The first order of business for newly minted Speaker of the House Carlos James was an adjournment of the day’s business to facilitate Opposition Leader Dr. Godwin Friday’s request to discuss the government’s current border control policy as a matter of national urgency.
Dr. Friday prefaced his statements by acknowledging his Party’s implicit agreement with certain elements of the government’s COVID-19 mitigation strategies but stressed the importance of immediately initiating measures to curb any further importation and therefore eventual local transmission of the dreaded COVID-19 disease.
“On March 25th the Honorable Prime Minister addressed the nation and I think there was considerable anticipation among the people that the actions with respect to protecting against or instituting measures that would give greater assurance against the importation and spread of the coronavirus in St. Vincent and the Grenadines would have been taken ,” Dr. Friday said.
The incumbent Member of Parliament for the Northern Grenadines noted, “ it is an obligation and a responsibility for us to raise the matter in a timely manner. Yes, we could have raised this matter when we come to discuss the Supplementary Estimates which the Prime Minister and I agree that the 31st is a date that is available but that’s a long way away.
“And as he acknowledged himself, the changes and the developments with respect to the responses, the scientific information regarding the spread and health effects of the virus is changing as we go along.
“And so I thought that it would be more useful, more timely and more beneficial that I raise this matter to discuss it in this House at this present time.”
Dr. Friday was mindful that his invocation of the Standing Order 14, which enabled the discussion as per Parliamentary guidelines, was unprecedented but warranted.
He also noted that of the sundry issues surrounding the ghastly pandemic whether they be “health issues [or] the economic impact that we have all been seeking to address;
“Sometimes we would differ on how best to address particularly the economic fallout.”
Regarding the health concerns being brought to the fore as a result of the still raging worldwide scourge, Dr. Friday pointed to the studied guidance that is available “at the international level.”
He touted SVG’s current position as being an enviable one that allows local power brokers to “learn from the experiences of other countries and to see what measures are being advocated and taken to have the greatest effectiveness in responding to this unprecedented crisis.”
The Opposition Leader reported on what he described as the uppermost concern in the minds of “people who have the interests of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines at heart.”
Some of these persons reach out to him from high prevalence areas such as France, Switzerland and the U.S. MP Friday said.
He also disclosed, “while there are many other issues with respect to the COVID-19 that can be addressed, we are here specifically focusing on the threat of importation into St. Vincent and the Grenadines. We have one confirmed case in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and we need to keep it that way.
“Our ability to respond to a community spread that would create serious infections throughout the country and illness, our ability to respond to that scenario is very limited. I think everyone in this honorable house shares that concern.”
How then does one address this? Dr. Friday posed rhetorically.
“It is our belief Mr. Speaker, it is my committed belief that securing the ports – all port the airports and the sea ports – is critical to accomplishing this.”
Dr. Friday recounted a phone call from a Mayreau resident which he received last Saturday as a cruise ship was said to be landing passengers on that Grenadine island.
Foremost in Dr Friday’s mind was the audible “concern and fear exhibited in the voice of the caller” who, in the normal course of business would have been appreciative of the tourism trade.
“He was understandably afraid because he didn’t know what sort of testing was done or assurances has been given with respect to these persons and his view was although he is a business person and he would like to see tourists come, generally the presence of that cruise ship would have been a matter for rejoicing it was really a matter for grave concern and fear.
“And I don’t think Mr. Speaker that it helps that community in any way to be interacting at that level with visitors where they are suspicious about their health conditions.”
Dr. Godwin Friday warned about the potentially great disservice that could be wrought upon the country’s impeccable hospitality reputation as a result of these heightened tensions.
“We don’t want to have a negative interaction with the visitors who come here…. I have heard it even among school children who are concerned about visitors who come because they see the stuff on the T.V and they read the stuff on the internet… about the risks and the dangers to themselves or the spread of the disease and they react against those persons.”
Friday’s unequivocal call “for the government to reconsider its position with respect to” its border control policies was further underscored by the fact that “we are not a single continuous country like Barbados or Jamaica.”
This country’s archipelagic nature, he posited, combined with our limited ability to police the large expanse of water that complements our territories as evidenced by the “one capable Coast Guard vessel,” means Vincentian borders are spectacularly vulnerable during this global health threat. Securing the borders, he said, is essential in inspiring public confidence.
The Opposition Leader chastised the government’s supposed review of and promised limit to the local ports of entry which apparently resulted in the Chateaubelair port being closed. It is unclear whether the closure came as a direct result of threats posed by the COVID-19 disease or structural failure.
“What I’ve heard doesn’t satisfy me, obviously, and certainly doesn’t indicate the level of seriousness of the threat to simply say that Chateaubelair is not a port of entry anymore but every place else is, I don’t think is adequate in this time Mr. Speaker.”
Although it allowed for the Opposition Leader to voice his constituents’ concerns, House rules do not permit for it to be voted on.