BEFORE MONDAY, the Guyanese mining town of Mahdia was not well-known.
That changed when the Mahdia Secondary School entered infamy as the scene of a fire which claimed the lives of almost two dozen children, an unspeakable tragedy which has made news around the world and kindled a sense of loss across the region.
It is a loss tempered only by the knowledge that it could have been worse. The dormitory housed 63 students, 20 of whom were rescued by firefighters who broke holes in a wall to save them.
We join with the world in expressing condolences to the people of Guyana and in lamenting the loss of so much bright potential. We express the hope that local and regional authorities will assist the country in its efforts to come to terms with what has happened, including through the provision of forensic expertise, if required.
Instead of celebrating its independence from Britain this week, as it would do each year on May 26, Guyana will be focused on continued investigations into the causes of the blaze as well as the careful examination of any factors that might have accounted for the loss of life.
This inquiry should also include scrutiny of the design of the school, relevant codes and regulations, and any protocols that should have been in place to handle emergencies and to mitigate damage.
It is not good enough to pinpoint the source of the blaze. The scale of death alone suggests there could be important lessons to learn coming out of this incident.
Authorities in Guyana have recently been contending with more and more incidents of fire at secondary schools.
In February, the Guyana Fire Service (GFS), noting what it described as “the alarming prevalence of school fires which has displaced hundreds of students,” issued a suite of guidelines for schools to implement.
In January, a fire at the Christ Church Secondary School, located next to the Office of the Prime Minister in Georgetown, was designated by the GFS as being caused by arson and as having “several points of origin.”
There is a need for a thorough examination of the compliance of all schools with the GFS’s guidelines, more so in the wake of Monday’s catastrophic events, however caused.
There may also be a need for authorities to revisit decades-old school safety protocols to see if they stand to benefit from review.
But in this incident, in addition to the issue of compliance with safety measures, there is the added complication of the role of regional inequalities in creating the conditions that breed disasters and that militate against the effective functioning of first responders.
That, too, is something for the administration of Guyanese President Irfaan Ali to examine.