Earlier this year, as COVID-19 ravaged the world around us, I was asked, in my capacity as Leader of the Opposition, to co-chair the National Oversight Committee (NOC). When the request came from Prime Minister Barrow, there was no hesitation on my part. It was the right thing to do. The pandemic had brought countries small and large alike to their knees, and Belize would need all hands on deck to fight the inevitable. I gave no thought to partisan politics, because obviously this was no time for that.
In the People’s United Party, there was full consensus that the concept of an Oversight Committee chaired by the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition was good for the nation.
Yes, there were some who questioned the motivation behind the invitation I received. There were those who believed that long before COVID-19, the nation’s health system had been in critical condition, and that for the past 12 years the ministry was under the leadership of an incompetent minister with a questionable character. Added to these variables were obvious concerns, like the fact that the current UDP administration has committed an unprecedented assault on good governance, resulting in a legacy that will forever be marked by nepotism, corruption, arrogance, incompetence and the breakdown of most of our systems.
Yet, our executive and the wider membership of the Party believed that this was no time for politics, and the pandemic demanded the formation of a united front. They insisted, however, that given the situation, we would have to aggressively insist on greater openness and transparency and that there had to be meaningful collaboration.
Yes, there were discussions at the Oversight Committee level, and all the civil and religious organizations that formed a part of the NOC were fully engaged, and their input added great value. This notwithstanding, it very quickly reached a point where suggestions that were made did not sit well with the PM, and he reminded us that the body was merely advisory, because final decisions needed to go to Cabinet for approval.
So while we were trying to push for fairness, for accountability and transparency in the entire process, it all had to go for final approval to the very same Cabinet that for years had abused the Food Pantry Program for political purposes. Procurement of things like PPEs, masks and the like would be decided by Cabinet, and all we could do was give our stamp of approval. At the same time, the sub-committees like the Health Task Force, which was to be co-chaired by the Government and Opposition-appointed co-chairs, were not functioning properly. Then there was the famous Doug Singh interview, in which he so disparaged Belizeans, with no rebuke from the government.
Despite all this I soldiered on, pushing for proper auditing of the funds received and disbursed. I asked for proper protocols for the procurement of necessary equipment and supplies for our health facilities and frontline personnel. I pushed for separate facilities outside of the KHMH to be used to treat COVID-19 patients, after frontline personnel expressed the fear of the nation’s largest referral hospital becoming overwhelmed. I pushed for private institutions and private medical personnel to be brought on board so that we could present a united medical front against the virus, utilizing as best we could scant resources. I pushed for rapid testing to be utilized, and I pushed for better care and compensation for frontline workers.
I can with pride and confidence say that the input provided to the National Oversight Committee by the People’s United Party was solid, non-political and solely for the good of the country. None of us in the PUP ever asked for attention. None of us ever sought the spotlight. No elected PUP was given any authority to decide who would supply or distribute any relief. Those of us who used our own resources to provide assistance never placed our names on the bags, nor did we ever post photos of ourselves distributing food items to the needy. But in all our communities we helped as much as we could, while UDP operatives were making sure their supporters were being placed at the front of the line, not only for unemployment relief, but for food assistance as well.
In the end, I realized that many of my suggestions were acknowledged, but were not acted upon, and it became clear that Cabinet was changing recommendations from the NOC for political advantage. After consultation with my people, I decided to leave the NOC. I left with a clear conscience. I walked away when the COVID-19 curve had flattened and Belize was one of the only nations in the world with over 40 days with no new cases of the coronavirus. When I left the NOC we were COVID-free.
Since then much has changed. We are on track to approaching 1500 positive cases. Today we have more than 15 deaths. Our health system is overwhelmed, about 40 of our frontline persons have been infected, and testing is so backlogged that it can take up to a week to get back results. And the government’s response seems to be reduced to comic relief by the occasional appearances on TV of AG Peyrefitte and an obviously overworked Dr. Manzanero, trying to hold things together to compensate for an incompetent minister. Add to this, our economy is stuttering while our people continue to wait for help.
It comes as no surprise that whenever the inadequacy of the UDP comes into question, they attack me for leaving the Committee, such as it was. That is okay. As I said, my conscience is clear, and I will ALWAYS put my country before stupid, petty politics.
I stand ready, as does the PUP, to be a part of any real, concerted effort to rebuild the country in the midst of a pandemic. Failing that, as the next government the PUP will get it done right.