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FIRING LINE: Accountability, leadership elusive

Shantal Munro-Knight

FIRING LINE: Accountability, leadership elusive

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I am not ashamed to say that I’m scared.

   My fear outweighs my ongoing disappointment and outrage at the fact that we could have a Minister of Government who publicly declares that there will be scholarships for students which were apparently never approved by the Ministry of Finance. I am not sure how something like this happens; don’t ministers talk to each other? The minister responsible, just on that morning, got a bright idea that his ministry would issue scholarships without talking to anyone else?

We would all, I believe, like an explanation and would love to understand what occurred. Mostly, I believe we would love someone to be held accountable but in this country accountability is about as elusive as good leadership.

My fright is also larger than my bemusement at the suggestion that thousands of Barbadians turning up at a job fair and fighting is no reflection on the state of unemployment in the country. Well, if I am honest, that one actually took my mind off my fright. I am mystified at how far we will go to protect political interests and image instead of owning up to the reality of a situation. The situation highlighted that it is better sometimes not to respond than to say something that makes no sense to anyone but yourself.

Despite all of this, my overriding concern is the prospect of the Ebola virus coming to the shores of the Caribbean. As news of the Ebola virus outbreak spread in Western Africa, I was sympathetic but disconnected. I thought of it as an African problem and as much as I complained about the fact that Africa could do without another such crisis, the issue remained remote.  

However, the Ebola virus has come literally almost to our front gates. The first case in the United States signalled that there is an imminent threat with this virus. I have absolutely no doubt that the US was on high alert for this virus that they were actively monitoring their transits points and yet the virus slipped through. The fact that a black man from Africa died while others were able to be treated successfully in the US suggests something else to me, but that is the subject of another article, perhaps. 

Unfortunately, despite the assurances from the Ministry of Health that we are ready, my fright has not as yet been comforted. I was a bit offended that it took the comments of Dr Carlos Chase from the Barbados Association of Medical Practitioners, who raised issues about the country’s preparedness for the virus, to elicit such a comprehensive response from the Ministry of Health.

For whatever reason, there is an implicit assumption made in this society that the population should automatically trust public officials to get it right because they know best. On the other hand there is also a suggestion that too much information can create confusion or chaos. What a lot of bullocks. Panic and fear can be counterbalanced with information, education and preventative action.

I will give credit where credit is due. The early action by health officials does show that at least they recognised the threat and were thinking through some potential processes. This, however, is not the same thing as being prepared and I hope that is it not being confused as such.

This is a huge threat that requires national preparedness which is broader than health officials and the people responsible for airport screening. The intent is not to create panic or even spread my own fright but to suggest that we individually and collectively ought not to take this threat lightly. 

What now? What is the next level of response from the Ministry and how should the public also respond? What are the regional response mechanisms that will be put in place? I do not want to know the name of the Caribbean agency that will respond; I want to know how they will respond. Do we have the necessary drugs on hand? Are medical practitioners now more confident about our ability to respond?

In Spain, nurses are staying at home in fear of contracting the disease after one of their own got ill after treating a patient. It would be good to hear other stakeholders other than the Ministry speak to the current level of preparedness.  

I can appreciate that for many people this seems like an unlikely scenario and in the face of other perhaps more seemingly urgent things, Ebola may be a distant concern but I beg to differ sincerely. I travel frequently and encounter many Barbadians and Caribbean people doing likewise.

This could potentially be an enormous health threat for a small island like ours. I sincerely hope we are treating it with the respect it deserves.

• Shantal Munro-Knight is a development specialist and executive coordinator at the Caribbean Policy Development Centre.