Back when I was a lowly undergrad, I was a member of the university’s Caribbean Students Association. One of the group’s favourite activities was to debate the superiority of our respective islands. I was a staunch defender of my home, and my sense of national pride was never in doubt. But, more recently, I can’t help but feel envious towards one of our neighbours.
Barbados recently announced that it plans to remove the British monarchy as its head of state and become a Republic. The country’s Governor-General, Sandra Mason, in a speech delivered last Tuesday (15th) said the time had come to “…fully leave the colonial past behind,” adding that it is the “…ultimate statement of confidence in who we are and what we are capable of achieving.” It should be noted that the speech, in keeping with Westminster tradition, was written by Prime Minister Mia Mottley.
Barbados gained its independence in November, 1966, four years after Trinidad and Tobago. However, while we became a Republic in 1976, Barbados didn’t seem to be in any rush to follow suit.
This November marks its 54th year of independence, and they plan to be a Republic by the same time next year. This milestone bears little in the way of practical benefits. But it does present an opportunity to examine how far both countries have come since the days of singing “God Save the Queen”.
If we look at two examples–the economy and crime–the Bajan dollar stands at 2-to-1 against the US dollar and its murder rate (per 100,000) is about one-third of ours. This would indicate, albeit superficially, that Barbados is doing better than we are. Granted, T&T has a larger GDP, and the cost of living is higher in Barbados. And you could even argue that Barbados’ smaller population and landmass makes it easier to govern. Fair enough. So how about focusing on something a little more contemporary and relevant–the handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
Both countries initiated shutdowns of businesses and schools to curtail the spread and prevent outbreaks. Barbados, under a public health emergency, implemented a series of curfews, going from overnight to 24-hours and back again as the situation warranted. T&T, in comparison, issued a “stay at home” order hoping it would encourage citizens to limit non-essential movement.
But it also took the controversial step to close its borders, disregarding the welfare and safety of nationals stranded abroad. Barbados didn’t do that, though it did experience a decrease in airline traffic and visitors.
So how have these measures paid off? After supposedly flattening the curve in June and July, T&T is experiencing a spike in new cases; as such, we have again shutdown the country and our borders remain closed.
Meanwhile, Barbados has managed to maintain a low number of cases and has returned to a sense of normalcy.
It is even welcoming tourists, marketing their island as a remote-working destination through a programme to grant one-year visas. So how have they managed to pull this off?
One reason is testing. Barbados is testing on an average of ten times more than we are. Therefore, its government has a clear idea of the size of the problem. The same can’t be said for ours.
One could even postulate that the draconian actions undertaken by the current administration are a reflection, if not a tacit acknowledgement, of the deficiencies in our healthcare system; we simply cannot handle an outbreak.
Worse yet, as we’ve been witnessing, the measures being put in place for the sake of our protection come close to infringing on our civil liberties. It’s akin to cutting down the entire forest to stop a fire from spreading instead of strengthening the fire department.
For T&T, the crisis of COVID-19 isn’t the virus itself, it’s a crisis of leadership.
In Dr Rowley’s end of year address to the nation in 2015, he warned that the decline in petroleum revenues meant tough times were ahead. But in the five years since then, his administration did nothing to improve our economy.
We shouldn’t be surprised then that they have mishandled the response to COVID-19; the biggest mistake being to hold an election where there were lapses in mask-wearing and social distancing.
In comparison, Barbados has emerged as a regional success story, with PM Mottley being lauded for her leadership.
Case in point is how quickly her government has adapted to maintain its tourist industry amid the pandemic. That shows progressive thinking.
Our government can’t even manage to efficiently repatriate its own citizens. And it has yet to provide a post-pandemic recovery plan. Now, having written all this… am I suggesting that we should emulate the example set by Barbados?
No; every country must find its own path towards progress. Is Barbados making a mistake by becoming a Republic? That’s not for me to say.
But what concerns me, and should concern all of us, is that either they are doing something very right, or we are doing something very wrong.
And this applies especially to our handling of COVID-19. Trinidad and Tobago may have been first in gaining independence and becoming a Republic, but Barbados seems to be beating us when it comes to being a properly-functioning country.