DIANE PHILLIPS: Questions for us all over the response to Haiti quake


Diane Phillips


What follows is not a soliloquy in print about whether Prime Minister Dr The Rt Hon Hubert A Minnis did the right or wrong thing when he pronounced “Bahamas First”, signalling no help for Haiti in the wake of an earthquake that took lives, destroyed buildings, left people homeless last weekend. Much has already been written about that.

There is hardly a soul in the nation, and especially in newsrooms, who does not have a strong view for or against. From headlines shouting “We are better than this” quoting the head of the Bahamas Christian Council decrying the Prime Minister’s abandoning a Caribbean partner to talk radio shows where agreement with the PM’s position reached such a feverish pitch it nearly burst through the monitor.

The passion with which Minnis’ statement was met was unprecedented in recent local history. And I believe those few words will haunt the administration with the phrase “Bahamas First” rivalling the late Clement Maynard’s “All for me, Baby,” or former New York Mayor turned Trump lawyer Rudolph Giuliani’s “Truth is not truth” declaration on Meet the Press.

Statements that extend beyond their original intent, like words we all utter that we wish we could take back, cannot be withdrawn. What is said is said.

You cannot hit delete on the spoken word. You do not get a do-over in a public pronouncement. It’s the high price you pay for being a public figure – the lingering memory of what you have said that stirred rage or approval long after you have said it.

Memories of financial matters are short unless they are personal. So long as we have a job, the unemployment rate is just a statistic. Public debt is not that troubling unless we fear our taxes are going up to cover the cost of servicing it.

Unless we are outraged, we let words slip through the fingers of our world and out again. We look at the events swirling outside our periphery through inwardly focused glasses that reflect not the events themselves but how those events impact us. We are admittedly, unfortunately, disgracefully near-sighted.

But every now and then there is an event that awakens us. It makes us sit bolt upright and take notice and care about what happens outside our world for more than a few moments. It connects us after the evening news, podcast or YouTube video.

And that is what “Bahamas First” did.

In its controversy, it connected us to an international news event but divided us as a nation.

Compare that with what happened in 2010 when the January 10 earthquake devastated Haiti, killing hundreds, wiping out entire communities. Images were heartbreaking.

Less than 24 hours after the quake struck, the Rotary Clubs of The Bahamas and The Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation joined forces and flew into action. Flights were organised. Medical supplies were flown in. More than 100 satellite phones were distributed to Rotarians throughout Haiti.

The Chamber and Rotary called my little public relations firm and we dropped all other business for the next two weeks to organise a national telethon. Every media house showed up at the first meeting one day after we got the call and by the time of the telethon January 25 and 26, we had partnerships with every TV and radio station, with every newspaper and news organisation.

We had the support of Alexia Coakley and her team at Cable Bahamas, the detailed flow of show talent of Nassau Guardian’s Paul Fernander, of musicians like Fred Ferguson and Freddie Munnings, Jr, of church choirs and dozens of others who volunteered. Current Minister of Financial Services, Trade & Industry and Immigration Brent Symonette was a volunteer on the phone bank as were several members of the then Cabinet and the Opposition, including Perry Christie who was Opposition leader at the time. BTC and Cable partnered for phone and transmission.

Atlantis donated the space. It took more than 150 people to pull off the two-night event that raised enough money to send supplies for months to those who might have gone hungry or thirsty or suffered more disease if it had not been for the work of Rotary, the Chamber and a nation that cared.

What has happened to us since 2010? Was it that this earthquake was not as serious? For those whose homes were flattened, for those who had no place to go after the earth stopped shaking, who were left with nothing but the clothing they had worn in the shelter and hope. It was as terrifying and life-changing as its precursor.

So what if the earthquake of 2018 was not as widespread, if it killed fewer, does that make it less important? This is not a criticism of the Prime Minister’s words so much as it is a question about who we are as a nation. After all, it was not government that responded in 2010. It was the private and civic sectors that took it upon themselves to help their fellow humankind in Haiti when disaster struck just as they did when a hurricane struck the southern Bahamas.

We did not look to government to make the telethon happen. We just did it. We cannot hold telethons every time a strong wind blows but nor should we look to government to be the answer to every need. Government is not our ma, our pa or our saviour of all things material. That manner of thinking harkens back to days of colonial rule and the faster we dispense with total reliance on whoever rules the House of Assembly and appoints the Cabinet, the more independent we will truly be, the more mature we will be as a nation, the stronger we will be as a people.

Yes, those who were embarrassed or ashamed that the country they love did not show love for another country that was hurting and whose citizens have an indelible relationship with our own had every right to feel disappointed. Compassion even in words alone has meaning. Sensitivity never goes out of style.

But, regardless of the Prime Minister’s words which will continue to reverberate, all of us need to take a deep breath and remember the more we give to others, the greater is our world.

Largesse is not a zero-sum game. What we give away is not lost, the rewards come back a thousand-fold and then some. They make us a better people and a stronger nation.

When we dry another’s tears, when we hold a hurting child, when we uplift a community flattened by natural disaster, we build our own character and when we, as private citizens unrelated to government decision, fail to heed a cry we are the emperor who believes he is clothed. Our nakedness is revealed.


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