Have we lost our moral compass in Times of COVID-19?
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
(14 April 2020) — What do we stand for? Are we frozen in silence by fear for our lives, and the lives of our families and friends by the COVID-19 pandemic? I hope not. While we remain silent, governments are taking advantage of the pandemic to dismantle democracy and rule of law in a number of countries. Where do we stand?
I see a lack of empathy and humanitarian concerns by some government leaders for those who suffer the most from the pandemic. I see some seeking political advantages from the sufferings of others. And, I see political leaders attempting to silence the press which stand in their way. Yet, civil society for the most part is silent.
Yes, we are preoccupied with surviving a pandemic out of control and no clear end in sight. But, how will history judge our silence? How do we not speak up when a government chooses to save one class of citizen over another? And, how can a government rationalize having an obligation to save lives but shamelessly turn its back on those who can’t help themselves?
Morality or lack thereof is what defines who we are.
In my recent article in The Ward Post, “Freedom and Democracy Under Attack in Times of Coronavirus” I raised challenges posed to freedom and democracy by autocratic and autocratic leaning political leaders around the world. Some of these political leaders are denying certain freedoms without adherence to basic rule of law principles required even during times of emergency.
I highlighted the egregious attacks on democracy and press freedom in Hungary; I referenced the usurpation of power in Israel; and I cited the unending attacks on the press in the United States. I also warned against the creeping level of authoritarianism and autocracy in the Caribbean. We see leaders in weak and strong democracies alike, from Hungary to the United States, both ends of the spectrum, acting contrary to the natural and legal freedoms to which the body politic is entitled. I offered disapprobation of these leaders and issued a warning of what this portends for a post-coronavirus society.
At the same time, I commended those leaders who are meeting the challenges to the health and economic well-being of their people and countries while acting within their constitutional and democratic frameworks. We are somewhat assured they are in the majority.
At the same time we must be awake to the challenges to democracy and rule of law, and protection of the freedoms we have come to cherish, including freedom of the press; and we must defend freedoms fundamental to basic human security, including health security. Thus, we cannot stay silent as our governments abandon humanitarian principles on the expediency of political objectives and economic imperatives.
Who would have thought any US government would abandon US citizens for weeks, stranded on board cruise ships in a state of uncertainty, anxiety and desperation? At the same time, the Trump administration brags about rescuing American citizens from remote parts of the globe and bringing them back to their homes in the US.
I am troubled when the US government blocks a shipment of life saving ventilators to Barbados and the Cayman Islands, small countries in the Caribbean with a total population of less than 400,000 people. We have become so immune to the US president’s maladministration that we are no longer surprised when he threatens to withhold funds from the World Health Organization (WHO) because that global organization doesn’t agree with his approach to the battle against the global pandemic. We know WHO is right, and we know who is wrong.
We couldn’t have foreseen any circumstances under which a Caribbean government would deny safe harbor to its citizens? I am troubled by Jamaica denying landing rights on the home soil to its citizens, while ignoring their pleas and turning them away – refusing the cruise ship on which they were on board to dock at Kingston while the ship refueled near Kingston in Jamaica’s territorial waters. These 45 seafarers, citizens of Jamaica, were within the jurisdiction of Jamaica, and the Jamaican government had the authority to board that ship and exercise its responsibilities to its nationals as a sovereign nation should. That includes screening them for the coronavirus and taking appropriate measures to isolate them in quarantine on Jamaican soil. Instead, the government abandoned them to an uncertain fate; after rejection by Portugal, Jamaican citizens plead with the UK to accept them.
While the Jamaican government denied its citizens, the Dominican Republic allowed their citizens to disembark from the same cruise ship. Elsewhere in the Caribbean, we see the government of Trinidad and Tobago refuse entry to its citizens in transit in Barbados from the UK. We see the government of Barbados offering the refuge their government had refused them. Similarly, we saw the Cuban government offered docking and evacuation of a cruise ship with hundreds of passengers, none of which were Cuban citizens, that had been turned away from other ports.
Now, we see Jamaica’s so-called hard line defense against opening its borders collapse in one fell swoop by the bullying threat of sanctions from the Trump administration. The Trump administration demanded that Jamaica and other countries accept their deportees in the midst of a global pandemic. I accept the right of the US to deport non-citizens who have violated US laws; and I accept that countries have a duty to accept their nationals. But, there are unique challenges in resettling deportees and now is a most inopportune time. This is the same Trump administration which described the Jamaican government as special, and a close friend. Yet, it seeks to overburden the resource-stretched country in times of a pandemic. This betrayal of a ‘friend’ should not be a surprise.
In this global confusion and the ignominy of our governments, we must consider what will be our circumstance post COVID-19. Will we choose to live in a world without compassion and humanitarian considerations? Will we accept living in a world where our freedoms are curtailed; where principles of democracy and rule of law are replaced by autocracy and authoritarianism? Or, will we hold our leaders to account before they go too far. When we have the opportunity, we must choose leaders who are guided by a moral compass; leaders who show empathy for all people. We must judge our leaders’ actions in the context of morality and integrity. And, we should question whether they are running a country, or running down a country. The latter is a recipe for a more troubled and insecure world.
Lest we forget, the 193 member countries of the United Nations have signed onto the UN Charter and must adhere to its tenets, “We the peoples of the United Nations, determined … to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small…. and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.” The UN offers us an opportunity, “To achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”
Indeed, we must have the will to rally against global bullying and harmonize our actions in order to restore, attain and maintain the principles of good governance, rule of law and democracy, and we must restore empathy for all of the human family beyond the unprecedented challenges we now face.
In the words of the 1975 song Wake up Everybody (Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes):
“Wake up everybody, no more sleeping in bed; No more backward thinking, time for thinking ahead; The world has changed so very much, from what it used to be; There is so much hatred, war and poverty; …
The world won’t get no better, if we just let it be; Na Na Na Na Na; The world won’t get no better; We got to change it; Yeah, just you and me.”
Wake up everybody!
© 2020 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post