St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ Prime Minister Dr. Ralph E. Gonsalves was seriously injured Thursday during what was described as a massive protest in Kingstown, the Vincentian capital, over proposed changes to the Public Health Act.
Preliminary reports indicate that the Vincentian leader, 74, was struck in the head by an object thrown by a demonstrator, who was among those protesting proposed changes to the Act.
According to the Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC), the amendments would remove the word “voluntary” from a section of the law that refers to vaccination against an illness that triggers the declaration of a public health emergency, such as COVID-19.
The Agency for Public Information (API), in the Office of the Prime Minister, said in a statement Thursday that about “200 demonstrators, responding to a call to action from the leader of the opposition, picketed the parliament and blocked the entrance to building.
“When the crowd prevented the vehicle carrying prime minister from driving through the gate of the parliament, he alighted the vehicle and attempted to enter on foot,” the statement said. “An opposition demonstrator then hurled a projectile at the prime minister, which struck him in the head, inches above the temple.”
The API said Gonsalves, bleeding profusely, was taken to the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital in Kingstown by his security detail, where he was met by his wife.
“The prime minister is now recuperating under the care of hospital staff,” the statement said. “He will remain at the hospital overnight for observation. He has informed his colleagues that he is recovering, and reaffirmed that no lawless mob will prevent him from doing the people’s business in the seat of our democracy.
“Further, the prime minister strongly reiterated his belief in the solemnity of the vote as a cornerstone of parliamentary democracy and basis of governmental legitimacy,” it added. “In spite of his injuries, the prime minister welcomed all peaceful demonstration as a fundamental right enshrined in our Constitution, but cautioned that legitimate peaceful demonstration should in no way impede parliamentarians’ rights of entrance and egress from the House of Assembly.
“Moreover, the use of violence in pursuit of political purposes is entirely unacceptable,” the statement continued. “We expect that the perpetrator of the actual act of violence will be brought to justice. Such an act is to be unequivocally condemned. Equally to be condemned are the instigators and back-room authors of this kind of violence.”
The API subsequently said that Gonsalves was being flown to Barbados Thursday night for an MRI, “thanks to the Government of Barbados.”
The API said the information was based on an announcement in Parliament by Finance Minister Camillo Gonsalves, the eldest son of the prime minister.
CMC said that Gonsalves was on his way back to Parliament, where the amendments were scheduled to be debated, when the incident occurred.
Videos circulating on social media show blood to the right side of the prime minister’s head, as he was rushed from the area.
“Shouts of ‘shield, shield’ could be heard as Prime Minister Gonsalves was covered by security forces after being hit,” CMC said.
It said the Vincentian government had also planned to make vaccines mandatory for certain categories of public sector employees in order to work in “frontline” jobs.
“Given the extent of the misrepresentations, and misinformation by some persons about this bill, it is necessary and desirable to put the record straight,” CMC quoted Gonsalves as saying last week, adding that the legislation “does not involve any legal penalty or punishment on anyone who fails and/or refuses to take the vaccine or test for COVID-19.
“The choice of working or not working in a particular job which requires vaccination in the interest of public health will be that of the employee,” Gonsalves added. “Individual rights are always required in the appropriate circumstances to be balanced by public interest considerations, in this case, the requisites of public health. The relevant rules under the Public Health Act will be made and published in due course in the official gazette.”
Last Thursday, the main opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) staged a street protest against the government’s proposed mandatory vaccination law, CMC said.
Trade unions are also reportedly opposed to the proposed changes in the Public Health Act.
Reuters news agency reported on Thursday that the tourism industry in St. Vincent and the Grenadines was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, and that some 15,000 people were displaced after the La Soufriere Volcano erupted in April after decades of inactivity.