“God is hearing our cries.”

This was the reaction from one of approximately 2,000 T&T nationals stranded abroad since this country’s borders closed on March 22. The citizen was responding to Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley’s plans to meet with the National Security Ministry this week to discuss the repatriation of citizens. He was speaking at a press conference at the Diplomatic Centre in St Ann’s on Saturday.

The PM, however, warned that while exemptions will be granted, transport home is another issue.

“We are going to maximise the amount of exemptions granted, the transportation system is another story because borders are closed and there is no scheduled transport, but given where we are at now and with the use of home quarantine our case to keep people outside has been considerably reduced and we will grant the exemptions in a much more liberal way,” Rowley said.

Just two weeks ago, on August 15, after this country recorded a huge spike in COVID-19 cases, National Security Minister Stuart Young announced that the Government would be stepping back from its repatriation efforts.

The PM, announcing the decision to maximise exemptions, said this “chapter” needs to be closed and those who live in T&T but were stuck abroad when the borders were closed on March 22 will be the first priority.

He said the Government will try to assist with repatriation flights as it did for returning university students.

“After eight months we really need to close this chapter in a more effective way to those persons who have been on the outside have been very patient, we need to bring them home as quickly as we can but we do have transportation issues.”

When asked if those returning nationals would be allowed to quarantine at home as a Ministry of Health’s policy change made earlier this week has allowed COVID-19 positive patients with mild symptoms to quarantine at home, Rowley said, “We haven’t reached there yet.” He said that decision will rest with the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Roshan Parasram.

“I am just giving here the health department far more work to do, but I think we really must get these people home,” he added.

‘We hope he sticks to his word’

The Sunday Guardian reached out to the group “T&T Nationals Stuck Abroad: Helping Hands” for reactions to the Prime Minister’s announcement. T&T national Sheena Millet, who lives in France but has been advocating for nationals stranded abroad to be allowed to come home, said the group hopes Rowley sticks to his words.

Millet’s mother has been stranded in Florida since March. She believes there are approximately 2,000 citizens stranded abroad who have been trying to return home for months.

“We are hopeful that he sticks to his words and hoping repatriation flights can be organised. (Of course, paid by us) because the cost of private jets to get home is more than any of us have to spend now that we have been here over six months now,” she said.

Another citizen said, “We are so relieved and hoping the PM sends repatriation flights as private jets can go into the thousands of US dollars to get home. I’ve been stuck in Seattle, Washington, since March and I have been out of medication for my heart, it’s only God and prayers that I’m still alive, this should have been done a long time…I’m happy to hear this news, the depression and mental frustration was real.”

Abby, who is also stranded abroad, described the announcement as a “balm to her wounds.”

“Like most nationals, I am a bit hopeful now that the Government has addressed us nationals stranded abroad. I am feeling a slight relief but I’m also cautious because I can’t fully trust what the Government is saying until I am home. I have been here since March,” she said.

Dr Karen Sohan, who has also been stranded abroad, said the displaced citizens have banded together to assist each other and said while the Government’s response to their plights has been disappointing to date, they continue to hold on to hope that they will be able to come home soon.

“The displaced nationals are quite a proactive group in many ways; they look after the neediest who have been stranded as well as we have devised a working plan based on current international guidelines as well as local policy, which has gained the support of many health care professionals in Trinidad. This will be hand-delivered to the ministries as they have failed to respond to e-mails. While the Government’s response has been disappointing to date, we remain focused on getting back to our beloved country so we welcome any efforts,” Sohan said.