Guyana’s most famous poet Martin Carter wrote the immortal lines “but a mouth is always muzzled, by the food it eats to live” in 1969, and soon after, disillusioned and disgusted by his own short stint in the country’s authoritarian Government he finally resigned, remarking in a Sunday Graphic piece that he wished to live “simply as a poet, remaining with the people.”
His single, succinct composition reportedly handed to veteran newsman then the private newspaper’s Chief Political Reporter, Rickey Singh and first published in the November 1970 anonymous article titled “Exit Carter with a poem,” movingly captures the predicament of free speech and paralysis in a time of censorship and what one critic calls a brooding and “somber silence.” Yet “A mouth is always muzzled” resonates across the decades and world’s borders, attaining renewed relevance in a modern technological age that has seen the immediate release of classified information with the tap of a keyboard by pertinacious people who desire meaningful change and are willing to try for it. The first two stanzas read:
In the premises of the tongue
dwells the anarchy of the ear;
In the chaos of the vision
resolution of the purpose.
And would shout it out differently
if it could be sounded plain;
but a mouth is always muzzled
by the food it eats to live.
On April 19 this year, Stabroek News (SN) broke the story of the courageous Nurse Sherlyn Marks who had officially and repeatedly lodged complaints since last year against then Region Five Councillor, Carol Joseph over the latter’s frequent and alarming access to an addictive pain killing medication at the Fort Wellington Hospital, Berbice. Marks had exhaustively copied her concerns about the preferential treatment to leading health, regional and government officials but no action was taken by the authorities with Ms Joseph continuing to receive regular rounds of injections.
For instance, the nurse’s December 3 2016 account is astonishing. “The Councillor (Joseph) came to the hospital, when she saw that I was working she said, ‘Let me call the RHO before I have to sin here tonight.’ ”
“The Regional Health Officer (RHO) came and rudely asked me to ‘pull-up’ the injection. I refused. Raising his voice he demanded me to hand the keys over to my junior staff (midwife). I also refused. He then demanded that the keys be handed over to him. I handed it over and ensure that he signed. He collected the drug, administered it and returned the keys,” Marks wrote. “So whenever I am working evening shift, the RHO calls the hospital to find out who is working. Once he hears that I am he either asks the sister to wait back to administer it or the Councillor would come on a different shift,” she added.
Ms Marks’ remarkable resolution of purpose must have come after agonising acknowledgement of the lurking dangers associated with taking on a well-known activist of the ruling main party, A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) in the coalition government, coupled with her last minute desperate appeal to a legislator, who as an Opposition Parliamentarian quickly capitalised by penning press letters about the case.
Admitting that she was afraid she would be targeted for speaking out, the nurse conceded it was a risk she was willing to take because she was concerned that the unusual prescriptions were contrary to the laws, and specifically the Narcotic Drug and Psychotropic Substance (Control) Act, and she could be held liable if the medication was given out improperly.
The next day, with sudden stunning alacrity that had long evaded the amnesiac authorities, Nurse Marks was abruptly transferred to the Bath/Experiment Health Centre, an outlying village clinic banished by the Regional Executive Officer, Ovid Morrison with immediate effect under the guise of helping to “establish good vaccination coverage within this catchment area.” Since then in the ensuing fallout, Ms Joseph has resigned as a Councillor for health reasons.
Morrison choose to chastise the nurse for sins of omission, “He said he was upset that I sent the letter to the Chairman of the Region and left him out and asked why. I told him that it was not on purpose but after realizing that he was left out, and I had already sent off the original letter, I brought a copy to give to him. He was not there so I left it with his secretary and felt that I had covered everyone and that someone would take up the matter at a higher level.”
Stressing that she did not want to be used as a political tool the beleaguered nurse declared: “It is unbelievable that everything is turned into politics here and the main issue that I wanted to highlight; the abuse (by) an official of a public office … just seemed to disappear and I am seen as the nurse who said something bad about a public official.”
“This is a serious matter but all that seems to be coming out is the politics” she lamented to SN. “I am pleading with the Ministry of Health to please investigate. If the political parties want to use my story to go after each other, then that is their choice, but all I want is for this serious issue to be highlighted and a solution for the problem found,” the frustrated nurse affirmed.
Instead of being commended for her bravery, strong sense of duty and forthrightness, we now hear from the Public Health Minister that poor nurse Marks has breached public service rules. With the undisclosed findings from an internal investigation and her file being forwarded to the Department of Public Service for action, it seems that the likely sanction and upcoming retaliation are meant to discourage similar behaviour by others.
Earlier, Minister of Communities, Ronald Bulkan promised that he would intervene if he establishes that nurse Marks was transferred because she had blown the whistle, but since, he has been ominously silent. At the time, Bulkan had bold words, insisting “We cannot discourage whistle blowers we have to promote persons out there who are prepared and who have the courage to expose corruption wherever it may be taking place. We cannot sweep things under the carpet.”
A year and a half ago, the new Government released draft whistleblower legislation to fight corruption and other wrongs in the public and private sectors by encouraging and facilitating employees’ disclosures of “improper conduct” in good faith and the public interest. Long called for by anti-corruption groups, the Protected Disclosures (Whistleblower) Bill 2015 was published on the website of the Official Gazette but it is still not yet laid in the National Assembly. It seeks to regulate the receiving, investigating or otherwise dealing with such revelations while moving to protect whistleblowers from being subjected to “occupational detriment.” According to the explanatory memorandum, the Bill marks another step towards full compliance with the Inter-American Convention against Corruption, SN reported.
One key study in the Journal of Clinical Nursing found that whistleblowing can have a serious, long-term impact on people’s emotional well-being and colleagues and employers have a responsibility to support those involved. The authors point out that nurses who blow the whistle may be unprepared for the negative long-term effect it will have on their personal, physical, emotional and professional well-being. However, they also stress the important role that whistleblowing has played in large-scale inquiries that have led to improvements in healthcare safety and quality.
Outraged bloggers on SN’s online site recommended that Ms Marks deserved nomination for a national award, a pay rise and a promotion, as the feedback proved mostly positive with one even advising that she resign and head overseas to a better paying post, and another offering financial help. Suggesting that the Government establishes an anti-corruption cash mechanism to reward persons like Ms Marks, a commentator recognised that “money is a very powerful motivator” in Guyana.
Nurse Marks is sadly learning that standing up in a profession that has long closed ranks, is as Carter puts it in another poem this time about love, “no easy thing.” Research shows that nurses are more likely to speak out than any other healthcare provider and the few hardy souls who dare stand up alone in a high-stress and demanding profession that traditionally closes ranks bolstered by the near impenetrable wall of persecuting officialdom, deserve our admiration and full support, not vilification and punishment.
As she stated: “I knew that speaking out in Guyana would have had some form of victimization attached so I was kind of prepared, but thinking that … I would have been transferred? No I did not expect this at all so soon.” As Carter beautifully sums it up in the last verse of his profound poem:
Rain was the cause of roofs.
Birth was the cause of beds.
But life is the question asking
what is the way to die.
ID celebrates Martin Carter’s June 8 birthday and feels for Sherlyn Marks. She is prepared to also make a donation to Ms Marks’ legal fund that takes up the anti-muzzling cause be it for press freedom or personal persecution.