St. Vincent and the Grenadines Between a Pandemic and a Volcanic Eruption

COVID-19 Reports on Latin America and the Caribbean: No. 59

“The Caribbean is beautiful, but it is fraught with danger.”  

Elizabeth Morgan,  Specialist in International Trade Policy and International Politics

On January 2nd, 2021, the multi-island, eastern Caribbean state of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (hereafter referred to as Saint Vincent), with a population of approximately 109,991, recorded 123 COVID-19 cases, 25 of which were active, and zero COVID-19 related deaths. However, for the period 2020–2021, COVID-19 is not the only national challenge that Saint Vincent has faced. The Ministry of Health, Wellness and the Environment (hereafter referred to as MOH) reported that as of late September 2020, there was an outbreak of 500+ cases of the mosquito-transmitted illness, dengue fever. Moreover, after months of increased activity, an effusive eruption that began in late December 2020, the La Soufrière volcano explosively erupted in early April 2021.

The National Emergency Management Organisation (NEMO) tweeted on April 9th, 2021: “La Soufriere has moved into an explosive state. Plumes up to eight kilometers. Ash fall expected . . .” This was four days short of the 1979 anniversary of the volcano’s eruption. The newspapers captured the eruption’s local and regional impact. The headline of Saint Vincent’s Searchlight read “Farms gone, tree crops stripped bare . . .” While, neighbouring Barbados’ NationNews, described the effects that their island experienced over 100 miles away as “Volcano ash turns northern skies dark.”

The following is a brief report on selected legal measures, including evacuation, emergency, and public health orders, undertaken by Saint Vincent in the immediate lead up to and since the explosive eruption, as it relates to health, safety, and the environment, with an emphasis on those pertaining to COVID-19.

Volcanic Eruption and Evacuation 

On April 8th, 2021, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, upon the advice of the Director of NEMO, regarding the imminent eruption of the La Soufrière volcano, issued an evacuation order, with immediate effect. This evacuation order emanates from ss. 33 and 40 of the National Emergency and Disaster Management Act, Chapter 88 of the Laws of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. With the volcano hazard alert level on red, residents in the red hazard zone were advised to “self-evacuate, or prepare to be evacuated.” Persons evacuated by land and sea to locations internal and external to Saint Vincent. However, some refused to do so. NEMO asserted that “Anyone caught in the Red Zone without the permission of the Police will be immediately arrested and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.” Indeed, ss. 36-39 of the National Emergency and Disaster Management Act outline what constitutes a failure to comply with evacuation orders (and other protective measures), the offences, and penalties.

On April 23rd, 2021, local newspaper, The Vincentian, revealed that thrill-seeker, Desron ‘Lava Man’ Rodriguez, had been detained by authorities after posting a video and images of himself, dated after the evacuation order had been issued, at La Soufrière. By the end of April 2021, the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Authority (CDEMA) indicated that 22,440 persons had been displaced by the volcano, having either relocated to public shelters or to private homes. Furthermore, according to the Damage and Loss Assessment Team, chaired by the Inter-American Institute for Co-operation on Agriculture (IICA), “Preliminary estimates [. . .] indicate that there is ~USD 65 million in damage and losses sustained by the agricultural sector . . .” 

COVID-19, Public Health, and Vaccination

To date, as per the MOH’s website, the country’s core COVID-19-related, public health legislation comprises:

Concerning vaccinations, the previously mentioned Public Health (Emergency Authorisation of COVID-19 Vaccine) Rules, 2021 sanctioned selected COVID-19 vaccines for local use, several of which had by then been approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO), as well as the Russian-produced Gam-COVID-Vac (Sputnik V). A “Full scale launch of the COVID-19 National Vaccination Deployment Programme” began on March 3rd, 2021. In late March 2021, the Searchlight commented on the status of Saint Vincent’s vaccination campaign with the headline, “MOH’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout slowed by (a)nti-vaccine sentiment.”

Even before the evacuation order was issued, the COVID-19 vaccination status of persons likely to be evacuated to communal settings was of some concern. Michelle Forbes, Director of NEMO urged “. . .If you are living in the red and orange zones now and you know that you have to be evacuated, I will strongly recommend that you take the vaccine.”  On April 8th, 2021, the eve of the volcano’s explosive eruption, the MOH reported 1,789 COVID-19 cases, 144 of which were active, 10 COVID-19 related deaths, and 12,124 COVID-19 vaccines administered.

The volcano’s ash fall and heavy rain-induced mudflows and flooding added to the health and safety issues faced by Saint Vincent. All the while, COVID-19 concerns remained constant. After the issuing of the evacuation order, there was a need for clarification on the vaccination status of evacuees. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) disclosed that as of May 9th, 2021 “a total of 40 covid-19 cases are linked to 8 public emergency shelters.”

By early May 2021,  La Soufrière’s alert level was changed from red to orange and residents from specific hazard zones were advised that they could return to their homes and at the end of May 2021, the MOH reported 2,035 total COVID-19 cases, 192 of which were active, 12 COVID-19 related deaths, and 20,768 COVID-19 vaccines administered. Vaccine hesitancy still appeared to be an issue in Saint Vincent.

Janine Mendes-Franco, of Global Voices wrote:

On May 19, Trinidad and Tobago’s foreign affairs minister, Dr. Amery Browne, in announcing the receipt of 16,000 additional doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine from St. Vincent and the Grenadines, noted that many smaller regional territories are experiencing vaccine hesitancy. Rather than have the doses expire, regional governments have been donating part of their allocations to larger Caribbean Community (CARICOM) neighbours who need them.

When asked about the possibility of mandatory vaccination being imposed on public and private sector workers, Prime Minister Gonsalves said:

My answer to you in relation to the current laws, both in relation to the public sector and the private sector, that you can impose the condition that if you don’t take the vaccine you may be terminated.

In the case of both public and private sectors, the employer has a right to have a safe place of work, including a healthy place for you to work, an environment for you to work . . . this is recognized at the Common Law. Various statute law will bolster it, but the common law, it’s there.

By Jolie Rajah

Acknowledgements: Special thanks to N. (Trinidad and Tobago) for the advice and support rendered during the preparation of this report and to D. (Saint Lucia) for taking the time to answer my legislative query while preparing for the onslaught of Tropical Storm/Hurricane Elsa.

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