March 25, 2020
My fellow citizens and residents,
I pray that this broadcast finds you and your families in good health and you are taking all the necessary precautions to avoid contracting and spreading the Coronavirus COVID-19 disease which has now impacted this entire region and the world. We must do what we can to prevent infection and contain the spread of this deadly virus.
And so we thank Almighty God that to date, there have been no announced infections and no deaths in this Federation. We must all continue to pray for God’s blessing and grace upon us. However, we cannot be naive and expect that we will escape what most countries in this world are already facing! The truth is that it is only a matter of time before we are confronted with our own case or cases of COVID-19. That is a truth we must be ready and prepared to face!
In order for us to face the truth, our government must tell us th truth. Our government must be open and transparent. We the citizens and residents must be kept informed about what steps our government is taking to protect us and save lives. Our government must tell us what steps we must take to help protect ourselves and save lives. We are all in this together. COVID-19 is an equal opportunity virus. It cares not for our political affiliation or ethnicity. It cares not whether we are rich or poor. It cares not whether we are young or old. It cares not whether we are employed or unemployed. It cares not whether we are in government or in opposition.
That is why I have pleaded with the government to put together a National Task Force comprising representatives of all stakeholders in the society to address this international pandemic. Instead, the government has chosen to go it alone, preferring instead merely to “consult” with stakeholders of its choosing. In the process, the government has excluded the Opposition Party in this country which represents a significant and sizeable portion of the population affected by this pandemic.
That is why I will continue to address this nation separately and ensure that the views and ideas of our Party on this pandemic are well known.
At this point I would also like to thank the public for expressing themselves so feely on social media and in other public forums. They have forced the PM to attempt to reply to their concerns and conceal the callous insensitivity that was so apparent in his address on Sunday night. Our people have demonstrated their power through social media and they should continue doing so.
The public health crisis caused by this pandemic is unfolding around us with tremendous speed. In the last few days, a number of our sister islands have now confirmed a number of COVID-19 cases: Dominica has 7 cases; St. Lucia 3 cases; Antigua 3; Trinidad & Tobago 53; Barbados 17; United State Virgin Islands 17; Saint Martin 8; Grenada 1; Montserrat 1; St. Vincent and the Grenadines 1;
We have all heard and read about the huge numbers of confirmed cases as well as deaths in some of the countries in which we have relatives and friends: the USA, UK, Canada, Dominican Republic , to name a few. These figures are mindboggling.
The steps being taken to control and stop the spread of the virus are also ever changing and becoming more and more urgent and drastic. Just within the last 72 hours the government of St. Lucia declared a state of National Emergency in the country. In Dominica, the government has ordered the closure of all night clubs and sporting facilities; public gatherings above 10 persons have been suspended; so too has in-person access to non-essential public services
Trinidad and Tobago is under lockdown. That lockdown has resulted in citizens of that country being quarantined in Barbados because their government would not allow them to land in Trinidad.
The United Kingdom, Italy, and France are also under lockdown. We have all been hearing about what has been happening in the United States as well as in Canada.
Right here in St. Kitts and Nevis, the adverse consequences of this pandemic are being felt, even while our government remains silent and missing in action: the tourism industry has been shut down. Cruise ships have disappeared and those of our citizens who relied on that industry for their livelihoods are quickly using up whatever savings they were able to put aside in the past. Airlines are also discontinuing flights as international airports around the world are shutting down. American Airlines has suspended all flights to St. Kitts and Nevis.
The hotel sector is quickly shutting down and hoteliers are reducing their operations as their occupancy levels have decreased considerably, if not totally vanished.
A huge part of our services sector relied almost exclusively on the tourism industry. With that industry in virtual collapse, there is much loss of employment and income for those of our people who earn their living from these jobs.
Yesterday’s address by the Prime Minister was not only late but woefully inadequate and disappointing. The information provided for the first time on the number of tests, the results of the tests especially in light of the large number of persons quarantined, raised more questions than they have answered.
The economic stimulus package has been promoted as a $120 million stimulus package but he has not provided the cost of the various elements of the package. However, on closer scrutiny it doesn’t seem to add to $120 million.
At first glance, it seems that the Government will rely primarily on capital projects to provide growth over the next few months. We must insist on greater transparency and competitiveness in the award of contracts if most of this money is to benefit our people and not end up in the pockets of a favoured few. Our people must resort to social media to report wrongdoing. This is our country and if a vast amount of our tax dollars is continually siphoned off, our people will suffer the consequences.
In virtually every country of the world, they have recognized that there is a huge risk that many businesses will go under. Hence much of the support has been directed to assisting the private sector as a whole and small businesses in particular. In the package announced by the Prime Minister, there is no such support for our businesses sector. The so-called package of $120 million contains only peanuts for those of our businesses that are most at risk. This will have disastrous consequences.
The reduction of corporate tax and unincorporated business tax for three months will not yield any relief because over that period most of our businesses are likely to incur losses and would not have any income on which to pay tax.
The postponement of property taxes until September would only delay the burden. After September when, hopefully, people are trying to recover from the impact, they will be faced with accumulated property taxes.
The Government is granting a waiver for water bills which are usually a small percentage of household expenditure but only a moratorium for electricity. It means that the burden is being deferred and not reduced. So our people will still have to pay the accumulated arrears after the end of the moratorium.
Similarly, the moratorium in respect of the Development Bank and NHC should be structured such that the borrowers would not be called upon to make increased payments at the end of the moratorium. This can be achieved by either an extension of the term of the loan or a waiver of such obligations over the specified period.
The Government will actually reward corporations that lay off as much as 25% of their workforce by reducing their corporation tax. This suggests that the Government actually condones the layoff of 25% of our workers. It is a clear signal of what the Government finds acceptable. But that is not acceptable to us.
Most of our hotels and tourism-related enterprises have already laid off hundreds of workers and if every other corporation in our Federation, whether they are directly affected by the coronavirus or not, lays off 25% of their workforce, the effect on our economy would be catastrophic. The aim of the Government should be to keep all of our workers employed through payroll support or through programmes like our most impactful short term work experience programmes. Unfortunately, there is no such initiative in the package. For a worker to get financial support he must contract the coronavirus disease.
It is also vital that that these assistance programmes for workers are administered in a structured and programmatic way to ensure maximum efficiency and avoid discrimination and victimization.
My fellow citizens and nationals, this is a national crisis of immense proportions. It requires an equally robust and aggressive response to overcome the public health crisis, and militate against the economic decline which accompanies it. It requires bold, imaginative and collective leadership. Sadly, this leadership has not been forthcoming. Sadly, there has been more concern for public relations and political posturing, than a sincere and diligent approach to crisis planning and management.
The time has now come for more decisive leadership. We cannot and should not wait for the announcement of confirmed cases or even deaths for us to take the steps which every other country is already taking, to ensure that we put ourselves at the front of the line in bending the curve of COVID-19, and ensuring the integrity and sustainability of our health system; as well as protect the lives of our doctors, nurses, other health providers and all other first responders who are at the forefront of fighting this pandemic.
There are steps which we can and should take NOW.
There is a need for the authorities to establish the importance of and firmly enforce public adherence to clear rules for social distancing in our schools, institutions and work places in order to prevent ad hoc, misguided responses that may not work in the public’s interest.
This is the stage at which we need to ascertain, through an expansive testing drive, whether the virus is already among us. We need to ensure that all persons who arrive at our borders especially those coming from high-risk countries are tested in order to confirm their status as a starting point to detect, trace, manage and contain the virus. That is why there is a dire need for greater transparency in the release of information pertaining to the number of persons who have been quarantined and tested and what the results have been. As has been advised by our leading Health institutions such as the World Health Organisation, the key to containing the virus at this stage is to “test, test, test”. This is the only way to arrive at an accurate assessment of the situation here on the ground in St. Kitts and Nevis. As well, I repeat my call for the government to absorb the cost of testing as part of its national emergency response and budget to ensure that maximum participation in this effort. Financial considerations must never trump our public health imperatives.
Economic Stimulus Package
There is an urgent need for an economic stimulus package to assist workers as well as employers and businesses in these very difficult times.
We propose the following immediate initiatives:
- Introduction of and payment of Unemployment Benefits to all persons who have lost their employment as a result of this pandemic. These payments should begin immediately, made retroactive and should last for the entire duration of the pandemic.
- Provision of Direct Payroll Support to all tourism-related businesses, including Hoteliers, Restaurants, Bars, and Travel agents to encourage them to keep people employed.
- Provision of Direct Income Support to Taxi Drivers, Public transportation Buses, Tourist vendors and other hospitality industry based businesses to ensure that they can meet their business related expenses during this period.
- Suspend payment of VAT, corporate income tax and unincorporated business taxes by all businesses for the period.
- Reduce the cost of electricity by 50% for the months of March, April, and May (in the first instance) for All consumers.
- Provide a moratorium on principal and interest payments to customers of the St. Kitts Nevis Anguilla National Bank and the Development Bank for at least the next three months, in the first instance. Negotiate a similar arrangement with all other financial institutions in the country.
The loss of jobs in the tourism sector and the drastic slowdown in the service industry business and the cessation of international carrier traffic among other effects has the potential to deal a severe blow to our economic survivability.
The NextGen SKN Labour Party has therefore taken a policy decision to immediately appoint from its ranks and also from amongst experts from the financial and economic fraternity a special Council to advise the new Labour administration with respect to an economic stimulus programme to jumpstart the economy at the beginning of our new term in office. The Council will consist of professionals with expertise in specific areas such as finance, economics, health, tourism and manufacturing.
I am pleased to learn that our government has reached out to friends in the international community such as the Republic of China on Taiwan (ROC), Cuba and the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States, for technical, personnel, supplies and material support. I would like to thank Dr. Terrance Drew, the St. Kitts-Nevis Labour Party’s candidate for strongly advocating that this step be taken as part of our national preparations and response.
It is my hope that moving forward our national response will be a proactive response that puts our people above politics in order to make a reality of independent proposals that assist and protect our people. I continue to call on our faith-based and non-governmental organisations to enlist in this cause by providing community-based responses that would reach out to the most vulnerable in our society – our single mothers, our homeless and those suffering various forms of domestic abuse. I continue to challenge each of us to do our part in observing the guidelines for personal hygiene, in order to break the chain of any potential transmission to others. We welcome the steps that are now being taken to protect our elderly who are in public and private nursing homes, however more can be done to train and sensitize those heads of households who are the primary caregivers for their sick and elderly.
The St. Kitts-Nevis Labour Party will continue its public outreach activities on a constituency, by constituency basis, over the coming weeks and we look forward to engage you once again in the very near future.