(Excerpts of Dr. Friday’s Press Conference)
The Prime Minister and others in the government were giving the impression that they had the coronavirus licked, beaten; that they had managed so well that the economic fallout was not as bad as elsewhere in the region. They spoke as though we were past the worst. But the situation is now worse than ever. The Government has mismanaged this problem. They became boastful as though it was a competition that they were winning. They also became complacent and they have allowed the situation to get out of control.
Now we must do all we can to bring the situation under control:
* Secure our ports of entry to ensure all persons are properly checked and handled appropriately;
* Enforce quarantine measures strictly, through effective monitoring and follow up. As part of this, ensure resort guests stay on resort until mandatory quarantine completed;
* Conduct random testing, or test of person who want to be tested, so that testing is more widespread; the goal must be to test as many people as possible, on a continuous basis;
* Mandatory masks in public spaces with many people, publicly used buildings and public transport (many businesses enforcing it for their own protection but it should not be merely optional);
* Facilitate importation of masks;
* Promote work rotation, especially in the public sector (this will reduce use of minivans);
* Record names of persons who attend church, funerals, other gatherings even though limited to 10 and do temperature checks of persons entering such gatherings;
* Increase public awareness of the need to continue to practice COVID Safe personal hygiene, to overcome the so called “COVID fatigue”—wash hands regularly, cough in tissue or elbow, no handshakes, or hugs; wear mask; monitor own temperature when feeling unwell; avoid gatherings; stay home as much as possible;
* Install handwashing stations at bus terminals and assist van operators to regularly sanitize vans, and ferry operators likewise;
* Continually urge people to be safe.
Assisting with economic fallout
The economic fallout will continue for some time to come. As a priority, the upcoming Budget must provide for financial support to persons economically affected. There must be a significant package of relief assistance for people hurting from the pandemic.
Examples are: van operators will lose income because of the passenger restrictions and school being online and will require financial support; workers in the hospitality industry (incl. hotel and restaurant workers, taxi drivers, tour operators, craft vendors, market vendors, street vendors), including cruise ship workers who cannot return to work because their ships are not operating, and hotel/guest house and restaurant owners/operators, need income and other indirect support; many businesses are closing, some for good.
The government is failing to manage the COVID-19 crisis and failing to keep the people informed about the state of the pandemic in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. There is too much political calculation in what is said and done by public officials for public consumption. The professionals in the Ministry of Health must be guided by the science and experience, not by politics, and it must always be what makes the people safe and feel safe, not what makes the government look good or sound good.
I say to the health department officials, give the proper scientific advice honestly and fully. That is your role.
Then, it is up to the political leaders to make decisions based on that information and advice. There is a trust gap between government and the people as far as the management of the COVID crisis goes. This is dangerous and can cost lives. The message must be conveyed clearly and consistently that we are not yet out of the crisis; we cannot yet return to normal. It is a false choice to say we must choose between health on the one hand, and the economy on the other. They are inextricably linked.
The economy cannot function properly if people are getting infected and others fear becoming infected. There will be reduced public confidence in going about their business and the economy will suffer. So, the only way to protect the economy is to bring the spread of the virus under control and show our people that the government is managing the problem.
The evidence of the last two weeks show that the government is failing to do that and is doing so at a time when the situation is more grave and more urgent than ever.
La Soufriere Eruption – Planning and Preparation
I urge the authorities to communicate in a transparent and complete manner so that people will trust and heed the information and instructions given.
My colleagues and I visited Owia and Sandy Bay on Dec. 30 to speak with villagers and urge them to do all they can to prepare for evacuation if needed, and to heed the information from the authorities. People were scared and needed reassurance. Regular and sincere communication is needed to allay fears and build trust.
Moreover, we met with NEMO officials recently and will continue to reach out to them to be as much assistance as possible, especially if a crisis develops. And NEMO must also do the necessary drills in the communities to prepare for evacuation. Hope for the best but prepare for the worst. COVID-19 is a problem but must not lead to poor preparation for Soufriere eruption.
Since the press conference, the situation has gotten worse. We have recorded two (2) COVID-19 deaths and a dramatic increase of COVID-19 cases. As of 18th January, the authorities were investigating a total of four hundred and two (402) local cases. It is obvious that effective leadership is lacking and the government does not have a comprehensive plan to manage the COVID-19 crisis.