APPOINTMENT OF A COMMISSION OF INQUIRY TO INVESTIGATE THE INCIDENCE OF ILLNESS AND DEATHS IN THE BARIMA-WAINI REGION OF GUYANA
Leader of the Opposition [Brigadier (Ret’d) Granger]: I rise to ask this honorable House to support the motion which stands in my name, a motion for the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry (COI) to investigate the incidence of illness and deaths in the Barima/Waini Region of Guyana.
I rise because children have died. Innocent infants have perished. I rise because over 500 persons suffered illness in this Region. I rise to ask this National Assembly to bemoan the deaths of innocent persons and to express condolences to their families and relatives. I rise to pray for the recovery of the persons who were made ill during this period. I rise, also, to encourage this House to seek answers, to determine the causes, to look at the conditions that existed in the Barima/Waini Region at the time, to look at the course of the crises and, also, the consequences of the crisis which that occurred in this Region. I rise to seek a solution to what occurred so that it would not occur again during the next rainy season.
This commission is necessary because of the repetitive nature of this particular disease. A previous Minister of Health pointed out that between December and March, there is always a rise in the number of cases of this particular disease. He pointed out that this is the deadliest period, the most dangerous period. In other words, this is something that could have been anticipated because a previous Minister, perhaps of a more clinical bend or less political bend, was able to discern this pattern several years ago.
This commission is necessary because it was also determined that the most vulnerable were children and, in this case, we know that there are three confirmed deaths of infants 12 months and younger. It is the youngest who suffered and these are the people who should be taking over this country – the youngest persons.
This commission is necessary because the Barima/Waini Region is a huge Region. It is four times the size of Trinidad and Tobago. We know, also, that most of the rivers in Guyana run from the South to the North, to the Atlantic. In the Barima/Waini Region, particularly, the residents of the riverine areas are very susceptible to this type of disease. We are aware of the preconditions.
We are aware, also, that three of this country’s Indigenous groups – Arawaks, Caribs and Waraus – reside in this Region and, particularly, in Moruka. It has produced three Ministers of the Government, two of which are present here today. This Region is a very important Region to us all but it is also susceptible to the vagaries of what I call the frontier economy. There is mining, there is logging and, of course, it is a Region of great potential, but it is also an area of great smuggling and lawlessness, so it requires greater attention from the law enforcement and other regulatory agencies.
In this particular crisis that we are discussing this evening, there are at least six Ministries and we have not heard about the reaction of some of these Ministries to the crisis. There is the Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, the Ministry of Housing and Water, and the Ministry of Education. In addition, there are several Government agencies: the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Guyana Water Incorporated (GWI), and the Guyana Forestry Commission (GFC).
When we see the complexity of the administrative obligations of the State, then is when we understand the importance of a strong local government and a strong Regional Democratic Council (RDC) to be able to coordinate their work in an area that is four times the size of Trinidad and Tobago and to be able to coordinate the work of six ministries. If our local government structure is weak, coordination will be poor and, if coordination is poor, our children will die.
But, the deadliest disease in the Barima/Waini Region is not gastroenteritis. It is the feeling of being abandoned; the feeling of being deserted; the feeling of being disregarded; and the feeling of being disowned by the very Government which should protect us, preserve life and prevent this catastrophic type of epidemic.
Let us look at the making of this disaster, this man-made mess in the Barima/Waini Region. There are three aspects that we should examine and my Colleagues, I am sure, will explore them further. The first is the public health aspect. The second is the public works aspect. The third and, perhaps, the most insidious is the public information aspect.
As far as the public health problem is concerned, we have seen an extraordinary number of people falling ill. We have seen children dying. Up to now we do not know how many children died. We have seen a repetitive pattern of illness.
Dr. Indar of the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) blamed this disaster on poor data collection and late detection. So the public health problem according to Dr. Indar might not have been so severe had there been better data collection and earlier detection.
Then there is public works problem. The Guyana Water Incorporated (GWI) is charged with responsibility for distributing water to households, particularly to the areas that were most affected, the areas in Sebai. It was not until 24th March after the disease had been raging for over two months that we got the first squeak out of the GWI to the effect that there is going to be an improvement in the pure water supply system.
The third aspect I would like to look at very briefly, and I said it is the most insidious aspect, is the public information aspect. This outbreak started in the middle of January. We heard nothing from the Government, nothing from National Communications Network Inc. (NCN), nothing from Guyana Information News Agency (GINA). The first death occurred on 15th February, nearly one month after the outbreak started. A two-month old child died and still we heard nothing. It was not until the end of the first week in March that the Ministry of Health is known to have made its first public statement. It is not until the first week in March after a disease break out in January that the first plane load of medicine was taken into the Barima/Waini Region. Even when we heard the first statements we were told the Ministry has been on top of the issue even before it was highlighted in the media. On top of what issue? My colleagues will deal with the numbers. However, by the middle of March when this disease was raging we were still being told by representatives of the Ministry the outbreak is under control. When we were being told 252 persons were hospitalised and three persons dead from that disease. The next day after the disease was said to be under control the number of ill rose to over 500. Even then we were told by another official of the Ministry that the situation has stabilised. By the 28th March there was a news blackout. There was nothing from any state medium that I could detect after 28th March about this disease that had created so much destruction and death in the Barima/Waini. GINA went blank, NCN went blank, and the Chronicle went blank. We do not know up to now how many people suffered and how many people have died and that is why we are calling for an enquiry. The Opposition is not satisfied with the readiness of the Government to respond to a crisis of this nature. The Opposition is not satisfied with the ability of those six ministries to coordinate their efforts and manage this crisis. The Opposition is not satisfied with the dissemination of timely information to the public and to this Hon. Assembly, among whom are representatives of the very Regions. The Opposition is not satisfied that the infrastructure has been installed to provide safe water to the 25,000 residents of that Region. We are not satisfied that arrangements have been made for the proper disposal of solid waste if that has been one of the causes of the disease. Most of all the Opposition is not satisfied about the way the entire Region was treated, as if it was part of the bush. It was treated in a most undeserving and undignified way. That is why I call upon this Hon. House to support the call contained in this motion for a commission of enquiry to investigate the death and illness of our citizens in the Barima/Waini Region. I thank you. [Applause]
Brigadier (Ret’d) Granger (replying): I thank my Colleagues, Dr. Norton, Mrs. Garrido-Lowe, Mr. Bond and Ms. Williams, on this side of the floor, and the other speakers here, who have spoken in support of this motion.
I learnt a lot tonight about the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs. I am glad for this motion.
It is really small-minded to think that I would use the death of three children to seek popularity. At my stage in life, I do not have to seek popularity by using three children’s death. It comes from the mind of a person who would send a vehicle in the Rupununi to Woweta at Katamang, when I am visiting there, to put up posters saying, “Granger is a stranger.” That tells me something about the mentality of people who are running our Government. It is really shameful.
I learnt a lot and I am grateful for the debate. I would like to point out to this House – because we have been referring to three deaths – that I thought that the Minister of Health, when he spoke, would have referred to what happened to Joseph Scott – six months; Tracy France – 12 months; Keisha France – six months; Jacob Beth – 12 months; Wendy Williams – 18 months; Nalini Santiago... Really, it is not three deaths. That is why we need an inquiry, because I have the list of other people who died in January, February and March. We thought that the two Ministers would have brought this matter out, but it seems that we still need an inquiry to find out the truth.
I think we had a very fruitful debate. Again I thank the contributors for the incisive views which have been aired and the commitment to ensure that there is no recurrence. For this reason, I would like to call on Members of this House to demand that an inquiry be convened so that more children do not die from gastroenteritis or ADD for months, weeks and years to come.
Thank you. [Applause]