(PRESS RELEASE) – Mr. Speaker, I commend the Minister and the Ministry of Health, in particular the Chief Medical Officer and her team (CMO) for the response so far on the COVID-19 (Corona virus) crisis now sweeping the world.
Their task is not an easy one and they deserve our full support.
The actions taken by our Government have been aimed at delaying and if possible prevent Coronavirus from reaching us altogether.
As a Government, we know that our population is particularly vulnerable, partly due to the large number of persons with Diabetes and hypertension and other chronic illnesses which are susceptible to the coronavirus.
We have also recognized that there is currently insufficient space available to support a major outbreak in Saint Lucia.
Hence, we have made some initial efforts and committed significant financial resources which have already been highlighted by the Ministry of Health.
As we continue to look at alternatives and make adjustments, we will continue to update the population on the specifics of our approach. I assure you that we are working aggressively to find a solution for a worst-case scenario.
That same preparation and pre-emptive action has meant that we have had to take some tough decisions at the local and at the regional level.
In particular, we have had to make difficult decisions as it pertain to cruise ship calls to Port Castries. Over the last few weeks in consultation with the cruise ship industry we have denied entry of one ship and the re-routing of a few others.
The preliminary calculations show that we have forgone approximately 18,721 cruise passengers coming to our shores.
These are the difficult decisions we have had to make but always in the best interest of our citizens.
Once we started to dialogue with the cruise industry, however, we realized that the protocols from the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) dealt more specifically with the airline industry and shipping but did not speak in detail about the cruise industry and yachting.
We also realized we did not have a common policy for the region. In order to address the coronavirus crisis, CARICOM put together a committee of the ministers of health; with a sub-committee also set up to prepare a preliminary report.
Due to the absence of a common policy and the fall out that ensued, I was able to get the FCCA to make a presentation to the sub-committee in order to highlight some of their major issues and concerns.
Among the concerns was that while we were making adjustments to the countries where we imposed travel cautions, cruise ships were already mid-journey on their way to our islands.
The fact is unlike an airline that can change from one day to the next, a cruise ship is already at sea.
Also due to the numbers of passengers on the ship, there was a greater sensitivity by the countries for us to take into consideration our own capacity to handle a situation of the Coronavirus.
So over the past two weeks CARICOM has been moving quickly.
The sub-committee reported to the overall Committee by Friday February 28th and Chairperson, Prime Minister Mia Mottley decided that it was urgent enough that we should have a specific meeting two days later with the cruise industry on the subject.
This meeting came together rapidly and every effort was made to ensure that, despite the short notice, as many prime ministers, ministers of health, organizations and agencies, could participate, whether to be there physically or via zoom.
It was a pretty remarkable feat and a testament to the importance that the FCCA places on the region that they were able to get as many cruise ship companies and senior executives to physically come to Barbados to participate in this meeting.
The singular purpose of the meeting was to understand the difference between the role of the World Health Organization (WHO), Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and CARPHA.
CARPHA deals specifically with CARICOM and takes into consideration our unique challenges and recommends policies specific to us.
Hence, though the CARPHA position may have the same DNA of these other organizations, it may also have different conditions.
I want to particularly explain that the aim of this urgent meeting was to fully establish standard operating procedures (S.O.Ps) that would be easily translated to the cruise industry.
It was a detailed discussion which looked at a common list of affected countries, requirements of passengers on the ship and what are protocols we would use in various situations, for example where people were sick; who could disembark and the providing of advance information to the CMOs.
One of the more important discussions was if a ship had a Coronavirus case how would it be handled. Our discussion clearly analyzed the threat that we face and our approach.
In fact we came up with an approach almost identical to what obtained recently with the US dealing with the situation in San Francisco. Even the US as we speak today have not finalized their protocols. So as a region we are way ahead in that regard.
Following the meeting on Sunday, a draft document was prepared by CARPHA and circulated by Tuesday.
By Friday all the countries had signed onto the protocol. I can report we now have a common protocol.
We differ only on the countries we have selected to provide travel cautions/advisories on. I will be circulating to members the Accepted Protocol from CARPHA.
We are doing more at the regional level. The Chairman of CTO Hon Dominic Fedee, along with the president of CHTA, under the supervision of the Bahamas, who is the lead Prime Minister on Tourism, has been working for the last two weeks to put together a Caribbean Tourism Conference with the World Tourism Organization, World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), the FCCA and the airlines.
The purpose is to have a one-day discussion specifically on tourism and the coronavirus fall out, as well as preserve the global confidence in Caribbean Tourism.
As we prepare for our 2020-2021 Budget, we are also monitoring what is happening on the world stage. The economic fall out in the last couple of days in the global stock market; which is a result of the continued spread of coronavirus, as well as the oil price war which has now erupted between Russia and Saudi Arabia. This has created economic anxiety.
Hence we are in dialogue with the Central Bank, the World Bank, the CDB and the IMF, on what measures and mechanisms we can put in place in order to maintain the confidence of the business community. A conference call with the IMF is scheduled with the region for Monday next week.
Hence, we are going to have to delay the Budget presentation until we have a full picture of the economic implications in order that our numbers can be adjusted to the new normal.
Mr. Speaker, the Ministry of Finance will have a report for me by Wednesday with possible ways we can support the tourism industry and the economy. I can report that we have run several different models in order to predict and prepare for the fall out, in particular with regard to tourism arrivals. We will not be caught off guard.
I want to assure Saint Lucians that the priority is on the health sector and in anticipation of what’s going to happen, we are in parallel considering everything we can to give support to our economy.
The good news is that the Government’s major capital investment programs – the airport, St Jude, the police headquarters, the road rehabilitation, our CDP projects and improvements in our healthcare sector – will continue and will help to cushion some of the negative impacts.
Our Government has taken the approach of viewing the coronavirus situation as we would a hurricane. That is why we mobilized the National Emergency Management Advisory Committee (NEMAC).
I am very grateful to the Opposition for attending our first NEMAC meeting on this issue and I am equally grateful of the acknowledgement by the Opposition of the hard work and professional staff that we have at the Ministry of Health.
By treating the coronavirus as an impending hurricane, we are operating with the understanding that we have a potentially catastrophic event coming. Like a hurricane, there is uncertainty: it could hit us, or it may not hit us. When it is going to hit us and how strong it is going to be are all things that we cannot predict with any level of certainty.
But we have all learnt how unpredictable hurricanes have become since the advent of Climate Change. Similarly, there is a tremendous amount that we don’t know. Hence, like a hurricane, we must be prepared.
In this case, instead of cleaning our drains and cutting down overhanging branches, we have to change our behaviour.
One: in terms of practicing hygiene. Two: in terms of how we interact with each other.
COVID-19/ Coronavirus is transmitted by people and we are still learning a lot about this virus every day. Sadly, we do not have a vaccine, and the absence of a vaccine, has created a hysteria.
In speaking about the outbreak, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said: “We have a Coronavirus epidemic and we also have a pandemic called fear.” Fear will not save us. I know human behaviour changes don’t happen overnight, but make no mistake, this not a test.
Hence, I want to again applaud the Ministry of Health and their communications department for the work they have been doing in providing very comprehensive details on what we should be doing to protect ourselves. We will be seeking the support of all media houses in really assisting us in saturating the country with preventative information.
If we are successful in spreading the word, practicing good hygiene and effectively change our behaviours, then this is in fact the vaccine: to slow down or eliminate the ability of the virus to spread. I repeat: We don’t need panic, we need preparation.