A day at the Vital Statistics Unit (VSU) in Belize City can be a tormenting experience for anyone applying for a birth paper, marriage certificate or any other relevant document.
This was the horrifying experience that I went through this past Tuesday when I traveled from Orange Walk to the old capital to apply for a birth certificate. When I arrived at 7 a.m. at the location, some 30 persons were already in the line waiting patiently from very early in the morning, as I was made to understand by a gentleman in front of me who had made the journey all the way from Benque Viejo.
Waiting for an entire hour for that office to open shouldn’t be an issue, especially if the document you need is of urgency. But after one hour in the long line, my attention was drawn to another 40 persons behind me, although I remained hopeful that I would get through with a one-day express service no matter the long waiting.
At 8:05 am we were allowed in, then informed that 11 a.m. is the “cut-off” time, meaning that if you came from as far as PG or Corozal and made your arrival after that time, you would have to return the following day to apply for your document or spend the night at a hotel if you can afford it, or stay in the city with a relative if you happen to have one.
Once inside the VSU office, I immediately began questioning how such a vital government department that dispenses such a vital public service to the Belizean people could be occupying such a degrading and inhumane premise at our (taxpayers’) expense. Well, it didn’t take me long to see the lackluster service that scores of Belizeans continue to complain about getting at various government departments, in my case applying for a simple paper that confirms my birthright as a Belizean.
The following observations compel me to draw to the attention of the central government that a proactive approach MUST be taken to ameliorate the present conditions and services at the VSU. Firstly, the VSU office should be relocated to a much bigger and spacious building where the Belizean public will feel dignified and respected as they wait to get their business taken care of. I say “dignified” after noticing there is only one ceiling fan in the entire area where the people wait before they are attended. Also, there is one bathroom that is used for BOTH males and female. This is unacceptable. Another observation that I made is that there is one security at the entrance to the VSU office. Unlike the banks and credit unions which ensure order and safety for their customers while they are doing business, the same cannot be said about this department. I have no apologies in admitting that some of our fellow Belizeans just haven’t learnt to wait in a line until you get your turn – this is simple common sense! There is a dire need to enforce law and order inside and outside the statistics unit office.
What is even more condescending about the services at the VSU is that after 4 grueling hours of waiting for my turn, I was informed by the female employee that I could not apply for an express birth certificate as they have a backlog of applicants requesting such services. I explained, to her the urgency but she advised me nonetheless that I would have to wait until two weeks before I could obtain my birth certificate. As I turned around for answers to this intolerable situation, lo and behold, I almost walked into “Yellowman” Audinett, a UDP operative. I immediately used my intuition to try to have him put in a word for me. Mr. Audinett shared with me that he had a list of “my people” to deal with, then he marched off straight into the room at the back where documents are printed. As goodwill and understanding always prevail, I presented my case and was told that I could return the following day for my birth certificate. How that day went is another tale of sorrows.
Paying for my application at the cashier became another predicament. As I stood in line like a responsible citizen, I watched how political operatives were busy making payments thereby creating the obvious impression to everyone that the Vital Statistics Unit is a “hot bed of corruption” like many other government departments and agencies.
The following are my recommendations. For the interim, I propose that citizens from the districts be given preference to the services at the VSU in the morning and the city residents in the afternoon. This will reduce the tremendous backlog of applications especially those requiring immediate attention or urgency. Maybe the government should start deploying their “contract” workers to this unit where taxpayers can see value for their money.
Secondly, if a statistics department cannot be established in every district (maybe I’m thinking too far-fetched), then it is time for the government to train Belizeans how to apply online for a birth paper, marriage certificate, etc. and avoid the unnecessary travelling and expenses that are incurred in the process. If the US Consular Office felt that Belizeans are intelligent people to go online to apply for a visa, then it certainly is high time that we embrace technology for this beneficial cause. After all, as this service is concerned, it will be a win-win situation for both government and people.
Another recommendation is that the VSU should institute policies in terms of service for the elderly and disabled. A woman from San Lazaro, Orange Walk took in her visually impaired husband and her efforts to mitigate her own frustration about this system that has failed everyone became, so sadly, the laughing stock of the impatient crowd inside the statistical office.
In closing, I must applaud the devoted work of the staff at the Vital Statistical Unit. It is obvious that they work under extreme duress and, I can imagine, under pressure of the political desperadoes who conveniently forget that we elect them to be our servants, not our masters. The unacceptable services at the Vital Statistics Office represent only one such government department which continues to short-change the Belizean people and rob them of their dignity and self-worth. We can do better.
Apolinar A. Tzul, M.Ed.