“How sleep you now, unfeeling kings? Does one human feeling creep through your hearts’ remorseless sleep?”
These were the words of the poet Percy Shelley challenging suppression of the working class.
There are no words strong enough to condemn the cruelty of the management of Paria Fuel Trading Company in dropping the news of the presumed death of four underwater maintenance divers on their families, while the family members were camped in a shed outside Paria’s premises in Pointe-a-Pierre.
The Paria officials dropped it on the families and called that George. Eventually the Minister of Energy and the Prime Minister gave platitudinous promises of probes into what cost the divers their lives.
Such action is not a mere communications failure as some, including ministers of government, would have us believe. It is a failure to have humanity, which is the capacity to have compassion for fellow human beings.
It is an absence of humanity that causes persons in Trinidad and Tobago with public duties to repeatedly miss the moment when sensitivity to the plight of others must prevail over personal image, the deflection of accountability and the assertion of unrestrained power and privilege.
It is now the norm for our public officials to be contemptuous of those in distress. In the notorious words of former prime minister Patrick Manning—uttered when a young woman was killed outside MovieTowne—the death was ‘collateral damage’.
Compassion is one of the most desirable human values but it is markedly absent from many of the acts of commission and omission of our public officials. Yet we elect them or select them and leave them in office unsanctioned when they make disastrous mistakes and trample on our feelings. That is one of the reasons why the promises of probes are mere platitudes.
The divers disappeared early on the afternoon of Friday 25 February. On Sunday morning, 27 February, the front page headline in this newspaper was Diving Disaster.
There was not a shred of thought on the part of the top officials that arrangements might be made to set up a comfort centre in a nearby building to accommodate the anxious waiting families, with suitably qualified personnel made available to counsel them from Friday night onwards.
They were left to camp out in the shed, reputedly an old bus shelter, and left there—even when the devastating news was delivered on Sunday evening, and even though the Minister of Energy reportedly met the grieving families on Saturday evening.
Let us now contrast the place where the Paria top officials located themselves inside the compound on Sunday to drop it on the families camping in the shed outside.
They sat at a head table in the ballroom of the former country club of the South, Pointe-a-Pierre Staff Club. On that Sunday—just like with the carpenter Joseph, his wife Mary and baby Jesus—there was no room at that inn for the humble folk.
History was also repeating itself, as I am told that most employees had access only to the Guaracara Sports Club in those old country club days.
Contrary to universal practice, the families did not receive compassionate advance notice that the divers had likely died before this was announced publicly.
On Monday evening, the deaths were confirmed. This time, according to Paria’s curiously worded media release, ‘the families of the deceased were first notified simultaneously’.
These words are obviously contradictory of each other. In any event, the crude cruelty of the public announcement of the likelihood of death before confirmation—which the Paria officials made on Sunday evening from their lordly perch in the Pointe-a-Pierre club—had already done severe damage to the feelings of the family.
The publication of this column marks my twentieth year as a weekly columnist. It is frightening to recall that, in the earliest of my publications, I began drawing attention to the lack of compassion among our politicians and indifference among our wider leadership to the prevalence of murder with impunity.
A little over a year later, in December 2003, I characterised our leadership as unfeeling kings.
Beware that the continuous elitist tearing of our social fabric is reducing it to resentful shreds.