“COVID is not going away”

An interview with Sir James Mitchell on his thoughts on life in the pandemic, and the need to make a change.

Born and raised in Bequia, Sir James Mitchell served as the second Prime Minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines from 1984 to 2000 and as Premier of Saint Vincent from 1972 to 1974. He founded the New Democratic Party (NDP) in 1975, and served as its president until 2000. Today he spends his time on Bequia, where his family runs two small hotels in Port Elizabeth, The Frangipani and The Gingerbread. When he’s not sitting and talking to visitors and friends, he’s in his office working on the second volume of his memoirs. I reached him at the Frangipani.

How is it going?

Terrible. Our one good statistic is that we have only got 12 deaths [due to COVID]. We are one of the lowest countries in the rate of vaccination in the world. In the Caribbean, besides Haiti, we are the lowest in the percentage of people not vaccinated. So, it’s a very sad situation.

… You know, termites only come into your house after you built it. [Laughs] If there’s no house, the termites remain in the bush! It’s as simple as that. So, your body is a home for COVID. You therefore have to deny COVID the right to come into your body.

Why do you think the vaccination numbers are so low?

Some people claim religious regions. One person told me that God told her not to take the vaccine. Then there is a minority of people who have health problems, and who don’t understand that their health problems make them more vulnerable.

But we are critically dependent on tourism, and there isn’t a proper understanding about the importance of our tourism. Anybody in the hotel business in the Caribbean, and I suppose in the world, the question we get asked by anybody making a reservation is “is St. Vincent safe?” “Is St. Vincent safe?” And, “Are all your people vaccinated?” How are you going to answer that question to a potential visitor if your staff is not totally vaccinated? That’s a problem.

Some people say that, well, if the visitors are vaccinated, why do I need to be?

The point is, in the service industry, you have got to satisfy the customer, not yourself. And if you don’t, there is no business and your salary cannot be paid.

The situation of the hospitality industry all over the world is near bankruptcy. The airlines are teetering. Here in St. Vincent. in Bequia, we thrive on the linkage of our small carriers. The Twin Otter, the Canadian designed Twin Otter, is still the most useful plane in our country, bringing people from St. Lucia or Barbados. That’s our lifeblood. Now, with few visitors coming, number one, they cannot provide a service every day and, secondly, when they do provide service, it is very expensive.

Some people are saying that they don’t want the visitors. They say, “well, if the visitors aren’t going to come, great. That means we can have our islands to ourselves, and we can have our own industries, and we won’t have to rely on visitors to give us a livelihood.” What would you say to people who say those sorts of things?

I would ask them first of all, what is the source of your income? Are you a hairdresser? Are you dealing with customers who work in hotels? It’s as simple as that. Is your income not connected with the tourist industry?

I have been in parliament for 35 years, and I’ve been head of this country for 19 years. We’ve had programs of industrialization, but our small manufacturing industry—making tennis rackets, or doing smocking in ladies dresses, or making gloves—was easily threatened by the devaluation of the currency elsewhere. We can’t compete.

It was the same thing with our bananas. In St. Vincent, our main wealth creation twenty years ago was bananas. Now, it’s difficult to find a banana in St. Vincent! Some farmers are still producing, and people like to say “we like agriculture but not tourism.” But people who have that argument do not recognize, or interpret, or want to think that the banana industry we had was all export and [it existed] because of a subsidy. When the subsidy no longer existed, there was nothing else.

So, I’d ask them, Where is the market? What is it that we’re going to do for export in a small island like this? What can we really do for export? … What does the market outside require? And what is the position with regard to the private sector? You hear all the time that there are mangoes on the ground, why don’t we collect the mangoes and make juice for export? But nobody is prepared to do the analysis. If there was profit in it, the private sector would do it! It’s as simple as that. Don’t expect government to pick up the mangoes and run a factory, because government has difficulty even running the coast guard.

The question of understanding the market is fundamental to our existence.

Anybody who makes that argument ‘we can do our own thing’ does not understand how our country works, where we are, and where we’re going. The biggest employer in the Caribbean, apart from Trinidad and Tobago perhaps, is the tourist industry. So the question is, do we understand the position of our country in the world?

The wealth being generated by tourism has no easy replacement. And the government, if they do not get the tax revenue out of the tourism industry, we’re sunk! The prime minister has made statements from time to time that it is the taxes on sales of land in Mustique that allows them to pay civil servants. Now, that’s quite a statistic! And you can’t dispute that.

I am prepared to be ignorant and ask somebody, please tell me the alternative. Criticism is easy, but answers to problems are not that easy. And answers to problems can’t come from emotion. Problems need to be answered by reason and fact.

Many people don’t see vaccination as a question of industry or economics. The feel it’s a question only of personal determination. That it’s their arm that the shot is going into, not the country’s. What would you say to the people who say “it’s my decision, and you shouldn’t worry about what decision I make.

Well, I hope that when they get COVID they still have that argument! [But] it means that you do not understand nature and the world in which you live. You can take all kinds of privileged positions, with the luxury of feeling, ‘I’m all right, Jack.’ But the world is not like that. You’re being very selfish to your family etc.

And then they don’t understand, or do not want to understand, or do not want to accept the longer term effects. I have been in touch with a Vincentian nurse working in the United States. Been working there for years. She got COVID before there was a vaccine and she spent two and a half months in hospital. She nearly died three times. She has recovered now, but there are lasting effects. Her fingers cannot close, and she has therapy now, learning how to pick up a marble, how to pick up a pen. She has to keep a flask of oxygen in her home all the time, and sometimes she has to walk with it. Her lungs have been damaged an estimated 25 to 30 percent.

This question of long-term COVID will continue to appear. And those are the facts. I respect people wanting to ignore the facts. But don’t think that the people who are trying to tell you to take the vaccine are stupid, and that they’re invading your privacy or the sovereignty of your own body. You are not helping yourself, your family, your neighbours or your friends by not vaccinating. Right now the world statistic on vaccination 3.9 billion people. There used to be a beautiful old saying, “can 50 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong?” Can 3.9 billion people be wrong? Are they all stupid?

Were you surprised that there was such an initial resistance to the vaccine, or what the ongoing reaction has been?

I was first of all surprised when the vaccine came—the Indian produced vaccine—and it was free. Of course some people said that they didn’t like this vaccine because it came from India. I had to ask people who had this argument, have you ever looked at the box of medicines that you have got to see where they are made? You will be surprised to find out that a lot of medicine—and there is a very high percentage of the world’s production of medicine—is made in India.

Secondly, they say they don’t know what is inside the vaccine. Do you know what is inside the medicine you are [already] taking? Do you read the pamphlets inside your boxes of medicine? Or your bottles of medicine? Do you read the instructions which tell you what the side effects are? No. But your takin’ it! How come suddenly everybody is so concerned about side effects?

I had my first shot. And then I had a good Mount Gay rum punch, and I slept for three hours, and then I felt great! … There are no lasting effects besides immunization of your body. If you have been to school and studied any science, you should be prepared to understand that if you’re having a reaction, it’s the body learning to fight against the COVID. That’s all that is going on.

We’ve got to keep getting the message to people, always, that COVID is not going away.

It is sad to know that St. Vincent is at the bottom of the ladder. … But look at what has happened in the British Virgin Islands. This month of July had, so far, 25 deaths. So there’s this fantastic rate of death up there. I’m sure its impacting on the people to vaccinate. Because in a small population like that—in the BVI there’s a population of about 30,000—25 deaths in three weeks is one of the world’s top statistics.

Those are things that people have to understand. And I agree with governments using both the carrot and the stick. In other words, you give all the incentives, but there is a time to protect the community and to protect the country. You have to make certain unpalatable decisions. And if you’re not capable of making those unpalatable decisions, you should step aside and let somebody else run the country.

I’m absolutely fascinated by the position taken by President Macron of France in dealing with the unvaccinated. When he said that he could not believe that this is the country of Louis Pasteur. [Laughs] But when he took a stand about what’s going to happen with regard to public servants, a million people registered for the vaccine.

Similarly, Trinidad was very slow on the uptake [though that has changed]. Trinidadians, who pride themselves on having the second best carnival in the world, next to Rio, they do not want the experience of no carnival again. Just losing one year, and that’s enough for them!

And of course they have a developed business community. They are not a prime tourist destination, and they are reliant on the oil resources and the spinoff from that. They are the most industrialized of the Caribbean nations. So, it goes back to the question you asked me about people saying ‘let us do our own thing.’ Trinidad is doing its own thing. They have more exports than anybody else. Yet Trinidad is going ahead very fast with their vaccination program. We, in St. Vincent, even gave them 40,000 doses.

It’s just a shot or two. It really doesn’t seem to be asking all that much. Particularly given that most everyone has had a vaccine of some kind at some point in their lives.

Yes, and if you don’t take the vaccine, you have that sword of Damocles hanging over you forever, whether you like it or not. What is going to shock you into understanding what the problem is? It’s often said that children only know fire when they get burned. The situation seems as though people can only be convinced when a member of their family dies or a close friend dies. I regret to have to put it in such cruel language, but that’s the way I see it.

You know, I have never seen a health problem so twisted in all my life. This arrogance of saying, “to hell with your opinions and the rest of the world.” All those skeptical people. Let me tell you something. I had the most painful experience on the first Monday of this month when I went to Kingstown. When I saw the long lines of people waiting to collect their remittances from family and friends overseas. The lines were going from one bank to the other. Wherever there was any such facility, there were long lines. And what’s more, as I looked at the people in the lines—many of them who know me, who know I’m able to smile—there was not a smile on the faces of the hundreds that I saw waiting for the bank. It tells me that they were painfully aware of two things. One is, thank God we’re still getting something from somewhere else. If it’s the tourists we’re not getting, we’re getting the money directly from overseas. But all of them know that what they are getting is not enough to cover their needs.

And yet, here we are. As you say, it’s a very sad situation.

There is the problem of the virus, and you know that the virus is there. And the mere fact that you are not vaccinated is that you are taking a position for yourself, knowing that the vaccine is there. So you’re taking an anti-vaccine position. What suggestions do you have for the path out of this pandemic? What is your answer to get rid of this pandemic? Do you think that you will escape forever?


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