The Caribbean’s longest-serving leader has described the ongoing situation in his country as potentially the greatest challenge he has faced over his 20 years in office.
In addition to the destruction and dislocation resulting from the wrath of the La Soufriere Volcano, St Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves is confronting the deadly COVID- 19 virus, along with numerous complex, economic challenges.
Like many other countries around the region, tourism has taken a nosedive because of the pandemic.
Adding insult to injury is the fact that the persistent volcanic activity on the northern end of the island is expected to cost farmers, millions of dollars in losses.
It will cost the country millions more to facilitate the reconstruction of communities around La Soufriere as well as house the thousands of men, women, and children now staying in emergency government shelters indefinitely.
Recent estimates place the economic cost of the country’s rebuild in the range of EC$1 billion (730), as finance officials explore avenues for concessionary assistance from regional and international allies and organisations.
In an interview with Barbados TODAY, Dr Gonsalves explained that while he has been confronted with deadlier events in the past, the current crisis “stands out most”.
“Clearly, this one, of all which we have met over the last 20 years since I have been Prime Minister, probably this one stands out most because we have the COVID, we have nearly 20 per cent of our population evacuated into safer areas, the problems with the economy and all of that.
But then in six weeks’ time, the Atlantic hurricane season begins with an overactive season predicted by Colorado State University. All you need to do is get one of those 17 [hurricanes] and you are in a further tailspin.”
Dr Gonsalves however noted that the true extent of his latest test might probably best be measured years down the line.
“On the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, a French intellectual was asked what his view of the French Revolution and its consequences was, and he said simply ‘It is too early to tell’,” the PM said jokingly.
“But indeed this [challenge] is a massive one. In a few years’ time after I am dead… and you are studying it historically, then you would be able to assess whether this is the most monumental of all that I have had to face,” Gonsalves added.
Among the PM’s most trying situations were the 2013 floods that claimed two dozen lives. Some of the missing people were never found. Another trying event was a vehicular accident in 2015 that killed five children when the van in which they were travelling fell off of a cliff.
Over the years, Gonsalves’ governments have also been forced to contend with the impacts of hurricanes, like Tomas in 2010, which the PM described as St Vincent’s worst in living memory.
Staying true to his character, the Vincentian PM vowed not to meet his latest challenge with a “spirit of lamentations’’.
Gonsalves is also reluctant to describe the situation as a crisis because, in his opinion, this suggests that leaders are unaware of the extent of the problem and clueless about possible solutions.
“What I am talking about is a multi-sided challenge of enormous proportions and we have to meet those challenges, not with a spirit of lamentations, but with optimism, because people tend to talk about ‘crisis, crisis crisis’. The slightest thing is a crisis. This one of course is a big one, but when you say the word crisis, it kind of puts a big weight on your brain… If you do that, you are already partly defeated,” Gonsalves contended.
“The principals, including ‘Ralph’ are not innocent of the extent of the condition. There are uncertainties, there are things which are not predictable, but we are not innocent of the extent of the condition, and we have a bundle of credible ideas as to the way forward,” the long-standing leader declared.
Dr Gonsalves is also heartened at the responses from the “CARICOM family”, to the most urgent needs on the ground along with the United Nations, whose contingent has been surveying the damage with the intention of mobilising assistance.
“The reconstruction will require a lot of resources. Hundreds of millions of dollars, because there are hundreds of millions of dollars at-risk near to the red zone. The full extent of those assets that are at-risk, which need to be completely rebuilt, repaired and strengthened, we don’t quite know yet and we are getting a better understanding of it day-by-day,” the Vincentian PM concluded.