(Wednesday, March 18, 2020) — Fellow Saint Lucians, following my address as Leader of the Opposition on Sunday and having listened to the Prime Minister’s address on Monday evening, I feel compelled to highlight some lingering concerns by the Official Opposition about the Government’s approach to the COVID-19 issue.
Before I do, so let me commend the Prime Minister for adhering to the protocols on COVID-19 when he felt unwell and self-isolating yesterday. We are all relieved that his COVID 19 test result was negative and we wish him a speedy recovery. As Political Leader of the Saint Lucia Labour Party I want to call on all Saint Lucians to refrain from wishing ill-health on anyone or believing that anyone wants COVID-19 to destroy Saint Lucia. This cannot be our way as a civilised people. In this vein, I ask that we wish everyone in quarantine and self-isolation well and my thoughts go out to Sis Emma Hippolyte.
I first want to reiterate that The Saint Lucia Labour Party is fully committed to a one-nation harmonious approach to fighting the threat of COVID-19. We continue to urge the Prime Minister not to politicise the national effort and we pledge once again to uphold the spirit of bipartisanship. In this regard we are pleased that we have been invited to participate in joint meetings. However, final decisions are made at Cabinet level and we are obviously not represented there. Many recommendations and ideas have been shared with the Government over the last few days. For the benefit of our citizens we feel obliged to make public the Oppositions approach to dealing with some of the pertinent issues.
The Prime Minister has stated that he is taking his guidance from PAHO, WHO, CARPHA and from the local Ministry of Health. We have no issues with that approach, however there are other countries which do the same, but are proactive even though in some instances they have as few proven cases as ourselves or no known cases. Our country cannot afford to pay the price of being late in our decision making. We must act with haste always to protect our people.
We believe that the Prime Minister may still be in the mode of defining the problem and speaking around the critical imperatives which we must face. We need to hear a definitive path that we must all follow. The Labour Party believes as a matter of policy that Saint Lucia needs to be proactive as the situation deserves a sense of great urgency.
While we do not doubt the authority of our experts who have told us that we are prepared, we want to caution that it is better that we are over prepared. We cannot lose if we are over prepared but we can regret if we are only “just prepared”. We must prepare for the worst and we will be better able to confront whatever reality that comes our way.
I therefore wish to make some specific suggestions:
1. We must not continue to host NEMAC meetings with almost 100 persons in a room and who happen to be the key decision makers in Saint Lucia. More so, this grouping meets every week and is the major entity leading the fight. In any event this is against the calls for responsible social distancing. We repeat our call for a lean, mean, rapid-response Task Force which can meet regularly and at short notice to lead the national fight against the virus; the composition of such a taskforce could be limited to heads of the key agencies, along with representatives of the government and opposition.
2. We should not wait for the first evidence of in-country transmission of the virus to institute aggressive social distancing measures. By then it may have spread unnecessarily and uncontrollably. Consider instituting a ban on places where the public assembles; or as a first step set a limit on the maximum numbers who should be allowed to congregate publicly at least for a period of 14 days in the first instance.
3. Let us undertake an extensive public education campaign in both English and Kweyol to ensure that all citizens are fully briefed on how to respond to the threat of the virus and what to expect over the next few months. Whilst we discourage spreading of rumours, the first responsibility is on us to give out honest and transparent information to discourage speculation and help fight misinformation and panic. For example, if we do not say where the infected persons stayed and what measures we are takin them, staff at all hotels will start speculating that it may be their place of work. Our citizens must not be led to become distrustful of the information that is disseminated.
4. We need a special education campaign for the youth. From available evidence they are the ones least likely to be affected but they are the ones who are most mobile, active and fearless. They are most likely to be interacting on playing fields, blocks, bars and streets but all return to homes afterwards where they can infect the older members of their families. They must be strongly encouraged to follow the advice and bulletins issued to avoid further risks. It is not enough to say that once you are under-60 and have no underlying conditions, then it will just be a mild flu if affected. We need to be more consistent and clear in our messaging.
5. We must announce a preliminary minimum package of benefits to workers who will be displaced by the economic fallout. Already hotels are closing and small businesses are feeling the pressure. The Government must not allow individual hotels and businesses alone to determine how workers will be compensated. It has to be a national consensus. At a minimum, and as a matter of urgency, the Prime Minister must make some policy statements on mortgage deferrals, higher statutory sick pay, pay for workers laid off, and help for the self-employed example, taxi drivers, vendors. The people are anxious and cannot wait for the Budget which will not be presented until the end of April.
6. We must announce a policy statement on the payment of utility bills at this time. Low income workers must be given the comfort that their water, electricity, internet and phone will not be disconnected during this emergency period.
7. We must announce plans for the Civil Service to allow those persons who can work from home to do so. This must also take into account parents who will need to be home to care for their children as they are now required to be home.
8. We must consider a deferment of instalments on income tax due by large and small businesses for this year.
The Opposition remains willing and able to be part of the consultative process that will ensure that Saint Lucia is ready, proactive and places the health safety and welfare of the people of Saint Lucia first and foremost.
I thank you.