Public safety and the government’s role

In most countries (and Guyana is no exception) issues relating to “public safety” rank highly on the list of concerns for the population and the government. However, in Guyana, considerations of public safety usually centre on crime prevention, road safety and fire safety in the main. It seems that some other aspects of public safety are thought to be the responsibility of the citizens themselves, and there is no visible official monitoring of certain public spaces where safety is an issue, particularly, but not limited to the safety of children.

One critical area of child safety is the safety of children in schools where they spend the majority of their waking hours from Monday to Friday. It is not at all uncommon in Guyana to see poorly kept classrooms with faulty furniture – usually the same types of desks and benches that were in vogue many decades ago with three or more children crammed onto one bench. This kind of proximity makes for the easy transmission of communicable diseases and can also lead to disagreements which can escalate into violence.

The prevalence of unsanitary bathrooms in schools with the concomitant health risks are also a major public safety issue primarily related to children. Many classrooms also have broken or missing windows, are inadequately ventilated, and have poor lighting and electrical facilities and fire safety facilities. Schoolyards are also notoriously poorly maintained with some of the top schools having grounds overgrown with grass and bush, or at the other extreme, quite devoid of any greenery – basically just an uneven expanse of bare earth.

It is against this backdrop of a seeming lack of superintending of public safety in schools and in schoolyards and school grounds that only this September, a tragic incident occurred with the collapse of a goal post in a community centre ground which was being utilised by a particular school. A seemingly (temporarily) unsupervised six-year-old was swinging on the goal post which collapsed, fatally throwing him to the ground.

This tragic accident on a community playground was followed scarcely two months later by the drowning of a thirteen-year-old girl and her fifty-year-old uncle at Golden Creek during the Rockstone Fish Festival. The man died valiantly trying to save the teen as she encountered difficulties in the deep end of the creek that should have been off-limits to the general public. Minister of Business, Dominic Gaskin, speaking after the tragic occurrence, said that strict safety measures should have been in place by the organisers, warning further that “one should never underestimate the things that can go wrong.” The Minister also met with the Rockstone Fish Festival committee according to a post on the Ministry of Business’ Facebook page, “to discuss the implementation of comprehensive safety and security measures to guard against any adverse outcomes such as the Sunday tragedy.

The Minister’s comments and actions are obviously well intentioned and sincere in terms of hoping that such an incident is prevented from happening. However, it seems as if the big picture is being missed regarding “public safety” as a broader responsibility of the government outside of crime, traffic and fire safety. The idea that organisers of public events and custodians of public spaces are wholly and solely responsible for “public safety” issue is flawed, and the government must show that it understands this by taking responsibility for setting the standards, compelling compliance and instituting sanctions and penalties where necessary in pursuit of overall public safety.

There have been many deaths by drowning over the years in public pools, creeks and beaches, and yet there is no formal lifeguard presence at many places which offer swimming activities to the public. Indeed, the cost of having trained lifeguards who know how to perform life saving techniques such as Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) and artificial respiration should not negate having such vital personnel in a swimming environment. Clearly marked “No Swimming” areas should also point persons away from the dangerous portions of the water.

The shortfalls in safety precautions which led to the deaths of two children and one adult in the examples quoted above are symptomatic of a major weakness in our conceptualisation of “public safety” and our understanding of who is responsible for ensuring “public safety” in schools, parks, business places, beaches and swimming areas, and so on. We understand that the government is responsible for ensuring Occupational Health and Safety of persons in the workplace, but we have not fully grasped the concept of the need for similar government monitoring of safety issues for members of the public, particularly children, utilising public facilities in public spaces.

In Guyana, organisers of public events tend to ensure the presence of policemen as a means of fulfilling their obligations to provide public safety. Some might even go so far as to include firemen and medical personnel, but simply having any such a person does not mean that the person is necessarily trained for all aspects of “public safety” which can range from crowd control to someone having a heart attack or fainting from breathing complications.

In a fast changing digitized world with information being at the fingertips of anyone who desires such information, the governing authorities in Guyana do not have much of an excuse for constantly adopting a reactionary posture to terrible incidents like these, but then relegating such incidents to the dustbins of their memories with the passage of time. Life is precious and priceless, and prevention is always preferable to the cure. Maybe the time has come for the Ministry of Public Security to broaden its remit and establish a Public Safety Agency which can have oversight for and institute much needed changes in the neglected aspects of the “public safety” environment in Guyana.

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