The Bermuda Public Services Union was right last week to criticise public works minister Lieutenant-Colonel David Burch for his attack on black female civil servants in the health ministry.
That the BPSU should come to the defence of civil servants is no surprise; there is a long tradition of government politicians not attacking civil servants, primarily because they are unable to defend themselves in public.
What’s more, civil servants by definition are in place to execute the policies established by politicians — in that sense, any attack on civil servants is an attack on the Government as a whole.
In the circumstances, the union has an obligation to defend its members.
What is a surprise is how feeble the Premier, David Burt, was in response to the criticism.
Certainly, Mr Burt had already come to the defence of Carika Weldon, the biochemist whom Colonel Burch was defending in his impolitic and hardly tempered speech on July 17.
This newspaper has seen no reason to determine whether any criticisms of Dr Weldon are justified and, on that basis alone, she deserves the benefit of the doubt. She is highly qualified as an epidemiologist and Bermuda was fortunate to have a daughter of the soil available and willing to return home just when this virus struck.
That is not to say that Covid-19 testing should not be scrutinised; in the face of a public health crisis as severe as the coronavirus, ensuring that testing is credible is clearly critical. Making sure that Bermuda’s testing regime is robust and credible is vital for the community’s physical and economic wellbeing.
So no doubt Dr Weldon deserves to be defended, although it is also fair to say that these alleged criticisms have not been fully in the public eye — indeed, the two people who have done the most to magnify them are Mr Burt and Colonel Burch themselves.
This is a common dilemma; consideration of not dignifying the accusations with a response must have been made. So the Premier and his public works minister must have felt that the criticisms of Dr Weldon were so severe they had to be answered, even at the risk of making people who had no idea of these unwarranted accusations aware of them, and risking raising further doubts among those who would not have seen the accusations on social media, where they have apparently been circulating.
Colonel Burch took this a step farther. He claimed, without presenting evidence, that the criticisms emanated from black female civil servants in the Ministry of Health. If they did not cease and desist, he said he would name them. What motivated them was not made clear, either.
In doing so, Colonel Burch elevated what appeared to be some of the usual social-media nonsense that pollutes Bermuda’s digital networks to a full-blown national crisis. He also discredited his Cabinet colleague, health minister Kim Wilson, who apparently cannot control her civil servants, and put what should have been an internal issue square in the public domain.
Dr Weldon would not be the first person in Bermuda to fall victim to what the Australians call tall poppy syndrome — the idea that whenever a fellow citizen becomes “too well known” or successful, they must be cut down to size.
In Bermuda, it could be argued that black Bermudians and women have fallen victim to this syndrome more than others. In general, too, there has been a tradition in some quarters to discredit any Bermudian and to, in Mr Burt’s words in a different context, look for validation from a non-Bermudian source.
But where Colonel Burch is wrong is in attacking people who cannot defend themselves. Vague accusations towards shadowy cabals within ministries mean that all black females working in the Ministry of Health now stand accused of participating in this alleged conspiracy — and they have no means of hitting back. They do not enjoy privilege in the House of Assembly. Colonel Burch does. He can say what he likes. They can say nothing.
Mr Burt acted with admirable speed when video emerged showing Zane DeSilva and Wayne Caines failing to follow social-distancing requirements and forced their Cabinet resignations. Although major questions remain about just how the permit for the party at Blu Bar & Grill Restaurant was granted, and whether there were any objections to it within the Government, Mr Burt acted correctly in the first instance. He was firm and decisive.
Contrast that with his response to Colonel Burch’s attack on the health ministry, and effectively on Ms Wilson.
This is part of it: “In any places and instances there will certainly be stressful situations, there may be things that may be said in certain cases, which may be taken out of context in certain ways. I’m not going to pretend that it has all been hunky-dory.
“What I can say is that the teams at the Ministry of Health are continuing to work well and the MDL team is continuing to produce results very well and we’re just going to go ahead and press forward.”
This is not good enough.
Mr Burt has allowed Colonel Burch to attack civil servants in another ministry without any kind of rebuttal or recrimination — simply admitting that the Ministry of Health and Dr Weldon’s teams could work together better is entirely inadequate.
Colonel Burch has since said he is willing to meet with the BPSU and offered a time yesterday. He also explained that pressure of work meant he and Mr Burt had not had time to meet to discuss the issue.
How is it that Colonel Burch felt the matter was sufficiently serious to raise it in the House of Assembly, but not of a magnitude to discuss it with his own leader, the person who put him in his job?
This makes no sense.
If there is a genuine problem, Colonel Burch needs to name names and present evidence so those accused can respond and those wrongly caught in the general web of this attack can have their names cleared.
If there is a genuine problem, there should be an inquiry led by a respected and neutral chairman.
If Colonel Burch cannot or will not do this, he should resign. This is no way to run a government, especially in the present crisis.