“Government intervention of this kind fosters a community spirit that is vital to combat this virus, which is no respecter of persons. It is in times like these that true and caring leadership is required to do what is in the best interest of the people.”
COVID-19 has presented us with a health and economic challenge that cannot be addressed independently of each other. We must avoid the common linear approach to problem solving, otherwise we will only end up solving, temporarily, a health problem while creating an economic problem with all its attendant social problems- and perhaps new health problems.
This current Covid -19 global crisis is unique in many ways. It’s a health problem so widespread and deadly that it takes people away from most areas of economic activity. The solution requires an attenuation of social interaction, and creates fear and panic among people. This is why it is more than a health issue, which requires government intervention on different levels, simultaneously.
The government of St Lucia needs to alter its approach to addressing COVID-19. Yes, we need to quickly improve on our health system, acquire the necessary testing equipment for the detection of the virus, improve the monitoring of our borders, especially as it relates to visitors from countries with high levels of infection rates and keep reinforcing the vital need for social distancing. By the way, social distancing remains our most effective means of controlling the spread of COVID-19. Regrettably, we have not promoted the value of this early enough, nor practiced it, at the highest level. So now, government has had to force it upon us.
The government’s change in approach must include, in addition to a health focus, a simultaneous economic intervention that puts money directly in the hands of the thousands of workers who have been displaced. While we are fighting on the health front, the St Lucian economy is in inexorable decline because consumer demand is vanishing. Without an early government intervention many businesses will collapse very soon. By the time this COVID-19 is brought under control, there may be little left to build from, making an economic recovery very protracted and challenging.
I am not for a minute suggesting that every person unemployed should be given some government allowance. This may not be possible because the system required to do so with the level of fairness and transparency does not exist, and the exigency of the situation does not allow the time to build it. So who then should get it and for how long? These are questions the Leader of The Opposition should be answering, in a detailed proposed stimulus programme, having earlier publicly mentioned the need for government assistance, to displaced workers. Whatever the sum paid, it should allow most people to meet their very basic needs in a time of crisis, especially when coupled with the relief banks are providing to the customers, like the moratorium on mortgage payments and loans. The funding for such payments can come from the Advanced Departure Tax (ADT) locked-box, ear-marked to fund the Redevelopment of Hewanorra International Airport, which would require a simple legislative amendment to effect a change of use. As I write, the ADT collected to date should be over $100 million. The redevelopment of Hewanorra International Airport should not be a priority of any government at this time. In the current situation, I believe this project in its current scale and scope should be abandoned, for now.
Over the coming weeks and months, many displaced workers will have serious challenges feeding their families, and it would be grossly unfair to ask them to wait until the economic situation improves, which may be a long time in coming. This type of situation is only likely to cause worry and anxiety. People need to know that their government cares, and is willing to do something to alleviate their plight. By demonstrating it cares, the government is more likely to secure the cooperation, patience and understanding of the people during a challenging period. Moreover, government intervention of this kind fosters a community spirit that is vital to combat this virus, which is no respecter of persons. It is in times like these that true and caring leadership is required to do what is in the best interest of the people. The members of parliament, by their silence, should not be implicitly asking ordinary folks to make sacrifices that they themselves are yet to make. I am sure every parliamentarian will get their full salary over the next three months. The call for government assistance for displaced workers is a moral imperative, which makes good economic sense. Both the United Kingdom and the United States have adopted the policy of direct assistance to workers, in their COVID-19 response, and in the case of the UK, the government has committed to paying 80% of wages/salaries to a limit of £2500 per month. It is true that both countries have the capacity to do more than us, but the underlying principle is the same: ensuring that consumer demand does not dry up and the economy collapses.
If, ever, there was a time to ramp up our agricultural sector it is now. We need to be able to feed ourselves and start eating what we grow and growing what we eat. This crisis is likely to expose our heavy dependence on imported foods, while at the same time present a boon for local farmers. Government should, therefore, seek to provide a significant stimulus package for this sector. Our fishers should be allowed, at the very least, to enjoy the full benefits of lower imported fuel prices resulting from a 50% drop in the international price of crude oil, since the crisis. Incidentally, these lower fuel prices should begin to take effect at the next fuel price adjustments, on Monday April,6.
As if the challenges for consumers were not enough, I have just learnt that commercial banks will be closing their doors to the public on Monday, 30th March,2020 because of anxiety and fear among bank staff, about the unacceptable number of people visiting their bank, in a COVID-19 environment. This is a further blow to the local economy, and the creation of public panic, never mind the explanations provided by the banking sector. The government should have dissuaded the banking sector from this drastic course of action.
If we are to have a better grip on the challenges of COVID-19, we need clear and decisive leadership and less glib talk. We have a health and economic problem in one, and it requires a health and economic response. Any attempt at trying to address one without the other, amounts to not having an appreciation of what is truly before us. Let us hope that there is enough time to change course before COVID-19 is allowed to take out a few of us and crash the local economy for a period longer than it should have.
It is increasingly evident that the St Lucian community needs to work together to get over this crisis. The things that divide us must be jettisoned, if only for now, until COVID-19 is enervated and laid to rest.