Thu | Jul 2, 2020

Daniel Thwaites | Jamaican citizens not ‘lesser than’

Published:Monday | May 25, 2020 | 12:05 AM

I AM trying to grasp what has happened to Jamaica though this crisis presents some real challenges. The economy is in tatters, not least because the dilapidated healthcare system necessitated a severe wind-down. While we have to hold the Government responsible for many of the background conditions that made this a no-win situation, the actual management of the crisis proceeded reasonably well. Now it’s time to reopen, intelligently.

One glaring exception to the decent management is the comedy of errors regarding repatriating citizens, many of whom have truly suffered on their journey home. I do not know how people could escape serious mental deterioration while tolerating long delays, inadequate information, confinement to windowless rooms, and being shunted around on the high seas without knowing if they could go to their homes.

In the midst of all that, while pressure was building on the administration, we even had a veritable Marie-Antoinette-ish moment when Foreign Affairs Minister Kamina Johnson Smith remarked that it was not “a luxury flight” to hungry passengers ejected from their own territorial waters only to be flown back from Henglan’ (the plight of the Marella Discovery 2 workers). Translating from French to Jamaican, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” means “Let them eat bully-beef and yam”, which, to be fair, sounds pretty wonderful to me. But then again, my eating preferences are comfortably low class.

Anyway, it’s about as fair to blame the Jamaican health authorities for the now famous miscarriage aboard the Royal Caribbean Adventure of the Seas as it was to stand on a political platform and hear dead babies crying that their parents should vote for the JLP. Which is to say, it isn’t fair at all.

But whoever said fairness was a concern when ambitious men are jostling for advantage?

Just last year March, the Jamaica Information Service (JIS) was trumpeting that “Royal Caribbean wants more Jamaican workers”. Back then, Minister Shahine Robinson was quoted as saying:

“It is no secret that the cruise lines have been very impressed with the kind of work ethic that Jamaicans have demonstrated year in and year out and have never been shy about opening their doors to many of our workers.”

RIGHT TO RETURN HOME

But a government that would take credit for its citizens hunting work on the high seas needs to be equally energetic about bringing them home. This nation that propels its citizens out into the wider world, and relies on their remittances and overall cooperation, must give serious weight to the right to return home.

After what is now months of time to prepare, I don’t agree that it is at all a clear-cut case, as The Gleaner’s editorial on Friday, May 22 implies, that the circumstances of COVID-19 “clearly meet the constitutional threshold for infringing on freedom of movement”.

The limitation to the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of movement, and more specifically, the right of citizens to “goh ah dem yard”, is itself limited to being “reasonably justifiable for the purpose of dealing with the situation that exists during a period of public emergency or public disaster”.

Is it “reasonably justifiable” to have citizens at sea for months after the Government has been on notice for all that time that the people want to come home? It certainly doesn’t seem that way to me.

What about when the citizens are actually in territorial waters then sent away?

Here’s my take on it. When this Wuhan flu was descending on the world, I had a son over in South Africa. I had sent him there with strict instructions to visit Robben Island and pay homage to Mr Mandela and whatnot. Instead, all the evidence I’ve seen shows that he spent his time touring Cape Town and gallivanting with some pretty girls – proof, once again, that there is no hope for mankind.

Wait, I’m getting sidetracked.

My point is that when it became clear that this COVID-19 thing was no joke and it would lock down international travel for at least a few months, I scurried around to get him a flight without ever worrying that he would be blocked from returning to the United States.

Why should it be any different if I had wanted to transport him to Jamaica where he is also a citizen? Why are we, and our rights as citizens of Jamaica, condemned to being “lesser than”? Dat nuh right.

CLARKE AND HICKLING

Speaking of giving weight and meaning to Jamaican citizenry, this last period has been a trying time, not least because we are watching men fall who are due our deep respect. I’m thinking of Oliver Clarke and Freddie Hickling, two optimistic, witty, unique and unforgettable Jamaican citizen originals. So many encomiums have been said about each that I won’t try to add anything but to say they are all deserved.

I am reminded of some lines from a popular poem by Maya Angelou:

When great souls die,

the air around us becomes

light, rare, sterile …

Our memory, suddenly sharpened,

examines,

gnaws on kind words

unsaid,

promised walks

never taken.

I like that metaphor of the tree, because when men like Oliver Clarke and Freddie Hickling go, it’s a whole ecosystem that goes as well. Of course, others come up, but sometimes there is just real loss, and the ones gone are irreplaceable. That’s what has happened here.

But it’s the business of the suddenly sharpened memory and the unsaid kind words mentioned in the poem that smacks me upside the head regarding both these gentlemen. I should have liked to have said “thanks” for the kindness shown to me by each.

Well, at least I have some space on The Gleaner’s page to memorialise in this minuscule way some gratitude. To Hickling who personally encouraged me to travel far and wide. And to Oliver who invited me to write for The Gleaner probably some time back in 1998, and who, after other kindnesses, when I told him I would again be travelling far and wide, said “whatever you do, don’t stop writing”.

n Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com