Stranded in Barbados

Letters to the Editor

Stranded in Barbados

Thursday, March 26, 2020

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Dear Editor,

These sure are interesting times; unprecedented, darn near apocalyptic if you ask me. World War V (V for virus) might be upon us.

I think, as a country, post-novel coronavirus outbreak, we will need to reflect on our collective experiences, as a new normal will no doubt follow this global health crisis. And since we are not all collectively logging our WhatsApp and Twitter bits and pieces, we should avoid assembling a patchy recollection of these events, because it is important that Jamaicans, both on and off the island, contribute to detailing the experiences shared and lessons learnt so as not to repeat the mistakes. And it is for this reason I make my contribution.

When the first border closure announcement came from the Jamaican Government, as a returning student, I had 12 hours to meet the March 21 deadline. I was originally slated to travel to Kingston on March 23. Shortly after the announcement, direct flights into Kingston were being cancelled, as we say, left, right, and centre. Re-routing through Barbados would be my next best option. And so I did.

Fast-forward to March 22: I arrived in Bridgetown, an in-transit passenger. I was greeted at the Caribbean Airlines counter by a telephone and an extension number. All outgoing flights had been cancelled. I was told the next available booking was April 7.

On the March 22, at 5:30 pm, a Caribbean Airlines representative insisted that the Jamaican borders had been closed and all I had to counter the claims were newspaper articles and social media posts. Personally, the most troubling aspect of this whole thing was the miscommunication and disinformation. I found it puzzling that a regional airline could have erroneous information and was basing flight plans on this.

Since being in Barbados, I have connected with the Jamaican Consulate and learnt of 15 other in-transit countrymen in a similar position. Collectively, we have found it difficult to secure food and accommodations. Stranded, Kemesha Swaby, from her Kingston home, reached out to her network and managed to secure a roof over my head. Not all of us were so lucky.

In the early stages of the pandemic there was a story of a distressed Jamaican student, Akara Goldson, who was living in the epicentre of the viral outbreak, and who wanted to come home. The Jamaican Ministry of Foreign Affairs cited the logistical challenges of trying to repatriate Jamaicans from China. Fair enough, Jamaica is some 9,000 miles away from Wuhan, China. Bridgetown is 1,200 miles from Kingston, why then is it as logistically infeasible for the Jamaican Ministry of Foreign Affairs to evacuate us?

I entered Barbados on a flight that was designated to repatriate expats from the island. I bore witness to hundreds of tourists being flown away; no such luck for us. Out of curiosity, I would like to know the benchmarks the ministry uses to determine whether or not to intervene in the repatriation of its citizens. Surely, this unfolding crisis would meet any minimum criteria.

In an effort to contain the spread of the virus, I understand that the Government will not be reopening the borders to let us in. However, I take issue with the way in which things were done. When the border closure amendment of March 24 was made, there was still a 48-hour window of opportunity in which we could have been evacuated from Barbados; however, no officials intervened on our behalf. And, the date modification had no effect in persuading the regional airline that the Jamaican border was open, so it maintained home port in Trinidad. A multi-government agreement would have been needed to repatriate us, adding another layer of complexity.

On March 20, Prime Minister Andrew Holness tweeted, “For our citizens overseas unable to come in, they will need to shelter in place. We know this is hard, but our next step will be to see how we can assist those persons.” We have received limited logistical support or guidance regarding food, accommodations, etc, from the Jamaican Government. At the moment, I am self-quarantining and securing food has been a challenge. I depend solely on the goodwill of friends. Not all in-transit Jamaicans are as fortunate and remain in need of assistance.

For Jamaican citizens reading this, please empathise; it could be you or someone you love. We are, in effect, collateral damage. We are asking for practical support and solutions, not platitudes and generic responses.

The window of repatriation has been closed through no fault of our own. We understand that there are dire consequences on the line, and Jamaica's population level immunity to COVID-19 is low — the island still immunologically nave and rigorous universal testing is not yet reality. And, as not to concede any more lives (lest this be a repeat of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic), and to keep the caseload manageable, we are willing to stay put in Barbados for weeks to months, who knows? But, without support, how will we sustain ourselves in a foreign country? As this biological wartime administration takes effect, the Jamaican State needs to be pragmatic in its next steps for in-transit Jamaicans.

Nicole Nation

In-transit, Barbados

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