When the announcement was made that all residents living near the La Soufriere volcano on the Caribbean island of St Vincent had to evacuate, I immediately felt afraid. My family live on the island and despite it being a former British colony and current member of the Commonwealth, I knew we couldn’t rely on the UK government to step up in our time of need. The latest series of eruptive activity began in December 2020 and has now escalated with a series of explosions which have resulted in large ash plumes blanketing the nation. Thousands of people have placed in emergency shelters with limited access to water during a pandemic.
Many of us still remember the havoc caused to the island of Monserrat in August 1995, when their volcano erupted. The capital city of Plymouth was destroyed, the tourism industry crumbled and many people were evacuated. Some 4,000 came to Britain to rebuild their lives. At the time, the UK government, along with Monserrat, led the aid effort and millions of pounds were raised, but there was heavy criticism and riots due to the slow response from the UK.
So why are we, years later, seeing a similar pattern of response? Or rather, a lack of?
“The UK does a great job of forgetting who was there to help them in their time of need”
There has been outrage on social media (and rightly so) about the lack of support offered to St Vincent and the Grenadines despite its history. Made up of 32 islands and cays, with St Vincent being the main island, before 1498, it was called Hairouna. It was colonised by the French and then the British, who enslaved people on sugar plantations until the 19th century. The nation only gained full independence in 1979. Commentators have also pointed out that natural disasters in predominantly Black countries do not get the same media attention as other nations in similar situations (the fire at the Notre Dame in Paris, last year, springs to mind). St Vincent’s population is approximately 130,000 with the majority of the people being of African descent.
Perhaps if I mention that Princess Margaret has enjoyed the beauty of the Mustique island for years, which is part of St Vincent and the Grenadines, the media will become interested? Or if I mention that the award-winning Pirates of the Caribbean movies were filmed in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, it could become a top priority for movie lovers? But really, I shouldn’t have to mention the above. The fact that people are suffering should be enough.
But it doesn’t seem to be.
The UK does a great job of forgetting who was there to help them in their time of need. After World War II the Windrush generation (many from St. Vincent and the Grenadines) came and helped to rebuild Britain. So why aren’t they returning the favour? The Caribbean isn’t a playground for the rich and famous. It’s not just a place to go on holiday and take nice pictures to post on social media, it’s a real place, with real people – who will suffer from a natural disaster of this magnitude for years to come. The initial donation of £200,000 from the UK will not be enough for a catastrophe of this level.
The volcano is erupting near a part of St Vincent I know very well. My mother was born and raised in Georgetown, (situated in the north east), before coming to the UK as a child. Like many Caribbean parents, she has great admiration for her home country. She speaks fondly of her upbringing in the warm sunshine, playing under coconut trees. These stories have stayed with me. Visiting the island as an adult has always felt like home and many members of my mother’s family still live in the same village she left behind in 1966.
Since the news of the eruption, Vincentians at home and those in the diaspora have rallied together and the collective solidarity has been comforting. The first respondents to assist St Vincent in her time of need have been neighbouring Caribbean islands. There have been shipments of water, food and essential items from Trinidad and Tobago and Venezuela. The Barbados army has arrived to help with the relief effort. The quick and selfless response from these nations, even with their own financial limitations, has been nothing but remarkable. At a press conference, the Vincentian prime minister was moved to tears. He said: “The way in which people in St Vincent and the Grenadines, and then Grenada, Dominica, St. Lucia and Antigua have responded to put people in their homes, strangers, brings tears to my eyes. I love this Caribbean!”
“We need real solutions and coordinated efforts with grassroots organisations and individuals on the ground”
Beyond this help though, we need real solutions and coordinated efforts with grassroots organisations and individuals on the ground to ensure those who need help receive it. The UK government needs to step up. Unfortunately, we live in a time when news cycles change so rapidly and causes are forgotten. I would encourage everyone to do what they can, even when St Vincent is no longer on the news agenda or trending on social media – people will still need our help.
It’s our duty to help as human beings, because it is the right thing to do and because no man is an island – even if they live on one.
To find out how you can help, please follow St. Vincent and the Grenadines High Commission (@svghighcom) on Twitter. They have set up a GoFundMe page (UK-SVG Combined Response to La Soufriere Eruption)