National Address on COVID-19 Pandemic
by Leader of the Opposition, Dr. the Honourable Godwin Friday
April 1, 2020
Fellow Vincentians, Friends, good evening.
By now we are all aware of the coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease it causes. This virus is a most serious threat to lives and livelihoods across the world, including in SVG. Life as we knew it has come to a halt across the globe. Large, glittering cities have gone quiet and still as people retreat indoors to protect themselves and others from an enemy they cannot see. In all this upheaval and suffering, the health and safety of our people—our most precious resource—must have priority.
This deadly disease
A mere 3 months ago, when we ushered in the New Year with fireworks and hopeful hearts, we had no idea that we would be facing such a terrible enemy as the coronavirus, and that we would be forced to change our lives in unimaginable ways. Things have changed so fast! And we have to adjust and stay ahead in order to save lives.
Let us look briefly at the timeline of this crisis.
On December 31st last year (2019), Chinese authorities alerted the World Health Organization (the WHO) about unusual cases of pneumonia in the city of Wuhan.
One week later, on January 7th this year, officials announced that they had identified a new type of coronavirus that was causing the illnesses.
And a mere four days later, on January 11th, China recorded the first COVID-19 death. On January 13th , the first case of COVID-19 outside China was recorded, in Thailand. Meanwhile, now fully aware of the deadly nature of the disease and how easily it spreads, Chinese authorities locked down Wuhan city and took other urgent measures to minimise the spread of the virus and save lives. They apparently succeeded in controlling it.
But by February 7th, the first COVID-19 death outside China was recorded in the Philippines, and other countries were reporting positive cases.
Then, on March 11th, the WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic. The virus had spread rapidly around the world. And, on that same day, our government announced that there was a confirmed case of COVID-19 in SVG. The coronavirus had reached our shores, brought unwittingly by someone who had returned from the UK.
And where are we now?
The numbers are staggering and grow larger by the minute!
Worldwide, there are over 900,000 confirmed cases and close to 50,000 deaths!
In the Caribbean, we have not been spared. We, too, are part of the grim picture. The Dominican Republic bears the brunt with more than 1100 cases and over 50 deaths. That’s more than Singapore and Hong Kong, who were affected. Martinique 128 cases (3 deaths);
Guadeloupe 114 (4 deaths);
Trinidad and Tobago over 80 cases (4 deaths),
Jamaica 38 cases (2 deaths),
Barbados -34(0 deaths),
Dominica – 12 (0 deaths)
St. Lucia -13 (0 deaths)
Guyana 12 (2 deaths)
Haiti – 16,
St. Kitts and Nevis – 8 (0 deaths).
All the other Caribbean countries/territories report confirmed cases of the disease. Sadly, these numbers rise every day, as more testing is done.
In SVG we have done very little testing thus far. As at Thursday March 26th, only 33 tests had been done! The WHO has made it clear that countries cannot truly know how they stand with respect to the spread of the coronavirus until they have done widespread testing. Indeed, his advice to all governments, including ours, is to test, test, test! We should follow that advice.
COVID-19 spreads very easily; in fact even more easily than health officials had earlier thought. It is spread from person to person, even from a person who has no symptoms of the disease! So, someone who thinks he/she is fine may be unknowingly carrying the virus and transmitting it to others through normal social interaction. This makes it extremely dangerous and the drastic responses to it we have seen all over the world. Every responsible action that we take now, will help to reduce the spread of the virus and disease in SVG and save lives.
Leadership, direction, clarity
In this time, our country needs leadership, direction and clarity.
I am very concerned that our Government has still not heeded calls to close our seaports and airports to all but essential travel and commerce. Nearly all the other Caribbean countries and many countries worldwide have seen it necessary to do so. Closing the country’s borders is a critical step in reducing the spread of the virus.
My friends, it makes sense to secure the borders for a while. This would allow us to deal with the situation inside the country without having also to manage new arrivals, and worry about what might come in on the next flight or on the yachts that enter our ports at Wallilabou, Kingstown and Blue Lagoon.
Our situation in SVG of having only one confirmed COVID-19 case should not lure us into a false sense of security. For even if we manage to put out a spark in our own house, we must acknowledge that the fire continues to rage outside, and that it still threatens to engulf us! In fact that threat grows greater, not less, by the day
So, clearly, we are not out of the woods yet– not by a long shot.
This means we must do all we can to protect our people. This requires closing our borders for a while by suspending all arrivals at our airports and seaports, except essential travellers (including nationals) and commerce. We would then review the decision as conditions change. Taking this action now will give us the best chance of avoiding more cases of COVID-19 in SVG and of reducing the risk of an outbreak that may overburden our fragile healthcare system. The situation as it is now is creating unacceptable risks to the health and safety of our people. It is better to be safe than sorry!
As the situation stands, with all airports and some seaports open, and with very limited testing for the disease being done, the only reasonable measure that can protect the public is to quarantine all arrivals into the country, wherever they come from!
Every country in the world now has COVID-19! That is, after all, why it is called a global pandemic! So, all arrivals from any country must be considered to be potential carriers of the virus and must be handled as such.
Further, the present system of in-home isolation or self-regulated quarantine is dangerous, because it is unenforceable. Even when the authorities seize the passports of people on arrival, as is being done in some cases, this cannot guarantee compliance with the quarantine requirements. And a guarantee of compliance (not merely a likelihood) is what is required in the present circumstances!
We simply must ensure that all persons observe the quarantine fully. The stakes are simply too high to have it otherwise.
This calls for a government-operated isolation facility to house all new arrivals for the 14-day quarantine period. It is the only way to protect the public from potential harm and prevent the spread of the virus in our country.
My friends, despite the relentless march and huge toll of the coronavirus pandemic, we are not powerless to defend ourselves. We can and must fight back! There are effective things that we can do together to protect ourselves and one another. You may have heard about some of them before, but it helps to be reminded from time to time, lest we become complacent.
- Stay at home
Stay at home as much as possible. This is critical for older persons and persons with health problems such as diabetes, hypertension and asthma. The younger, healthier persons can volunteer, with the necessary precautions, to help the elderly and vulnerable members of our communities by delivering their groceries and medication. Now that they need us most, we must not fail them.
If you can work from home, please do so. Employers, make work-from home arrangements with your employees, especially those who are in at-risk categories. Online tools are available to facilitate staff meetings and to supervise work so that satisfactory levels of productivity are maintained.
- Practice Social/Physical Distancing
We are a fun-loving, sociable people. The evening lime with friends, the house party and the beach picnic are part of who we are as a people and come out easily, especially in the young. But, the circumstances in which we find ourselves now require us to change our behaviour, for a while. We can do it. We must do it!
Avoid all forms of physical greeting. The handshake, the kiss and hug must all wait until we get out of this mess. Also, keep a safe distance of 3 to 6 feet between you and other persons. Avoid crowds and public gatherings.
Remember, preventing the spread of COVID-19 is a collective responsibility. It is your responsibility; it is my responsibility. So, do your part and practice social and physical distancing, as recommended by the health professionals.
We are yet to hear specifics from government as to how social distancing will be incorporated into commercial activity, and I commend those establishments already leading this effort.
To business places, I wish also to recommend the following:
- Please allow for the opening and closing of the doors for your customers.
- Provide means to wash or sanitize hands upon entry to your business places.
- Place markers on the floor, 3 to 6 feet apart, for customers who must stand in line to be served
- limit the number of persons who can be inside at any given time, allow for safe distance between customers inside and encourage safe distancing of persons outside the entrance.
- For restaurants, try your best to shift your operations to take-out service.
- Adjust office spacing and seating to allow for safe distancing between employees and implement and enforce guidelines for proper hand hygiene.
- Disinfect used surfaces regularly throughout the day.
Most of our people depend on public transport. While you are encouraged to stay at home, this will not be possible in all cases. Government is now moving to outline specific protocols for minivan operation. I support reducing the number of persons travelling in minivans to prevent contact among passengers. We must all be proactive and vigilant in this area.
I also recommend the following:
- implement boarding guidelines at the bus terminals and major bus stops;
- provide means to wash hands at the bus terminals in Kingstown and hand sanitizer for passengers who enter minivans;
- disinfect surfaces in public transport vehicles at regular intervals.
These and other measures that may become necessary as time goes on must be discussed with stakeholders and reinforced at every opportunity, including through public information campaigns.
This must be coupled with subsidies and other financial measures for minivan operators from government to offset resulting financial losses. I welcome the recent initiative by the government to discuss such measures with the minivan operators, but more will be needed. The relief measures for minivan operators may also include duty free concessions on vehicle parts including tires for the rest of the year (with necessary safeguards to prevent abuse) and removal of vehicle licensing fees for 2020.
Churches and Other Social Gatherings
Governments around the world have implemented strict guidelines limiting the number of persons allowed to gather publicly, for weddings, funerals and other social gatherings, and for bars and night clubs. We must do similarly.
As a Christian nation, we have many churches and congregations throughout our country. Church leaders, I know you always want what is best for your congregations. I urge you to continue to take social distancing seriously! Some churches are making use of available technology to host online worship services, Bible studies and prayer meetings. If you are not already using them, consider doing so whenever you can. Our faith is strong, but we must couple it with action to fulfil our mission.
Prayer is our strength, always. But we recognize it most in difficult times, such as now. So, let us bend our knees and, as the Psalmist exhorts us to do, lift up our eyes unto the hills from whence cometh our help. He will not fail us!
My prayers and best wishes are with our sisters and brothers in our diaspora. Many of them are required to stay at home and incomes and jobs are at risk. Though we are separated by seas and oceans, we are in this fight together, and we will triumph together.
As the new school term nears, we must prepare parents, teachers and students for what may come. Two weeks away is a long time when we talk about the COVID-19 pandemic. Much will change during that time. It may be necessary to extend the closure.
Consideration must be given to delivering instructions remotely, via the internet and other means. This will require new software tools and equipment for teachers and students and training to use them.
When school eventually reopen, we must ensure that cleaning, sanitizing and handwashing supplies are provided to them and that they all have sufficient water to enable teachers and student to follow recommended hygiene practices.
I wish now to address briefly our economic plight. This aspect of the problem will need constant monitoring and adjustment of relief measures from time to time.
While our first concern must be to protect life and health, we also have to look after the financial and material needs of our people and help them to manage for some time.
With the travel industry now at a standstill, our tourism sector has suffered a severe blow and it may get worse. This means difficult times are ahead for those who earn their living directly or indirectly from tourism—e.g. hotel/guest house operators and workers, restaurant operators and workers, entertainers, taxi drivers, tour operators and tour guides, craft vendors, market vendors and water taxi operators
Governments in CARICOM and other parts of the world, have put in place various economic stimulus packages to help people employed in the tourism sector and other severely impacted groups.
All of us are called upon to do our part to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and protect against disease. We will all make the necessary sacrifice. Those who are directly affected financially by loss of jobs or businesses need assurance from government that they will receive financial assistance.
Banks and other financial institutions here and elsewhere in the currency union have offered relief through deferred loan payments and waiver of fees for six months. Those who wish to use these provisions should be enabled to do so. Financial institutions and the government should make the necessary information available to them. Do not merely announce the measures. Put systems in place to help people who need them to have access to them.
I am also heartened to hear from the government that the NIS will play a role by providing some unemployment benefits. Every bit helps!
In general, any economic stimulus package outlined by the government must meet the needs of the crisis. This requires a comprehensive and detailed assessment of our present circumstances, including our shortcomings to meet the growing demands of this pandemic. When we go to Parliament on April 7th, we will address the specific measures the government proposes and make additional recommendations as needed. For example, I believe that self-employed persons who have lost their incomes must be also be given financial support.
Many people in the informal sector will also need income assistance and must be considered likewise. One measure that can provide relief to all person would be to reduce the cost of electricity by 25 per cent for a specific period.
Finally, I have recommended to the government that the stimulus package designed specifically for COVID-19 relief be placed under oversight of a select committee of Parliament. This will inspire confidence that the funds would reach those most affected by the crisis and it will signal to external donors that suitable measures are in place to ensure accountability. I hope this recommendation is adopted.
We Can Defeat COVID-19
We will defeat the coronavirus. Medical science will catch up with it and conquer it. This too shall pass! But, in the meantime, we need to protect ourselves and one another to have the best chance of being around when that happens. It will take every single one of us to implement the necessary steps to prevent the spread of this virus.
I hope with all my heart that we can reduce the impact of this global pandemic to a minimum in SVG; that we will avoid serious illnesses, death and long, severe economic hardship. I know you do too.
We hope because hope gives us courage and strength to do all that we can. It promises a brighter tomorrow. However, hope is not a substitute for appropriate action. While we hope for the best, we must do all we can to prevent the worst from becoming reality, and to be ready if it does.
We are a kind and compassionate people. We know what it means to make sacrifice for the common good. The pandemic calls upon us to do so now. Let us embrace the moment and so that one day soon, we will be able to look and be proud of our efforts.
Together, as One People, One Nation, we will overcome this appalling threat to human survival and to our Vincentian way of life.
In the enduring words of our National Anthem, let us continue to believe together that “What e’er the future brings, Our faith will see us through…”.
May God bless us all and bless our beloved St. Vincent and the Grenadines.