SAINT VINCENT, GRENADINE ISLANDS — The controversy erupted on Twitter even as the 32,000-foot-high plume of smoke from Saint Vincent’s La Soufrière volcano was still rising in the sky. The firestorm on American social media platforms over reports that only those vaccinated against COVID-19 would be allowed to evacuate the eastern Caribbean island sheds light on the architects of the biosecurity state who have descended on Saint Vincent & the Grenadines (SVG) to explore the limits of mandatory public health protocols in the midst of a natural disaster now projected to “last months.”
Global organizations, NGOs, and members of the scientific community are coordinating emergency response efforts in Saint Vincent. Power outages, no clean water, and continued volcanic eruptions have rendered parts of the island virtually uninhabitable, plunging Vincentians who have managed to escape into a condition of quasi-statelessness where notions of human rights and civil liberties become malleable.
“Refugees are in a position of complete vulnerability,” says Dr. Diego Garcia Ricci, from the Ibero-American University in Mexico City, speaking to MintPress. The constitutional law professor and data privacy expert addressed some of the issues surrounding the plight of refugees as biometric data like retinal scans, fingerprinting and even gender, become a pillar of identity documentation and incipient travel requirements in the wake of the pandemic. “While biometrics can be useful for identification purposes, mistakes do happen,” Garcia Ricci warns.
Most at risk from these mistakes, abuse and racial profiling arising out of biometric digital identity systems are those whose need for the ‘state’ is made indispensable by virtue of being rendered stateless. Free agents with no agency are prime targets for global entities like the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which claims to speak for close to 80 million forcibly displaced people.
Vincentians who are unable or refuse to leave the island are likely to be reclassified as “internally displaced persons” or IDPs, another kind of refugee as defined by the UNHCR. Such classifications are part of a vast structure of laws and guidelines enshrined in the archives of supranational state entities like the European Commission and the United Nations, based on the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which establishes international rules governing the treatment and rights of refugees, whose numbers have nearly doubled since 2012, ballooning from 45.2 million “displaced” to 79.5 million as of the last count.
Economic sanctions, the war on terror, and other policies imposed by the very interests represented in New York and Brussels are causing a human tsunami emanating from places like Venezuela and Yemen, to name just two of the most salient examples. A natural disaster has conferred instant refugee status on the citizens of Saint Vincent, who join their number as the incipient biosecurity apparatus secures its grip on border control technology and as health-based digital identity systems can be glimpsed on the horizon.
In the spring of 2018, the European Commission (EC) revealed its intention to create a “vaccination card/passport” in a proposal titled “Strengthened Cooperation Against Vaccine-Preventable Diseases,” which touches on many of the topics making the rounds today, such as ways to address vaccine hesitancy and “the safety and potential side effects of different vaccines.”
A year later, the EC unveiled a “roadmap” that projected the “common EU vaccination card” to be fully implemented by 2021. As a result, the EU is right on schedule to become the first region of the world to adopt a full-fledged medical credentialing border policy for its 27 member states.
#COVAX has now delivered vaccines to 100 countries.
This is a real milestone. I'm proud of #TeamEurope's contribution to this global effort of solidarity.
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) April 8, 2021
With the EU’s 27 member states launched on this trajectory, leading health credentialing developers like The Commons Project, Pathcheck and IBM’s Digital Health Pass have formed their own policy recommendation club, with the bioinformatics and life sciences industries finding a nexus under one roof created by the ID2020 Digital Identity Alliance called the Good Health Pass Collaborative (GHPC)
GHPC seeks to influence policy decisions around the technology’s implementation in border control situations specifically. While many of its members offer credentialing apps for uses outside of these scenarios, GHPC makes clear that its mission is exclusively to establish the correct border policy frameworks that will maximize the return for its “core partners” as they go about developing “an interoperable, trusted framework and ecosystem for the issuance, use, and management of COVID-19 test and vaccination credentials for international travel,” per the GHPC whitepaper.
Garcia Ricci describes the problem. “We don’t really know how they’re going to work,” he states, adding that as mechanisms to control border entry, “the policies regarding their use are still not very clear or defined. Every country is implementing its own policy.”
Dakota Gruener, GHPC executive director and executive officer for private sector engagement of Bill Gates’s GAVI (officially “Gavi – The Vaccine Alliance”), is tasked with making sure such policies bend to the will of the broader biosecurity state in order to overcome the risk of “fragmentation” and keep their options open while the smart infrastructure required to scale up is put in place.
Gruener even doesn’t rule out using paper in the meantime, insisting that “to be valuable to users, credentials need to be accepted at check-in, upon arrival by border control agencies, and more,” adding that eventually a “common governance framework” would solve the problems presented by the surfeit of vaccine credential apps and cards in development.
The Queen’s Subject
The eruption of La Soufrière (Sulphur) has provided a unique opportunity to push the envelope in matters of mandatory public health policy, which Saint Vincent Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves had taken the initiative to begin implementing in March, ordering mandatory vaccinations for the island’s minibus operators and calling for teachers to get the jab in a radio interview the day before the volcanic disaster hit.
Mandatory vaccination protocols have now been extended for anyone wishing to leave the island, breaking with standard procedures that place the onus of status verification on the port of entry. Gonsalves issued the directive at a press conference the day before the eruption, calling for mandatory vaccinations for those living near the volcano. In February, Gonsalves signed emergency legislation authorizing the use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine along with Pfizer’s, Johnson & Johnson’s, Moderna’s and three others.
The first shipment of vaccines arrived just two days before the volcanic eruption, courtesy of COVAX – a global consortium distributing vaccines throughout global south countries comprised of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI); Bill & Melinda Gates-funded GAVI; UNICEF; the World Health Organization (WHO); and its credit vehicle, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), which operates a revolving fund comprised of more than 200 donor partners to purchase vaccines for COVAX.
Some 24,000 doses of the highly problematic AstraZeneca vaccine arrived in the Caribbean nation as part of a larger vaccine distribution operation in the region by COVAX, which commenced delivery of 728,000 doses to five countries in the region in March. The so-called “Oxford” vaccine has been discontinued in many countries due to serious blood clotting issues, which in some cases have led to death.
By virtue of their newfound refugee status, Vincentians are left with little protection against the emergency measures currently enforced by their prime minister, who is a subject of the Crown serving under the Queen’s representative, Governor-General Susan Dougan.
Fish in a barrel
The nexus between Big Pharma, Big Tech, and the national security state is revealed in the health-credentialing industry, where major players from each sector and their partners tackle the different tasks required to build the biosecurity state. Vaccinating even half of the 80 million forcibly displaced people protected under the UNHCR’s official charter, collecting their biometric data, and creating digital identity cards or apps to store and retrieve that data would be a significant step in that direction
The UNHCR has assumed the role of a diplomatic outreach operation on behalf of COVAX to persuade countries to include refugees in their national inoculation strategies. Serbia, Nepal and Rwanda are among the countries that have vaccinated asylum seekers and refugees as a result of UNHCR’s campaigns, which touts refugee vaccination against COVID-19 as “key” to ending the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman is building the largest biometric and biographical database of foreigners and citizens in the U.S., called the Biometric Identification Transnational Migration Alert Program, or BITMAP, as reported by MintPress in March. Operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 14 countries, including the three Central American countries whose drug war refugees are currently flooding the border, BITMAP is only one of several biometric capture operations targeting refugees.
“The extraction of any type of biometric data represents an intrusion into your privacy,” explains Garcia Ricci, adding that, though such intrusions are not necessarily prohibited, they must not be “arbitrary or illegal. In other words, there must be a legal basis for the collection of such data and that the legal basis itself be in pursuit of a legitimate purpose.”
It’s unclear if the purposes of the GHPC’s core partners, like Mastercard, fit this juridical framework. The credit card behemoth has been working with the UNHCR and tech companies, who are also part of GHPC, to test their novel biometric ID cards on refugee populations such as the Rohingya. Described as ID2020’s most ambitious project yet, GHPC is focused on “delivering a global, interoperable health pass system can only happen if we come together in a way that meets the needs of everyone involved,” asserts Ajay Bhalla, president of Cyber & Intelligence at Mastercard.
Ann Cavoukian, executive director of the Global Privacy & Security by Design Centre, poses as the organization’s watchdog but seems to have capitulated early to the idea of health passports, which she claims to personally oppose. However, “having acknowledged that they will be used,” as she told Biometric Update, Cavoukian concedes that “biometric technology seems likely to be a necessary component of Good Health Passes to bind the credential to the individual.”
‘Binding’ people to credentials can prove problematic. Garcia Ricci uncovers the principle of proportionality in the question of biometric data collection, citing fingerprints, which “are a biometric marker that has been used to identify people and can be said to exhibit an adequate level of proportionality,” in terms of invasiveness.
But what happens, he asks, “when the United States or any other country” crosses the line from ink on the fingers to DNA extraction? “That’s where the questions arise regarding legitimate purposes,” Garcia Ricci contends, “since DNA contains the most intimate information about a human being and can be used to derive many other kinds of information, such as a propensity for certain diseases or genetic defects.
“While biometrics can be useful for identification purposes,” he continues, “mistakes do happen and we must be vigilant to make sure that any errors that might lead to the misidentification of an individual through faulty biometric data are able to be corrected in the system.”
If the Global Privacy & Security by Design Centre is the designated protector of civil liberties and human rights at the dawn of vaccine passports, a closer look at the organization does not inspire much confidence. Sitting on its board of directors is none other than former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, who is also on the advisory board of Carbyne – a cybersecurity “emergency management” company with ties to Israel’s notorious human rights-abusing Unit 8200. Carbyne also has direct business ties with Peter Thiel, who runs his own health data management and pre-crime analytics company called Palantir and has operated a joint research center with Carbyne in Israel since 2013.
Despite her questionable alliances, Cavoukian is confident that her “endorsement” of Global Health Pass and health credentialing, in general, will assuage the fears of privacy and data-integrity advocates. In March, the newly-formed non-profit “urged” the White House to “establish official guidance on the development and deployment of health passes” in a letter signed by its 80 signatories.
Refugees are the “first-to-market,” so to speak, for the digital identification cards with biometric features. But, as so-called vaccine passports and similar health data apps get closer to becoming a reality for regular, already-documented citizens, it should be clear to those willing to look beyond the façade of public health that the implementation of the biosecurity state is only part of a longer-term project intended to reshape the global economy to run on data.
Vincentians were given relatively ample warning after scientists at the Seismic Research Center at the University of the West Indies (UWI-SRC) made a 3 a.m. phone call on April 8 to the prime minister’s office alerting officials to a pending volcanic event.
The island had been under an “Orange Level” alert since December 2020. The color-coded volcanic activity monitoring system is managed by the regional Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDMEA), headquartered in Barbados, with data provided by the UWI-SRC in coordination with the National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO).
NEMO came into existence in 2002, one year after USAID organized a workshop at the University of the West Indies (UWI) on Volcanic and Seismic Hazards in the Eastern Caribbean, which produced the “Volcanic Hazard Atlas,” designed “to provide an essential blueprint for planners and public officials with responsibility for managing the economic infrastructure of Eastern Caribbean islands.”
The original Early Warning System (EWS) project was funded by Brussels through the office of the General Directorate of Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid of the EU and its European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) financing vehicle. Original program partners in Saint Vincent included the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) and The Red Cross.
On April 7, the same day COVAX delivered the first batch of vaccines to Saint Vincent, an article appeared in the Hawaii Tribune Herald showcasing a “new” study to predict the impact of future volcanic eruptions. Led by Prof. Bruce F. Houghton from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the researchers posited that the damage caused by volcanic eruptions could be predicted “weeks” in advance through careful analysis of lava-flow geologic “signatures.”
Comparing census data to the median cost of land and household income among three areas located in Hawaii’s lava hazard zones, Houghton marries economic indicators to maps of geological disruptions caused by the Kilauea event of 2018 in order to produce what is, in essence, a financial projection tool masquerading as a scientific paper.
Houghton’s idea to mitigate damage from volcanic eruptions is to curb population growth in lava hazard zones. The Malthusian focus is striking and perhaps tacitly admitted by the author himself when he chose to include the words “social dilemma” as part of the study’s title.
While Houghton’s work shows that seismic traces and lava flows leave enough scorching data of its own behind to allow for a detailed analysis of the social and economic implications of a volcanic event, that information may or may not help to prevent any actual damage from a volcanic eruption. But it will suit just fine the needs of World Bank and IMF reps, who often carry studies like these in their leather briefcases when they pitch the latest debt-financing scheme to a “developing” country, like Saint Vincent.
As the Covid crisis raged on in the summer of 2020, SVG Prime Minister Gonsalves was confronted over a Facebook post in which he stated quite clearly that he’d secured financing from the World Bank to build “a 140-bed modern acute referral hospital.” After denying he had ever made such a claim, political opponents tore into the man who has ruled Saint Vincent and the Grenadines for almost half of its independent existence.
“The World Bank advises that the funding they provided is only for the design,” Gonsalves countered his critics, asserting that the global financing organization “provided no funds for the construction of that hospital.” The issue remains in the hands of his finance minister, Camillo Gonsalves — also his son.
It is a recurring game throughout Latin America and the Caribbean when international debt-peddling consortiums like the World Bank approach governments in the region to propose all kinds of infrastructure projects, which they offer to finance and then pay the foreign contractors to build while collecting interest and fees from the target country’s taxpayers in set-ups that allow creatures like Gonsalves to take all the credit.
Saint Vincent’s emergency warning system (EWS) was one of these types of projects brought to the shores of the “exotic” Caribbean island nation by large foreign agencies like the UNDP and the EC. The “Sulphur’s” first volcanic eruption since the year SVG ceased to be a Royal colony in 1979 provided a rare chance to put recent changes made to the EWS to the test.
New York, Brussels and NGOs proffered their advice on population crisis management and other SDG-based recommendations to upgrade the system after an 18-month-long reappraisal, carried out by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and partners, in line with its Strategic Plan 2018-2021 to “help countries achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”
The resulting reports identified failures and suggested corrective action, as well as multiple changes and additions to the system itself. Some of the details are laid out in “Roadmap to Strengthening Multi-Hazard Early Warning Systems for Saint Vincent & the Grenadines,” published in 2018. The report focuses heavily on gender-differentiated risk analysis and the creation of databases for this purpose.
Disaster simulations are also encouraged in the report and, despite a paltry budget allocation of $40,000 dollars, implementation of NEWS got going with workshops organized by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) and the National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO), to assure the incorporation of “gender considerations” into all aspects of the EWS, according to NEMO Director Michelle Forbes.
The question of where all this gender and any other such biometric data collected during the project is going and who will have access to those databases is not addressed directly in any of the materials examined by MintPress. Most countries have laws that govern who can access private data but, as Garcia Ricci explained:
Even within national data privacy laws, certain kinds of cooperation between countries is typically embedded in the legislation itself. This is what’s known as data transfer and obliges nation states to share the data with other countries in cases where it is deemed necessary.”
SVG’s current data privacy laws were fashioned by many of the same global organizations cited in the preceding paragraphs, organizing workshops and seminars that would eventually lead to the Harmonization of ICT Policies, Legislation and Regulatory Procedures in the Caribbean HIPCAR, governed by the Caribbean Community CARICOM and enforced through the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court.
UNDRR Caribbean Advisor Maria Kontro clarifies the use for all this data by framing it in her terms: “Every dollar invested in risk reduction and prevention can save anywhere up to 15 dollars in post-disaster recovery,” Kontro said during a consultation and training session for Gender and Vulnerable In Early Warning Systems in SVG back in 2019.
Vincentians come from a long line of people forced to resettle, move and escape. Nearly seven-tenths of the island’s population are directly descended from West African slaves. Before their arrival, the native Ciboney, Arawak and Caribs spent generations fighting a protracted war against the Western European invaders and found common ground with self-liberated Africans.
Centuries later, Vincentians must call on the strength of their forcibly displaced and enslaved ancestors to endure another colonial assault on their freedom as they suddenly find themselves in a de facto testing ground for mandatory vaccination procedures, health status documentation, and pandemic evacuation protocols.
A UN spokesman has declared that the eruptive crisis will “last more than six months” and looks for it to extend to Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda. Most Vincentians are choosing to stick close to home and forgo the even more uncertain scenario of evacuation, that requires an injection that just might kill them anyway.
Either way, Vincentians are in the eye of the biosecurity storm that is traversing the world in search of easy data to plug into its burgeoning human capital market toys. Chances of escape from the encroaching health surveillance and data mining operations currently unfolding around the world are getting slimmer.
But — just like the Dutch slave ship that sank off the coast of Saint Vincent in 1635, freeing hundreds of Africans who swam ashore and made new families with the native Carib people — the fate of this new form of digital servitude is foreshadowed by the resilience of the Saint Vincentians.
“They said they want to stay at home,” Gonsalves told the BBC. “I have been around several of the camps and that’s the message.”
Feature photo | A healthcare worker helps an evacuee with his luggage as British, Canadian and U.S. tourists flee St. Vincent, April 16, 2021. Orvil Samuel | AP
Raul Diego is a MintPress News Staff Writer, independent photojournalist, researcher, writer and documentary filmmaker.