To Stuart Young, Member of Parliament for Port of Spain North/St Ann’s West, Minister of National Security and Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister.
I am writing because my father is currently abroad and is thinking of submitting a request for an exemption to re-enter Trinidad. He trusts that you will give it fair and reasonable consideration. I, on the other hand, do not share his optimism. And since I suspect that he will be denied, as so many nationals have been, I wanted to express my thoughts on the failings of this process.
My father left Trinidad towards the end of March 2020. I would like to make it clear that his decision to leave had nothing to do with wanting to escape Trinidad for a safer destination. He simply wanted to visit his family, his grandchildren in particular, who reside in South Florida.
It’s been three months since the borders were closed, and he, like many other nationals, wish to return home. Granted, COVID-19 continues to be an ongoing issue. But no country, especially a small island-nation like T&T, can remain isolated from the rest of the world. Even if our economy can weather the shortfall due to the lack of travel and the commerce that comes with it, nationals cannot be left abandoned in foreign countries.
My father is fortunate—he is staying with family and is relatively comfortable. But some Trinbagonians don’t have any support to rely on, and “sheltering-in-place” is incurring a significant cost to them. It has been reported in the media that some nationals are running low on funds and are facing destitution and homelessness; how can they shelter-in-place if they can’t afford shelter? Do they have any legal recourse to seek reimbursement and compensation for mental anguish from the government? After all, this policy is being forced upon them through no fault of their own.
Now the government has provided instructions on how to submit a request, and some groups of nationals has been repatriated: UWI students and those employed on cruise ships. But what hasn’t been made clear, is the criteria that determines who gets the exemption and who gets refused.
There was the case involving Jeffery Azar (and his wife) and Derek Chin. They both made applications at the same time with arrangements to return by the same means. Yet Mr Azar was denied while Mr Chin was approved. Why? On what grounds did you make that decision? And why is this decision under your sole purview?
The “fairness” of this process is further brought into question by the fact that Pennelope Beckles and Barry Padarath were both granted exemptions. Not for any personal or family emergency, but to attend party screenings as potential candidates for the upcoming general elections. With all due respect, Minister Young, that’s not an acceptable reason.
Political needs should not take preference over those of average citizens. My father, for example, is retired but still has interests in Trinidad that provide a source of income. The economic effects of the lockdown requires him to be there to attend to them. And, speaking of politics—has the government considered that refusing citizens the right to return could also end up denying them the right/opportunity to exercise their franchise in the soon-to-be-held general election? Again, is this grounds for a legal challenge?
Minister Young, I will concede that your government took what it felt was the necessary, albeit draconian steps in keeping the country safe from the ravages of COVID-19.
Furthermore, I am not suggesting that the crisis has passed, nor am I advocating that the borders be immediately opened to international travel. But the government needs to do more to address the concerns of displaced nationals.
Leaving them to shelter-in-place is essentially telling them to “fend for themselves.” You can’t treat this as a numbers game—to sacrifice a few for the sake of the many. Especially since you have already deemed that some citizens are worthy of deferential treatment.
The government has repeatedly touted the decision to close the borders as an integral part of its “success” in preventing an outbreak of COVID-19. But with the country’s day-to-day activities returning to a sense of normalcy, bringing these nationals home should be given top priority. They have already been subjected to lockdowns in the countries where they are stranded and have witnessed what happens when safety measures like face masks and social distancing are not followed. I am aware that there is limited space in the quarantine facilities. But since they know what’s at stake, perhaps they can be trusted to self-quarantine in their own homes. This would alleviate the government’s need for maintaining these existing facilities; one less cost for the state to bear. At the very least, this is an opportunity to re-evaluate the process.
My father, like many nationals who share his predicament, simply wants to return home—to return to their lives. This matter deserves your attention and it is my sincere hope that my comments here will encourage you to do so.