Much has been said and more no doubt is to be said about the appointment of the Government’s new COVID-19 Advisor, the retired broadcast journalist, David Ellis.
On social media, the views equally reflect applause, condemnation and consternation. Memes, trademarks of the era, have ranged from reasonable to amusing to vicious.
One commenter says: I am glad he as a Bajan get a top pick and will be well compensated for the goodwill he has built over his career, well deserved.”
Another said: “This is nothing new because we have seen this time and time again where many of those moderators who being on the call-in programmes are lured away. Either they are aligned with a political party or some who being the voices of the people they are picked off by the political party in power.
Another suggested: “I feel betrayed.”
David Ellis, who after four decades as a fearless, independent journalist would no doubt have anticipated the public noise about his decision to join the administration in the national fight against COVID-19, a disease that doesn’t give a toss about the Barbadian penchant for the zero-sum game of political tribalism.
At Monday’s press conference he sought to clear the air with an immediate declaration that he had thought long and hard and that it was not a political decision.
He said: “Let me begin by saying what a difficult decision this has been for me to make and I was back and forth on it, but the principal reason why I took it was because of the state of the game as it relates to COVID in this country at the moment.
“I haven’t taken this assignment as a partisan job and to demonstrate that to you just days ago I picked up the phone and I called Bishop Joseph Atherley the leader of the Opposition in Parliament and then I called Verla DePeiza of the Democratic Labour Party because I have worked with them in the position I held before and I said to them that out of courtesy and respect I thought they should be informed I was taking up this assignment and I am available to assist them and their organisations in whatever way this office can in trying to avoid the kind of difficulties we are seeing in other Caribbean countries at the moment.”
Yet his appointment has won the approval of neither Bishop Atherley nor Depeiza. Sensing a ripe political opportunity, they both described the move as buying the silence of another powerful critic known to hold Mia Mottley and her ministers accountable.
Only time will whether it is a shrewd partisan chess move or a game-changer for the national battle against COVID-19, a battle we are not presently winning.
But beyond the opposition parties’ cries of a decline of those holding the Government’s feet to the fire, we cannot fail to see the glaring reminders that both parties have fallen short of their declared duty to protect the public interest by keeping the current administration on its toes.
Both parties need to clearly demonstrate beyond rhetoric how they can help the fight against COVID-19.
And with all the public outcry about Ellis being silenced, there’s no doubt too, this media house, like all others, must renew our commitment to being the people’s watchdog and hold ourselves to a high standard.
We join in wishing Ellis well. We have no reason to question that he will bring his usual standards and professionalism to the new role, which include reaching the unvaccinated and helping to change behaviours to halt the spread of the virus.
Hardly can one argue that he is wholly unsuited for the task and it is unreasonable to burden him with the remit of an even-handed, impartial and objective radio reporter now that he has retired and must necessarily hold up the side in the administration’s war on the coronavirus. We now anxiously await his work on the ground and just as he would, we commit to fairly assess whether he remains true to the public example of integrity he has set over the last 40 years.
Still, Ellis who is renowned for asking priests, police, prime ministers and paupers alike the hard questions, knows all too well that Barbadians have been asking tough but fair questions of the Government about the remit and results of the COVID-19 Public Advisor.
We acknowledge the administration’s emphasis on communicating with the public as a welcome change to the abject silence of the previous administration.
But now we have become increasingly wary of an ever-growing communication arm of Government, given the establishment of the Public Affairs Department and prior to that, the creation of a COVID Communications Unit and the appointment of Ambassador Liz Thompson as its head, when there’s the ever-professional Barbados Government Information Service, the state-owned Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation and highly credible and articulate communicators on the frontline of the battle against COVID, from infectious diseases expert Dr Corey Forde to Minister of Health and Wellness Lt Col Jeffrey Bostic. For lest we forget, this is a national public health issue, not a public relations crisis for the government.
With Government’s resources under pressure with an economy struggling to wrest itself from the relentless grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, not two years after going into an unprecedented debt default, any and all spending of scarce taxpayers money must be frugal, necessary and transparent. A growing roster of consultants is not the answer to the question as to whether the public interest is being served.
David Ellis has retired from his role as national inquisitor and umpire. Many others have not. Nor will we.