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JUST LIKE IT IS: A political tightrope

Peter Simmons

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In a late evening conversation with a close friend on Tuesday during which we reflected again on the terrible Tudor Street tragedy (my condolences to the family and friends of the deceased), I said that this fair land of ours seems to be under the active aegis of Murphy’s Law and whatever could go wrong seemed to be going wrong.
At six o’clock Wednesday morning my phone rang. The same friend was calling to say that The Nation was reporting that Prime Minister David Thompson had left again for New York City. He wanted to know if I had heard the reason for his sudden departure. We speculated morosely that perhaps he had a relapse and was forced to return for medical treatment.
A call just before seven o’clock confirmed that he had left in the early hours of Tuesday morning accompanied by wife Mara and personal physician Dr Richard Ishmael, following a medical complication.
It was alarming and saddening considering he said on his return the previous week that he was “fine” and would address the nation on “pertinent issues” in the near future.
But Murphy’s Law would have none of it. While all Barbadians were happy to hear that our Prime Minister was fine and had taken the helm immediately after his two-month enforced medical leave and there was so much an anxious nation was waiting to hear him speak about, he had to be rushed back to his doctors in New York.
Ever since news first broke about his illness and hospitalisation, the age-old debate and political tightrope about a public personality’s right to privacy versus the public’s right to know, and the lack of specific information about the nature of his ailment have generated public speculation, many openly questioning the absence of an authoritative report and  prognosis on the health of our political leader.
I spent half my adult life in two mature democracies, Britain and United States, where news of the health of the head of government was prompt, unambiguous and readily shared with the public. In the United States, even after demitting office President Bill Clinton’s health issues have been ventilated as continues to be the case further down the line with Vice-President Dick Cheney.
What happened in two less mature democracies is also instructive. In Nigeria when the president took seriously ill, flew to Saudi Arabia for treatment, was away for three months and the reasons for his hospitalisation and prognosis were hermetically concealed from the concerned population, there was an unrelenting public outcry and threat of a palace coup forcing him to return home, perhaps prematurely.
In Trinidad and Tobago when Prime Minister Patrick Manning was diagnosed with a serious kidney problem necessitating surgery, before flying off to Cuba he appeared on radio and TV to share the information with citizens. In the immediate post-surgery period he reported again to the country and kept his people fully informed before and after subsequent follow-up visits to Havana.
The fact that Prime Minister Thompson had to return to hospital in New York captured the concern of all Barbadians across political borders and about 11:40 a.m. on the Wednesday Brass Tacks programme host David Ellis said in response to a caller’s query that he had had a call from Hartley Henry, the Prime Minister’s in-house political adviser, that Mr Thompson himself would call in at midday.
That suggested that the high level of citizen concern had resonated positively with the Prime Minister and his advisers and it was decided to go for maximum exposure on prime-time radio on the most popular call-in programme hosted by the island’s best broadcast journalist whose frontal approach in quizzing the political class set him apart.
Significantly, the Thompson camp did not use the state-owned Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation, its standing public relations outlet and its hyperactive point man in the newsroom. It even bypassed the Talk Yuh Talk call-in hosted that morning by resident political consultant Peter Wickham with his zebra-like political stripes. Starcom’s major scoop was simulcast on the CBC network of stations.
Ellis, as is his wont, put questions to the Prime Minister which, in his vastly experienced professional opinion, captured major public concerns and aimed to elicit enlightening answers. But in the highly polarised and politically charged prevailing atmosphere, and judging from calls predominately from females, he seemed to ignite some angst producing a torrent of accusations of insensitivity.
His question about whether there would be a Cabinet reshuffle seemed particularly incendiary. I saw nothing wrong with the question. Indeed, after hearing the frail sounding voice of the Prime Minister instead of the usual strident, dulcet tone to which we had grown accustomed through the years, the question seemed most apposite.
I am sure that Mr Ellis did not expect Mr Thompson to announce Cabinet changes on a call-in programme. Rather, as I heard it, the question was generic and rooted in whether in his current poor health and reduced energy levels he would retain the large number of subjects which make up his portfolio or whether he would offload some of the weight, necessitating a reshuffle of responsibilities.
All Barbadians welcomed the news that he has authorised his personal physician on his return to Barbados this week to share relevant medical information with the population. The Prime Minister himself noted the outpouring of national concern and the hope that he is speedily restored to good health and can take the helm again even if at a lower level of physical intensity. God bless!
• Peter Simmons, a social scientist, is a former diplomat.