A chance encounter with a Spanish-speaking person in the croisee in San Juan has prompted ‘una crisis’ of my own amid the Covid-19 pandemic. A young man from Venezuela was trying to find his way to Port of Spain to meet someone. He had only arrived in the country a few hours before our encounter and was transported to the croisee. I gleaned these details from my limited knowledge of Spanish peppered with lots of sign language and abundant ‘Spanglish’.
What if the Venezuelans who continue to come in through our porous (i.e. unwatched, unguarded) border areas are asymptomatic carriers of the dreaded Covid-19? How would we trace them and, more importantly, what is my personal responsibility at this time?
The Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) reported that Venezuela’s health system is not prepared for the pandemic. While they have confirmed at least 42 cases, this figure is likely to be unreliable because 70% of hospitals do not yet have access to test kits. Additionally, in 2019, the Global Health Security Index ranked Venezuela among the least prepared countries to respond to the pandemic.
My concern is that our officials often refer to borders as being ‘porous’, and I have not seen any communication about how we plan to mitigate this risk. It might just be that I don’t have the information, but when the minister of national security, in a June 2019 Express article, announces that our borders are now closed, I understand it in terms of official ports of entry—airports and maritime. But who is patrolling the numerous other points of entry; especially since 50% or so of our coastline faces Venezuela?
According to the June 2019 Express coverage of the sod-turning ceremony to mark the building of the new Carenage Police Station, Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith said: “Because of where the station would be, I would now take this opportunity to let you know that we can now use the opportunity for this station being here to deal with the problems we have with criminal activities coming along the seafront.”
Much of this language is phrased in the future tense; I have not found any commentary speaking about our current approaches to patrolling these porous borders. At that same ceremony, the prime minister is quoted as saying: “… the TTPS Marine Branch was removed some time ago and replaced with nothing.”
The TTPS Marine Branch was closed in 1989 under the then National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) government. The government is well aware of the high risk we face with limited or few methods for patrolling our borders. The worry used to be guns and drugs; it has escalated now to an invisible threat on the bodies of some uninvited guests.
What is happening to contain the spread of Covid-19 by illegal immigrants, especially from Venezuela? My chance encounter in the croisee is just one example of how exposed we are as a population. And it is not comforting.
Social isolation and physical distancing by the citizenry will work only to the extent that all other containment strategies are in place and observed. All that is needed for an explosion is one asymptomatic case to be on the loose.
I await the announcement of strategies aimed at really policing our porous borders. But the silence is deafening.