POLITICAL IMPACT RELOADED – Only In Antigua

The late Laukland Benjamin made that caustic remark his personal lament during those days before March 23 2004, when the great revolution of ready public access to the airwaves transformed the political landscape of Antigua & Barbuda forever.

The catchphrase caught on in a big way; and pretty soon almost everybody who called in to a UPP-aligned radio talk show to vent on any issue would end off his or her rant with the weary comment: “Only in Antigua.” The remark represented a sort of exasperated resignation to an imponderable condition: a helpless sense that outrageous things passed as a matter of course in this country, when sensible people should root them out and deal with the miscreants who cause them.

Laukland Benjamin passed not too long after the UPP took office, and as an earthly reward for his labors on its behalf the administration named a road after him. It is unlikely that the memory of the man who made “Only in Antigua” an unofficial motto for a movement for change can ever be forgotten so long as our slap-happy little la-la land continues to produce the sort of comical episode that is now coming to an end. Health Minister Molwyn Joseph has just scored in a big way, with the announcement that the Ministry of Health HQ will soon be returning to the home it recently abandoned: the Old Administration Building at the foot of High and Long Streets.

Now, this is precisely the sort of thing that Laukland Benjamin’s weary lament is designed for! When you look at it seriously, and compare the situation to what ought to have happened in the first place, and should have happened in a well-ordered community, all that rational people can do is shake their head and say: “Only in Antigua.”

The amazing aspect to the whole thing is this: Minister Joseph has not brought anything new to the table. He has merely advised the public about something the public already knows, and has known for a long time! The so-called life-threatening conditions at the Old Administration Building were very real in one sense; yet in another, equally valid, sense, the way the administration chose to deal with the problem made absolutely no sense.

As a major outcome of the way authorities handled the matter, public servants continued to be exposed to carcinogenic asbestos for many months. Ending the workday at 1pm guaranteed millions of dollars in lost productivity, as HQ staffers “enjoyed” a reduced workday at full pay while being exposed to a cancer-causing agent only on a part-time basis.Government forked out further millions renting space that remained emptyfor many more months. All this created a big public inconvenience at huge public expense, while doing nothing at all to rescue the HQ workers from their life-threatening situation. The St Johns Development Corporation eventually started talking about razing the building to create a parking lot for taxis and tour buses serving the cruise port.

Within the last few days, media reported the views of Chief Medical Officer Dr Rhonda Sealy Thomas, who opined that the entire Asbestos Scare Affair had been (in her exact term) “over exaggerated”. For all we know, the good doctor may never have said a truer word. Certainly then Health Minister Wilmoth Daniel ballyhooed the asbestos threat to the high heavens, as he thrashed around in a vain, expensive attempt to find alternative housing for his ministry HQ. In the end, the Health Ministry got what it apparently wanted: a glossy suite of offices in a flashy new mid-town building; but for some cause still to be understood by reasonable people the civil servants still had to endure a known threat to their health for an unconscionably long time.

Now, Health Minister Molwyn Joseph has had the pleasure of reporting to a bemused nation that rather than razing an historic building to the ground to make space for vehicles, the new administration will do what ought to have been done in the first place. The offending carcinogenic materials (mainly in the roof and ceiling) will be removed, and the entire structure retro-fitted to bring it in fully line with present-day standards. So now the “over exaggerated” asbestos scare will at last be handily dealt with, and the Health Ministry HQ will soon move back into its old address. But since 2011 lives have knowingly been put in danger, and huge sums spentto no useful purpose. Happily, a part of the nation’s architectural and political history has been rescued from oblivion.

What can we say … except, “Only in Antigua”.

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