state can go from middling prosperity to poverty in the course of one natural disaster.

In a report titled “Small States: Vulnerability and Concessional Finance”, the World Bank acknowledged calls by countries in its Small States Forum (SSF) “to include vulnerability as a criterion for accessing concessional resources”.

It said that work needed to be done in defining a Vulnerability Index. That report was in 2018. And yet as I recall, the index was an issue at SIDS 1994—the United Nations Global Conference on Sustainable Development held in Barbados 24 years earlier.

“SIDS” means Small Island Developing States. That is a misnomer, since big states were represented. The sight of Fidel Castro walking into the room and instantly causing a rock star stampede won’t be forgotten.

The World Bank’s Vulnerability Index incorporates “small states” of the SSF, including Namibia and Botswana. Namibia is two-thousand times bigger than St Vincent, four times Guyana, and mineral rich. Their resilience to shocks is much stronger than SVG’s. Why are they even in the small states conversation? This definitional elasticity doesn’t seem helpful to the cause of SIDS.

From SIDS 1994, the UN crafted the Barbados Programme of Action. Top of the list were climate change, and natural and environmental disasters. It’s remarkable that the World Bank was still talking about defining a Vulnerability Index more than two decades later.

Climate change continues to be the main consideration, but the volcanic eruptions on St Vincent should reopen the conversation.

Most Caribbean volcanoes do not seem to be a present danger in the way that La Soufriere in St Vincent is. Mount Liamuiga in St Kitts, for example, is a great hike. When you reach the top, you can descend into the crater.

Nonetheless, The UWI Seismic’s website says that “there are 19 ‘live’ (likely to erupt again) volcanoes in the Eastern Caribbean. Every island from Grenada to Saba is subject to the direct threat of volcanic eruptions”.

In St Vincent, overseas relief kicked in to ease water and other shortages. But short-term emergency measures are not enough.

Here’s the bind in which small Caribbean states find themselves. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) told them that no, they have to compete at market price to sell their bananas and sugar. No more preferential pricing that recognises their disadvantages on economies of scale.

WTO regulatory insensitivity effectively killed these industries. In many Caribbean SIDS, all their eggs are in one basket. If that isn’t acute vulnerability, I don’t know what is.

For Caribbean SIDS, we should have been at a place where development aid allocation matches a universally-agreed index; and we have strategic, joined-up planning/execution from the UN, the World Bank, the IMF and others.

Small states partially compensate by playing geopolitical games of influence. Getting money from China or Taiwan. Throwing in their lot with Japan on whaling, to the consternation of their own conservationists.

It’s not enough.

Last week I wrote about how Montserrat has done since the 1997 eruption. They are a British Overseas Territory, but the British-funded rebuild has been sluggish. In my two visits in 2007 and 2014, little changed. I was told in 2007 that a new airport would be built soon. To date, it hasn’t.

However Montserrat’s former premier Reuben Meade told me last week that “the Brits covered all of our expenses for the volcanic situation during and post eruption”.

“They continue to fund some 60 per cent of recurrent expenditure each year”.

Meade said the task of Ralph Gonsalves, the Prime Minister of SVG, will be hard.

“SVG will need to find a donor to fund the continuing evacuation expenses which will be very high. Their economy will be in freefall for quite some time. It’s going to be tough for them”.

For SVG, mother country largesse is not an option. They’re nearly broke. Even if La Soufriere stops erupting and the pandemic is eradicated tomorrow, they’ll need smarter, long-term development engagement by donor agencies. A true measure of their vulnerability would be a good start.