Editorial | Open up to Vincentians
Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ declaration of solidarity with the people of St Vincent and his offer, if required, to deploy Jamaica’s Disaster Assistance Relief Team (DART), was not more than was expected in the face of the eruptions of the La Soufriére volcano in the eastern Caribbean island. The Vincentian prime minister, Ralph Gonsalves, welcomed the gesture.
Dispatching DART may yet become necessary, should the eruptions become more frequent and violent, and the volcano’s pyroclastic flows and ash clouds lead to mass casualties that overwhelm the civil defence teams already on the island. For now, though, St Vincent’s emergency management apparatus, with the support of is Eastern Caribbean neighbours and the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, the regional body, seems capable of handling the job.
There is, however, an offer that Prime Minister Holness did not make, which this newspaper thinks he should: Jamaica’s willingness to house displaced Vincentians.
Dr Gonsalves’ government has ordered the evacuation of around 17,000 people from the most perilous region around the volcano in the island’s north. That is over 15 per cent of the country’s population. To put those figures into some perspective, it is the equivalent of Jamaica, in the face of a disaster, having to relocate over 420,000 people from a region of the island. That would account for, say, the populations of St James, Hanover and Westmoreland combined. Then add another 6,000 or so people for the border areas of Trelawny, closest to St James, to make up the numbers. Countries, big or small, do not easily manage internal population displacement of this magnitude – more than one in 10 persons.
Indeed, around 3,000 of St Vincent’s evacuees, a bit over seventeen and a half per cent of the people ordered out of the danger zones, are in government shelters. Many others are in private homes. Some have gone, or are on standby to go, to other islands, such as Antigua, St Lucia, Dominica, Grenada and St Lucia, which, like St Vincent, are members of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States, whose partners are also members of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). All of these countries are of geographic sizes and populations similar to St Vincent. In other words, taking even only a few hundred people is, for each of them, a big deal.
Indeed, Prime Minister Gonsalves was moved to tears when acknowledging the generosity of “ordinary people” in these territories in opening their homes to Vincentians. “I love this Caribbean,” he said.
Jamaicans are no less generous than their brothers and sisters in the Eastern Caribbean. Many, we are sure, would, if called upon, willingly open their homes to temporarily displaced Vincentians. All, we know, would want their Government to offer to house, for a period, a few hundred of these citizens of CARICOM, of which Jamaica is a member.
Jamaica can readily find the facilities to serve as homes for such persons. We also have the capacity, the COVID-19 pandemic notwithstanding, to do so safely. In the event, it is what we would expect to come naturally from our kith and kin in the Eastern Caribbean should a major catastrophe make the bulk of our country uninhabitable and displaced large swathes of the population.
St Vincent’s tragedy is also cause for Jamaica’s policymakers to redouble their focus on how to finance building resiliency into home and infrastructure construction, in line with the recommendations of the Persaud Commission report on how to kick-start growth in regional economies. The commission proposed floating resiliency bonds to provide relatively low-cost funds for such projects.
While Professor Avinash Persaud’s group spoke primarily of “waterproofing” regional economies against more frequent and violent storms because of climate change, their ideas are applicable to other catastrophes for which we must prepare, earthquakes among them.
The island had faced some significant shocks in recent decades, but, happily, none sufficiently shallow or on land to cause the destruction of the one of 1907, when Kingston was devastated. Jamaica, however, lies on an earthquake fault line. It is almost inevitable that we, at some time, will face another big one. The quake of January 2020, whose epicentre was in the sea 78 miles northeast of Lucea, Hanover, registered 7.7 on the Richter scale, and should be a reminder of what is possible. Not only did it give Jamaica a good shake, but it was felt in the Cayman Islands and parts of Cuba.