Excerpts of Dr Friday’s Budget Presentation)
General state of the country
We face major challenges: the biggest is COVID-19 pandemic; the threat of volcanic eruption which Dr. Robertson said could happen without warning, though hopefully there will be enough time to get people out; higher than usual rates of infection and death from dengue fever, a preventable disease, eight (8) persons have died, including children and an uncertain hurricane season which begins in five (5) months. We keep comforting ourselves by acknowledging that we are blessed, but we must not be complacent. The risk is there and we must prepare for it.
In addition, the pre-COVID-19 persistent maladies of the government: low economic growth, lowest in the OECS; lack of diversity in the economy; limited capacity to resist and recover from external shocks; growing poverty, including indigence; high rates of unemployment, over 50% for youth; unacceptably high levels of crime, two (2) homicides have already been committed for this year and the lack of opportunities and an enabling environment for flowering of ideas and nurturing of entrepreneurship especially for our young people.
Since the emergence of COVID-19, all the problems have gotten worse. Existing vulnerabilities and inequities in our economy and society have been exposed. All the government has offered us in the guise of solutions, are short sighted initiatives to plaster the sores, rather than remedies to treat the deep-rooted problems. Poor resilience of our country is laid bare and exposed with no credible or convincing strategic response from the government. Instead, everything is a political spin; everything is done through political lens.
Further, the lack of support to the private sector at this critical juncture is very much in keeping with this government’s long record of antagonism towards the private sector. At no point has any incentive been provided to the private sector to maintain employment, because it is not politically expedient. Government prefers to offer them a small payment from the NIS, and move on, so they know it is coming from government and they would be grateful and dependent. Also, outrageously high levels of unemployment made worse by the pandemic; unnecessary exposure of the indigent, aged and most vulnerable segments of the society to the ravages of COVID-19 through government’s timid and ineffective response. Our people are in a state of heightened concern over the situation. Meanwhile, the government is on cruise control with no credible and meaningful response to the challenges which beset us as a nation.
My remarks here are intended to help the situation, by bringing to light what is wrong with this budget and show a better path forward. My review of this Budget and the Estimates reveals a lack of alignment of the Budget with the most important problems and issues currently facing our country. In other words, this Budget is not one for the times we are living in. It fails to adequately and proactively shore up our resilience. The government does not care about financial accountability and treats it as an optional request to be ignored when it suits them.
Poor handling of Covid-19
The Minister of Finance speaks of the danger of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said, “The corona virus is a killer.” Then he speaks of support programs implemented in the Recovery and Stimulus Package. The Minister further stated that the government intervention was timely and targeted which seems to suggest that the government has done its part. No more relief to come.
The safety and health of the citizens of this country should be our number one priority; anything else is scant disregard for the lives of our people. One (1) life lost due to COVID-19 is one too many. It has been proven that an approach that favours no restrictions has long run adverse effects on the economy. The more people get sick, the more likely there will be more deaths. And more people will withdraw from the economy as producers and as consumers.
In other words, a contagion such as COVID-19 adversely affects the economy, more or less immediately. As soon as there is increased spread, people retreat to the safety of their homes. Why therefore would anyone and especially the government allow the virus a free reign in our country? It puts our health systems under tremendous strain. And we are at the juncture now where we simply do not have the capacity to deal with this.
Our health workers and frontline workers have not only been placed under undue stress but themselves are at greater risk of contracting the disease themselves.
Having allowed the virus to get out of hand, we now have to direct scare resources to fight it. Resources that could have gone to keeping more people at work and providing proper technological tools for our students and teachers; yet, this government is comfortable risking sickness and death and the productivity of this country with an approach that defies science. We are fighting this disease from behind rather than taking a proactive approach. Members of the government might be cautious and concerned about a lockdown because they know and fear the rampant rising poverty in our midst and the extremely high unemployment. It was bad before COVID but is worse now and given that the government dropped the ball and COVID-19 is spreading into all communities, we can expect economic hardship to get worse.
We in the Opposition understand this concern but would approach the problem differently. It would be better that our people miss a meal than lose their lives. We want to minimize hardship. The way to do it, is to bring the crisis under control as quickly as possible. The current approach of doing as little as possible and hoping for the best is a recipe for disaster. And that is what is on the menu for us now. The lame boast of the Prime Minister and others in the government that St Vincent and the Grenadines is doing better than our neighbours has backfired.