My fellow citizens and residents,
I speak to you today at a time when we are all anxious and concerned about the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic that is creating crises around the world. While we in St. Kitts and Nevis await the announcement of any known case, we should nonetheless be aware, that it is only a matter of time. Therefore, it is extremely important and urgent that we prepare ourselves and be ready, not just to prevent the spread but to also to detect, manage and contain the transmission of this very contagious virus.
We are all aware that developments in relation to the spread of the deadly virus are changing rapidly, virtually by the minute, as countries around the world try to cope with its effects, not just on their public health system, but the economic, social and commercial impacts as well. Just recently, in North America, as well as in the Caribbean, Heads of government have made announcements and issued guidelines, about what is needed to prevent and manage the transmission of the disease. We need to ensure that we follow the best practices that are being used world-wide.
The health and economic impact of this pandemic on St. Kitts and Nevis will be immense and expansive. It has already affected our tourism industry and services sectors. It will continue to affect our businesses, especially our small businesses; our state institutions, our schools, our government offices, and more importantly, it can overwhelm our health institutions and our health system.
To address this pandemic effectively and minimize its adverse effects we must approach this together – all of us. This pandemic does not care about your political affiliation. It does not care about your ethnicity or whether you are a resident or a citizen. It cares not whether you are rich or poor, able or disabled. What is needed today is a unified approach setting aside all political and ideological differences and coalescing around a common and agreed strategy.
That is why, last week we called on the government to take a whole-of- government and whole-of-society approach by establishing a National COVID-19 Task Force, and we indicated our readiness and willingness to work with the authorities, the private sector and all social partners in order to save lives and to protect our people. We repeat today our call for our government to set up this National Taskforce consisting of experts from the infectious disease and medical fraternity, civil society and business community in order to develop a comprehensive national approach to address this issue.
We as a responsible party have ideas, as we suspect other groups have, as to the way in which this matter should be handled.
There are numerous steps and measures which have already been announced in other jurisdictions which may be considered in St. Kitts and Nevis. Perhaps the most important of these is the measure of social distancing. We must break the chain of transmission of any case that is among us already. This is essential and we must practice social distancing in our daily lives to overcome this crisis.
We urge the Harris administration, and the Prime Minister in particular to be proactive and forthright in addressing the people about the specific preparations that are being made and the protocols that are being followed.
Each of us must play our part. Personal hygiene is key in preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Therefore we should all practice the following, I remind you of these as a medical doctor:
- Wash our hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, specially after using the bathroom and before eating;
- We should cough into a tissue or flexed elbow;
- Avoid touching our faces, eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands;
- Avoid handshakes;
- Avoid large crowds and practice social distancing;
- We should clean and disinfect frequently objects and surfaces that are touched often;
- We should self-monitor and call the doctor’s office if we are unwell;
- We should use hand sanitizer with high alcohol content of at least 60%.
These simple tips can save lives. We commend all the institutions which have taken steps to practice social distancing.
While we take these personal steps and institutional steps to implement these guidelines, there is still a need for a national conversation to address the institutional and economic fallout from this pandemic.
The first and most immediate step that must be taken is to ensure that our health system is well resourced and equipped with the right technologies and well-trained staff. There is a critical need for more ventilators, respirators and ICU equipment. Our health care practitioners will be severely impacted, especially our doctors, nurses, cleaners and emergency personnel who will be at the front line of this fight. There might be a need to recall some of our retired nurses in order to assist with efforts. There is a desperate need for a hotline linked to the critical health personnel where people can give and receive information.
Where there are gaps and shortcomings we asking that the government SEEK HELP from our friends and partners in Taiwan, Cuba and around the Caribbean region which can provide the additional technical, logistical, material and technological support.
Then there is the financial and economic impact. There is no doubt that every citizen and resident will be affected. The closing of our schools and our day care centers close will impact our parents. The closing of our businesses will impact their employees and the many people who depend on their goods and services. The announcement by the cruise ships to suspend their itineraries in the Caribbean region will adversely affect our taxi drivers, restaurant workers and the thousands who work in our hotel and tourism sector. In light of the loss of employment we are urging the government of St. Kitts and Nevis to explore measures that would provide income support to our vulnerable citizens who will be disproportionately affected by the economic impact of the pandemic. We are calling on the Ministry of Consumer Affairs to institute price controls for a limited period to prevent price gouging on essential goods. Our businesses should seek to provide online options for purchasing and delivery of goods and services.
We also hope that at the time of recovery from this crisis appropriate stimulus measures, will be instituted to assist our businesses.
We would like to encourage our local banks to suspend payments on mortgages and student and other loans and to put a moratorium on penalties and late fees.
In the short term, we would like to urge the Harris administration to consider implementing a form of Unemployment Insurance that would provide a weekly, fortnightly or monthly stipend for individuals who may have lost their jobs as a result of downsizing – particularly those in the tourism and manufacturing sectors. Our people must be given the assurance that they will not be thrown out of their homes, their businesses will not be foreclosed on and students won’t lose their student loans. A rationing system may need to be put in place to ensure that we do not run out of food and other essential goods.
This is a time for our nation to come together, for our communities to come together and for us to all be our brothers’ keeper. We must resist the natural instinct to each look inward as to what we must do to secure the survival of ourselves and our families. This is not the Kittitian and Nevisian way. I urge us all to be considerate of others and to look out for those who are most vulnerable among us – the homeless, the mentally challenged, the elderly and shut-ins to ensure that they too are coping. And even our youths must remember that you can be vulnerable. We are a resilient people and we will overcome this latest challenge, but it will take discipline and adapting our way of life to the present context. It will take rising to a new normal that, it is my hope, will elevate all humanity to a new way of life and social and economic interaction that is more balanced, more fair, more empathetic and compassionate.
My thoughts and prayers are with you all, my fellow citizens and residents of our proud St. Kitts and Nevis.