On August 30, 1962, the day before Trinidad and Tobago would join the ranks of independent countries, our soon-to-be Prime Minister Eric Eustace Williams explained why he picked “DISCIPLINE” as our nation’s first watchword.
“The discipline is both individual and national,” Dr. Williams told a youth rally at the Queen’s Park Oval. “The individual cannot be allowed to seek his personal interests and gratify his personal ambition at the expense of our Nation.”
In a moment such as this, we should show our children that we have not forgotten his words.
For the last few weeks, Trinbagonians have been asked to, among other things, wash their hands often, keep away from people exposed to the virus and stay at home. Liming, our treasured national pastime, must be put on hold.
The vast majority of people have been obeying the government’s orders, yet too many are flouting them—at great risk to our healthcare heroes, our senior citizens and others who are more susceptible to the virus. Some bars shutter their doors but through side doors let in their regular clientele who commingle as they party through the night. On early Good Friday morning, police arrested 20 people–at a Coblentz Gardens, St. Ann’s guesthouse–who were feteing as if they could not be more carefree amid the contagion.
These people are putting many others—relatives, friends and other patrons—at risk. Such behaviour should not be tolerated. When Dr. Williams said, “The individual cannot be allowed to… gratify his personal ambition at the expense of our Nation,” he meant you.
A recent viral video shows a row of matches catching fire one after the other until a single match steps out of the line to stop the spread of the blaze. That is what a disciplined communal effort can accomplish. For everyone to be safe, all must do their part.
The alternative to social distancing is death. The most tragic example of how the actions of one person can result in a massive price for a community occurred recently in Kirkland, Washington where a so-called Patient Zero caused the deaths of at least 19 people, most of them residents of a nursing home.
Think about it: many nations ask their citizens to make the ultimate sacrifice: to sign up and risk their lives in war. This is not the classic case of asking what you can do for your country. In the case of the corona virus, your country is merely asking you to do the bare minimum: stay at home, enjoy time with your family and live to fight another day.
You can say for more than a century Guardian reporters have seen—and reported–it all. They have served up our country’ first draft of history since our first publication on September 2, 1917. A few months after our launch, the Spanish flu pandemic struck, infecting 500 million people—then one-third of Earth’s population—and killing more than 50 million people worldwide. A Trinidad Guardian report on January 1, 1919 reported how influenza had been widespread locally in the latter part of 1918 but the country escaped the high death rates seen in Venezuela and neighboring countries.
Since then, the Guardian has chronicled the history of our nation, including attempted coups, social unrest and other events that threatened to tear apart the fabric of our nation. We have seen what a deadly pandemic can do to a country, and we do not want to let that valuable lesson go to waste.
We believe that if Trinbagonians do not do their part, and if the right economic measures are not taken in the future, our country could face some of its darkest hours.
This newspaper has commended the government on taking swift steps to protect citizens from the virus and to provide some economic assistance to our most needy citizens. We have seen across the globe how those measures are the most effective weapons to save lives.
In the near term, asking people to stay in their homes serves the purpose of saving the most lives—and preserving key aspects of the economy.
We Must Make A Choice
In the near future, our leaders would have to grapple with the question: When to restart the economy and what tradeoffs will emerge when a decision is taken to do so.
In the United States, where 16 million people have joined the breadlines in the last three weeks, the question has already ignited a bitter debate about the nation’s moral priorities.. On Sunday, a headline in the New York Times Sunday Magazine read: “Restarting America Means People Will Die. So When Do We Do It?” The discussion referenced Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, an economist and philosopher, who pointed out that “the presence of disease kills people, and the absence of livelihood also kills people.”
We do not think it is too early for our government to start thinking about convening a national conversation on what lessons we have learned from fighting the virus and what kind of changes we need to make to our society—in the short and long term. This dialogue should include our elected leaders in government and opposition, representatives of our robust private sector, labor leaders and the best minds in civil society.
Now more than ever, we must persevere with discipline as we fight for our lives, for the lives of our loved ones and for our country.
As we do so, take the time to think about what we should learn from this experience. How does our country need to change to address our myriad problems? And what role should we play as we continue to shape our national culture.
Maybe, like some of us, you would find hope and solace in our national poet, Black Stalin, who penned these heartfelt words during a difficult period in our history:
We could make it if we try
Just a little harder
If we just give one more try
Life could be much sweeter.