With thanks to our hosts and with immediate congratulations to this extraordinary group of people in front of me, many of whom I recognise, I thought I might use the short time I have – and this distinguished, and committed audience – to touch on the last nine months, and some of the human rights dilemmas it has presented, before going on to offer you my sincere and heartfelt thanks and congratulations.
Globally, human rights became a front-and-centre issue in 2020 and TCI was no exception. We found ourselves, even though a small territory, dealing with the same fundamental issues that were confronting and confounding nations of many hundreds of millions. The right to health, the right to freedom of movement, the right to assembly, the right to a family life, the right to justice, the right to an education, a range of economic rights, all came potentially into conflict with each other and all had to be given considerable consideration.
I feel, and I’m not alone in Government, as though I’ve spent the last year on a metaphorical tightrope attempting to keep our balance between extraordinarily strong forces that touch on the most basic of human needs: security, health, food, faith, well-being, social cohesion to name a few. I suspect more time was spent in Cabinet this year, on the issues that touch on the fundamental human rights of the people of these Islands, than all the time spent in Cabinet, on such fundamental rights, in a decade.
At a top level it would be fair to say that these ‘rights’, the practical manifestation of protecting or suspending these rights, and the constant consideration of returning these rights, as soon as possible, dominated the Territories 2020 agenda. ‘Proportionality’ became our watch word, whether we achieved it or not, time will tell.
Little did I think, at the start of 2020, that I would find myself signing Emergency Powers, or implementing curfew, enforcing lockdown, suspending international travel, or seriously reducing inter-island movement. Little did I think that schools would close, that trial by Jury would need to be suspended or funerals and weddings would be seriously disrupted? When you reach the point in the TCI when churches are closed you know that fundamental ways, in the way we are living our lives, have changed.
Of course at that moment, back in March, we were facing a largely unknown and seemingly unknowable threat whose consequences to our small Islands, and to our extraordinary people, we could not properly judge. Seeing how other countries had been ravished, as the virus marched towards us, the fears we collectively had, particularly for the elderly and the vulnerable, were frankly profound.
I can’t say too many times how impressed I was by the stoic, sensible, calm nature in which the people of TCI accepted the need for these extraordinary restraints on their liberty. The community rallied around a new way of living to protect themselves, certainly, but they also understood they had to protect their neighbours, their colleagues and the vulnerable. In one sense we were all protecting our future way of life.
As a result of this public response, in those first few months, we achieved a greater lockdown here in TCI than almost anywhere in the world and we could only do that through public consent to laws that could only be described as draconian in more normal times. We all accepted a serious reduction in liberty to protect another human right: our health. In hindsight we know – from global research – that those countries who secured an early and strong lock-down were spared the worst consequences of that first global wave. Today, it seems – and I say this with some nervousness – the sacrifice was worth it.
Beyond ‘flattening the curve’ (a new piece of jargon that entered our lexicon) we didn’t allow that valuable time to go to waste, TCI built health capacity – at break-neck speed – and we strengthened our borders yet further to prevent an influx of those carrying the virus that we could neither contain nor control.
As a result of the dramatic curtailment of our human rights, going strong and going early, I believe it has enabled us to restore those rights sooner than others in the region, or across the globe. We now have no curfew. Our borders are open, unusually, to the world and so long as our international guests adhere to the testing and insurance protocols we established, they are unbelievably welcome. Inter-Island travel has returned. Businesses are open. Guests and travellers are returning. Jury trials are about to recommence.
Of course we still remain living under ‘odd’ if necessary conditions but, step-by-step, we are returning to normalcy. Law and regulation now has to increasingly shift towards personal and corporate responsibility and that is a test we must not be found wanting. Rights after all bring responsibilities.
The good news – and I am very positive about next year – is that myself accompanied by the Deputy Governor – leave this function today, to chair a Cabinet where we will make decisions on a vaccination strategy that will, we hope, bring us back in the early months of 2021 to the place we most hope to be: a vibrant economy built on a strong foundation of personal liberty. The communities support for that strategy, in the way they supported the early lockdown, will though be a pre-requisite for that national success and for us to be able to leave many restrictions behind and look forward to our more normal future.
Of course away from the story of laws and regulations the impact of the virus hit our lives in other ways. We have stopped shaking hands, we stopped hugging, we covered our facial expressions, and we smiled with our eyes. I can’t remember hearing very much spontaneous laughter during this period. We put odd distance between ourselves, those we loved and those we cared for. Some families, including my own, were separated by great distance. We started to attend funerals remotely. The joy of fellowship diminished.
Against this backdrop of strange behaviours, embraced by us at both a national and an individual level, where human rights were suspended or curtailed – admittedly for an agreed greater good – one thing that was not suspended was man and woman’s humanity for each other. Indeed, as is always the case in a crisis, it did not dissipate but instead it was amplified. Wherever I looked over the last 9 months I saw informal support networks emerge, existing networks flex and grow, I saw new role-models emerge and more established ones step up again to the challenge.
I said, I think back in April, that I thought this pandemic would in the end demonstrate those who had, and who did not have, integrity. Those whose behaviours during this period – in sacrificing something for themselves to help the greater good – would in the end shine through. Those who understood the greater good and who wanted to contribute to something greater than themselves would, I thought, stand out from the crowd.
As I said this, I hadn’t pictured who they might be, or where I might meet them, but today I find myself in the Shore Club looking at you – those that really did step up – and so it is you, who we honour today.
There are, I’m sure, pandemic heroes in every household, in the TCI. It’s the nature of an honours ceremony though that not all can be present, but I think through your contribution we can recognise the many small and large kindnesses and considerations that have been given during this period. Not all can be here, but all can be thanked.
And with that, I turn back to you – our Pandemic heroes – and thank you on behalf of the whole of TCI for the contribution you made to our collective good. Please remember 2020 as the year in which the Territory said thank you, to you. You did extraordinary things. Stars, each and every-one of you, humanitarian heroes of TCI, I thank you for your service.
- December 14, 2020 at 9:05 am by Editor (displayed above)
- December 14, 2020 at 9:05 am by Editor