The views expressed herein are solely those of the writer.
Opinion: We know that the silly season is here (election campaign season) and silly, unreasonable, and outrageous statements are expected.
But, was Sir. Louis Straker’s remarks that “Vincentians are not suffering that much” due to the COVID-19 pandemic a silly, unreasonable or outrageous one?
Let us look at exactly what was said by Sir. Louis in Parliament:
“Our people are not suffering that much because of Corona. True, we have some unemployment but this government has several programs in place that we would be able to help . Those who are poor, those who are needy, we are helping them. We are spending millions of dollars. So, let us not get by with the idea that we don’t know what we would feed our children with next year and things are tough now and this is our priority, just feed the children. We can do two things at one time”.– Sir Louis Straker in Parliament on Monday, June 22, 2020, on the debate on the Modern Parliament and Modern Court House funding bill.
CONTEXT: His statement was made while he was arguing that the government should act now to build the new Parliament building, as the current one, according to him is termite ridden. He added to his argument at the time, that the below two (2) percent interest loan from Taiwan, on which repayment does not have to start until the next three years, should be taken now since such loans are hard to get due to the country’s improved ranking to a middle income country.
After Sir Louis made his statement, it was ripped of its context by some persons who posted only part of the statement on social media.
This is nothing new and both sides of the political fence conveniently do this.
But was this one a cheap move, or was it justified?
Let’s pretend, as the culprits of this cutting of clips did, that Sir Louis only made the part of the statement which was published and examine only that part of it – “Our people are not suffering that much because of Corona”.
Even using this statement, it is clear that the person(s) behind it did not pay attention to the precision of the language used.
Basic English language will indicate that there is a marked difference between saying:
1. “Our people are not suffering that much because of Corona”
2. “Our people are not suffering because of Corona”
3. “Our people are not suffering”
The first statement can easily be interpreted to mean our people are indeed suffering and that suffering is because of the Coronavirus pandemic but the suffering is not that bad. The first statement ABSOLUTELY DOES NOT SAY that our people are not suffering because of coronavirus, or THAT THEY ARE NOT SUFFERING AT ALL.
If Sir Louis had made the second statement –“Our people are not suffering because of Corona”, it would be a whole different ball game. The second statement can reasonably take on the popular interpretation that Vincentians could be suffering but are suffering from factors other than the coronavirus pandemic. Still, it would be unreasonable to conclude, based on the second statement that speaker meant that Vincentians are not suffering at all.
The statement, if made, would have begged the question, “what then are Vincentians suffering from?”. A statement like that would definitely have reasonably opened the door to a number of assumptions as to what other factor(s) is/are causing suffering.
Based on how the first statement was cut and delivered and some of the reactions to it, one has to wonder if people still pay attention to use of language because it seems as if Sir Louis made the second statement above, or even the third one. In reality, however, he did not.
So, based on language used, the approach to Sir. Louis’ statement was a huge stretch and that is probably why it did not gain the traction those who engineered it would have anticipated. They and their surrogates had to SPONSOR POSTS with memes and videos to gain traction.
If Sir Louis’ statement really had any “virality”, they would not have had to beg for attention with it. It would go viral on its own without effort. But, manufacturing “virality” is always going to be an uphill climb.
Since Sir Louis’ statements addressed socio-economic issues, we must look at whether the facts are on his side in that regard.
The truths is, the facts, unadulterated, strengthen Sir Louis’ case. This is so EVEN IF WE USE THE ABRIDGED VERSION OF HIS STATEMENT touted about on social media.
1. The Government’s response to COVID-19 “suffering”: Millions in economic stimulus reached thousands of people in all sectors but especially sectors such as Tourism and hospitality that were hit the hardest. These include 2,596 so far (as of June 12), from both the NIS Unemployment Benefit and the Displacement Supplementary Income. Added to this, taxi men, water taxis, cart men, mini-bus operators, students overseas, persons in the Culture and Creative Arts, persons who wanted funding to start new business and entrepreneurial activities or boost existing ones through PRYME, persons who wanted support with building materials, and others received assistance of one kind or another from the government. Such persons, in their despair, brought on by the pandemic, were not left to “suffer”.
Additionally, farmers received support where the government even purchased produce from them to create the so called “Love Boxes” to ensure the farmers had income and the vulnerable had food. They were not left to “suffer”.
In addition to this, public sector workers are still employed and have been receiving their salaries every end of the month amidst the economic fallout from the pandemic.
Businesses across the country still operate (though hundreds have closed – mainly in tourism) and many people are still employed with the private sector. Remittances still come in from abroad and several private sector construction projects are still ongoing, providing jobs.
Now, amidst these socio-economic interventions by the government and private sector contributions to the economy, we are still in a pandemic and some people will continue to lose income, others, their livelihoods and some of these people are those who were at a disadvantage before the pandemic, economically.
Even people who have received help from the government will still be facing challenges.
What about those who are receiving help but the help might still not be sufficient?
These are not normal times. We are going through a pandemic that has forced us to make individual and national adjustments, some painful. The good thing about it is that people have been and are being helped! They are not being left to suffer!
What about those who have not received help yet or at all and perhaps genuinely need it?
Some may slip through the cracks and it is the responsibility of the system to find them and rescue them and ease any suffering they might be experiencing at this time. The infrastructural projects are needed to provide some form of opportunity for those who have been unemployed to help ease some of their “suffering”.
Again, nothing is wrong with Sir. Louis’ statements. He was correct, even if we used the abridged version of his statement on social media.
2. Comparison with other regional countries: Looking at the situation regionally, Sir. Louis is on point again, even if we use the maliciously cut statement as is. The fact of the matter is, though this pandemic has hit us hard, Vincentians, on a whole, are not suffering that much because of it, especially when you compare what is happening in other regional countries.
In fact, Finance Minister, Camillo Gonsalves said more or less the same thing that Sir. Louis said but he was not attacked. In his presentation in Parliament, he gave a contrast between how SVG is doing, judged against some of its neighbors and said we are weathering the storm.
He said that while “we are experiencing the early swells and choppiness” of the pandemic, economically, we must be thankful to God because “we are weathering the storm”.
He said other regional economies have been facing more pronounced challenges during this period.
“While our revenue has decreased almost 20 percent in May, the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank (ECCB), has reported that other OECS countries have already experienced a 50 percent decrease” – he said.
“Wile our unemployment rate will likely exceed 30 percent in the short-term, the ECCB is predicting 50 percent unemployment rates in some of our sister nations”, Gonsalves added.
“As indicated earlier over 3,000 claims seeking unemployment assistance have been filed at our NIS. In St. Lucia, the corresponding number is 22,000, with 43,000 seeking similar assistance in Barbados. In Antigua and Barbuda, Prime Minister Gaston Browne has estimated that hotel closures and lock downs have cost over 20,000 residents their jobs in that country”, Gonsalves said.
The finance minister said “In this context, we try to put our hardships into perspective and give thanks to Almighty God and count our blessings one by one”.
He said that St. Vincent is fortunate and has to be thankful.
“In the case of this pandemic, we are fortunate to not be as dependent on tourism as some other CARICOM countries. We are fortunate that we had the luxury of time to craft an appropriate response to the pandemic. We are fortunate that friends, allies and development partners responded to our calls for corporation. We are fortunate that production continued in our agriculture, manufacturing and construction sectors; and we are fortunate that the honorable prime minister chartered a courageous and prudent course between complacency and hysteria based on science, the experiences of other states and the particular circumstances of St. Vincent and the Grenadines” – Gonsalves further stated.
The global economic outlook is negative as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on economies”.
So, what was the big issue with Sir Louis’ statement?
To conclude, the move to cut the clip with Sir Louis’ statement, omitting the other important part of it and blowing it out of proportion was cheap, unwarranted and shows a lack of depth by whomever did it.
Vincentians must pay close attention during this election period to the political communication from both major political parties and dig deep for the truth.