Letters & Opinion

The St Jude’s “Debacle” – the Real Narrative

By Stephen Lester Prescott
Image of St. Jude Hospital.

EXCERPTS from a statement made by Infrastructure minister Stephenson King were carried in various media. Predictably the narrative that successive administrations were to blame for the non-completion of the St. Jude Hospital was faithfully trotted out. This is of course the narrative that the established media have repeated uncritically now for well over three years, some claiming that they are ignorant of the facts, when the verifiable facts have been in the public domain for almost as long as this deliberately distorted representation has been advanced.

The “successive administrations” cliché has become standard fare by those who wish to cloud issues of critical social and economic moment, particularly when the handling of these issues may reflect unkindly on them. And that is especially true in respect of the rebuilding of St Jude’s and the truth of who is really responsible for what has unnecessarily become a sorry debacle. Stephenson King however, a former minister for health and the prime minister whose administration initiated the rebuilding project, should not be the one to continue perpetrating this deception.

It appears however, that it is more important to him now to defend the indefensible. After all he is firmly embedded in a demonstrably most clueless government to which good governance and accountability mean nothing. And much to the disappointment of those on his side who thought he might have been the saving grace of “their” government, he has decided to sink in the same morass as the others.

In my view, it is understandable that reacting to the disaster, decisions were made in a crisis mode and that the magnitude of the problem, especially as it was decided that a new facility should be built, made it improbable that that the project would have been completed by the then King Government. Indeed it is arguable that the decision by Mr King’s government to completely rebuild was the correct one. Of course there has been the criticism that the scope of the project was being changed as they went along, but no one can reasonably argue that the South and indeed Saint Lucia’s Health system did not need a medical facility that would be a clear qualitative improvement over what had obtained until then.

Additionally, it has to be to the credit of the Kenny Anthony administration that followed, that they were able to source funding and to bring the hospital to a state of near completion by the 2016 election. This they were able to achieve in an environment where financial resources for such projects are not easily negotiated, especially when one is approaching it from the philosophy of making health facilities accessible to all, and not as a profit making, private enterprise venture.

The action of stopping the project under frivolous pretexts that are not supported by any technical evidence therefore lies squarely on the shoulders of the Chastanet Administration. And nowhere else. We are in the fourth year of this government, all the technical people, even those engaged to carry out their own million-dollar technical audit, have advised that the hospital as conceptualized by Mr. King’s government, and as was being executed by a team largely chosen by them, should be completed. The Chastanet/Joseph Government has instead chosen to ignore such technical advice.

They have instead chosen to abandon over $90 million worth of buildings and equipment and to attempt to justify this through pronouncements by self-styled engineer Guy Joseph. It is amazing that some in the media and in other areas glibly repeat that the new hospital is inadequate or “does not meet international standards” based on no technical evidence whatever, based on the say-so of Mr Joseph and nothing else. What is even more telling is that reputable technical people including engineer John Peters , architect Mark Heinnecart, and well established and respected personalities in the medical profession have supported the completion.

Should it not strike one as exceedingly strange, if not sinister, that all the technical reports: the Shanta King report, their own technical audit have been suppressed? And that the government have refused to make them public despite the demand by the public at large that these should be made public? Shouldn’t we be concerned that despite all this the government is intent on inflicting an additional loan of some $80 or $90 million on us when we are in dire fiscal straits?

A debt to GDP ratio that appears somewhat more favourable resulting from a rebasing exercise is no excuse for adventurism in taking new loans. The upward revision or enlargement of GDP by taking account of quanta that were not hitherto included is not an occasion to conclude that the ratio is now a healthy one and we can therefore embark on a borrowing spree. The truth is that despite rebasing, the ratio remains above advisable thresholds, and we have been warned that at the current rate of borrowing, within the very short space of the next ten years our fiscal space will be so restricted as to be a veritable break on meaningful investment in the economy.

Is it not prudent that we ask the pertinent questions as to why this interest in procuring loans for projects whose contractors are shrouded in secrecy or which are given almost exclusively by direct award? Why is it that the Chastanet government will incur millions of dollars in penalties as a consequence of reneging on contractual obligations? Why are they intent on spurning arrangements for investment in Hewanorra Airport that by all permutations of quantitative analysis are far superior to going the way of loan financing?

While many stop short at drawing the logical conclusions, it is my view that we can no longer pretend not to know the answers to these questions. The history of multimillion and billion dollar projects in our region, especially those funded by loans which allow unscrupulous politicians to “fouye lamen-yo an grip pwet-la” is clear. Airports appear to be among the prime targets but hospitals are not immune. While we have been discussing St Jude Hospital, and rightly so on the tenth anniversary of its demise, the disasterous approach to the operationalization of Owen King-EU should not be overlooked. What is effectively its repurposing to serve interests other than that of providing quality health care to our people is nothing short of egregious. We can no longer pretend that corruption is not rife at the highest levels. If we do, we become enablers. And it is not just a matter of moral indignation that we should name the beast for what it is.

While such corruption does indeed eat at the moral fabric of our society, in a more material sense a few in the political directorate, along with their “business” associates (and yes, it is not just the “PALITICIANS” as some would have us believe), are enriching themselves by raiding the national treasury and leaving both present and future generations to pay. And while we are paying, this small homeland will continue to spiral downward in social and economic decline. This is a recipe for a social upheaval, the likes of which we have not seen since the days our ancestors rose in revolt against slavery and colonialism.

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