Addressing the people of Saint Lucia Wednesday, January 28, 2021, opposition leader and leader of the Saint Lucia Labour Party (SLP) Philip J. Pierre, said: “While I would have wished to discuss our plans for economic diversification, crime-fighting initiatives, political reforms and other policy initiatives, the current public health crisis and its attendant economic consequences, created in the main by the mismanagement of the government’s COVID-19 response, requires the Labour Party’s fullest attention. Moreover, our people are worried, anxious and concern about the future.”
By Philip J. Pierre
In Saint Lucia, we are now experiencing the full onslaught of a third wave of the coronavirus virus. This community spread has already caused nearly 1,000 confirmed COVID cases with many more stuck in a testing backlog. Over 600 of these cases have come within January. We have already recorded 13 COVID-19 related deaths with eight of these deaths within January alone.
On Monday, January 25, the ministry of health (MOH) informed us that the new UK variant which is said to be more contagious has been present in Saint Lucia from mid-December 2020. Our health system, already in crisis prior to COVID-19 because of the government’s myopic approach to healthcare, is buckling under the strain of an aggressive spread of COVID-19.
Our hospitals and clinics have reached capacity and COVID infected persons are being asked to isolate at home, in conditions not always suited for effective isolation. We are dangerously short of critical equipment to treat COVID-19- patients and also critically low on medicines for those suffering from other illnesses.
In short, we are in a deep national health crisis, which has its origin in the government’s poor handling of our health care system, which has been worsened by the outbreak of COVID 19, which, sadly, remains poorly managed by the government.
The government did not create the pandemic but its handling of it has created a national health crisis.
The government has been and continues to be economical with the truth about its COVID-19 preparations and the magnitude of the COVID-19 problem in Saint Lucia. It was this government which last March claimed to be fully prepared for COVID-19, with its prime minister initially and ludicrously suggesting Rat Island as a quarantine centre; it was this government whose prime minister insisted, without any scientific proof, and in contradiction with pronouncements by the Chief Medical Officer (CMO), that the source of community spread of the virus in October 2020 was through the back door – the illegal entry of nationals into the country from neighbouring Martinique.
The government’s handling of this crisis has been disastrous, for it has to date borrowed in excess of EC$321 million for combating COVID-19, with only $17 million accounted to the parliament as COVID-related. Meanwhile, it continues to finance so-called “shovel-ready” projects, which are only aimed at handing out direct award construction contracts and splurging large sums of money on unnecessary projects, hoping to dazzle the electorate in the lead up to the general elections.
The government’s handling of this crisis has been poor because it continues to ignore the informed advice and counsel of those it deems to be of a different political persuasion. The trade unions advised against the opening of schools in January in the face of a spike in COVID-19. Civil society requested consultations prior to the passing of the COVID-19 (Protection and Control) Bill. Private citizens and professionals have been calling for second testing for tourists. The opposition party has called for all these and more to combat COVID-19, with the intention of providing economic relief to the people but to no avail.
All these proposals, in addition to being ignored, have been attacked by government surrogates and cabinet members.
Our rescue plan
Despite this, the SLP, recognising the extent of the COVID-19 crisis in Saint Lucia at this time, is again presenting to the country a seven-point action plan to confront the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our proposals are as follows:
- Expand Testing and Tracing;
- Expand Treatment Capacity;
- Rethink Travel and Tourism Measures;
- Revise the Partial Shutdown;
- Protect our Education Sector;
- Quickly Implement a Vaccination Programme;
- Implement an Economic and Social Relief Programme.
Expand testing and tracing: Our current testing policy is sub-standard. If tests cannot be done in a timely fashion, then it is ineffective in reducing viral spread. Testing is now driven by the ability to pay and travelling requirements, so that those persons willing to pay for travelling purposes are receiving priority over others who need to be tested to contain community spread.
We need to expand our testing capacity immediately. The goal should be to meet the capacity to cover local and inbound and outbound travel testing requirements.
- The Forensic Laboratory, which has the technical capacity to do testing should be brought on stream with the necessary medical oversight. Additionally, private laboratories should be licensed to perform molecular tests as well.
- We need to use testing as another layer of protection in dealing with high-risk areas. This can be done through the deployment of rapid-antigen testing. The government should urgently seek the assistance of PAHO in this regard, in sourcing rapid testing equipment.
- An Electronic Test Results Online Portal should be created to ensure the speedy, confidential and verifiable delivery of test results and to improve the administrative efficiency of the Ezra Long Lab.
- Testing must go hand in hand with tracing. We cannot trace if we cannot test and vice versa. The government should, therefore, initiate the deployment of a contact tracing app on smartphones, to alert persons who may have come into contact with positively infected individuals. This should be utilised in the first instance in the tourism and commercial sectors.
Expand Treatment Capacity: The government must expand Saint Lucia’s isolation care facility. There are far too many unsavoury stories emanating from the walls of Victoria. This Isolation Facility has long been overwhelmed and persons who cannot isolate safely at home have had to be turned away.
- Alternatively, or additionally, persons who isolate at home should be electronically tagged to monitor their whereabouts.
- An isolation facility should be established in the south. The East Wing of St Jude Hospital should be completed for that purpose.
Rethink travel and tourism measures: Any strategy to roll back the virus must start by tackling the source of its entry into the country. The detection of the new UK variant of the virus proves that contrary to the government’s unproven claims, international travel is the source of the greatest threat of COVID-19 in Saint Lucia. The government’s arguments against second testing remain weak and unconvincing and not supportive of public health demands. It is obvious that opening our doors without restrictions to international travel is an invitation to COVID-19 to enter our shores. The Saint Lucia Labour Party understands that it is important to keep our economy running, which may require our main economic activity – tourism – operating. But is it reasonable to place one half of the economy at risk? We must always remember that there can be no economy without people.
The Saint Lucia Labour Party wishes to see a safe tourism sector in which the very lives of the people who are working to keep it operating are protected. Consequently, there should be an immediate revision of the government’s policies towards international arrivals with tougher control and surveillance measures, especially for travellers from the UK and the USA, two epicentres of COVID-19 in the world today. In seeking to mitigate our exposure to high risks of infection, we call for:
- All international travellers from high-risk countries should get a PCR test done within 1-3 days of travel. Our current window of allowing a test as old a 7-days to be valid for travel is too risky, and inconsistent with the practice of most countries.
- All international travellers staying at a quarantine property or government facility must undergo a second PCR test on day 7. Once negative, they may be discharged from quarantine.
- All travellers must use an approved contact tracing and location monitoring app. As such, all tours should be pre-approved and numbers should be carefully managed to meet protocols.
- However, if these measures fail to mitigate the influx of the virus from the international epicentres of the disease, then the government should exercise the option of closing the borders to travellers from these countries until the outbreak is brought under control.
Revise the partial shutdown: The government announced last week what essentially amounts to a partial shutdown but these closures need to be revised.
We, therefore, recommend the following targeted measures with respect to tackling the immediate crisis.
- There must be immediate widespread rapid-antigen testing for businesses and institutions where clusters have appeared. Special attention should be paid for hotels and call centers. Such a testing regime should require each staff member to take two viral tests within a three-day period;
- Commercial activity should be allowed to operate once they are not in breach of protocols. However, this must be accompanied with heightened monitoring, surveillance and enforcement of protocols within the commercial sector;
- Once a case has been identified at a business, the ministry of health should utilise testing for all staff and potential client contacts. This will save on scarce PCR testing and aid in business continuity;
- Businesses should be encouraged to use contact tracing apps, and should also encourage their clients to do the same. However, in the interim, businesses should be encouraged to use logbooks for staff and customers to aid in contact tracing if it becomes necessary;
- Supermarkets and wholesalers should be allowed the sale of alcohol with a cap on the volume purchased;
- Based on the characteristics of the outbreaks and the length of time it will take to reduce the transmission rate to below five cases per week it is likely that these measures will be required for at least eight weeks. As such, the government should prepare accordingly and extend the partial shutdown of ten days by two additional weeks
- A core of health aides should be used to boost community-wide testing in town centres as well as recreation areas like beaches.
Protect our education sector: The actions of the government in opening schools on January 11 when the country faced its worst COVID spike ever, was simply irresponsible and its announcement last Wednesday that they would be closed for only ten days, incomprehensible. This closure period is too short given the magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis facing us now, especially in view of the presence of the new more contagious UK variant.
- The government should therefore keep schools closed until the length of time it will take to reduce the transmission rate to below five cases per week over two weeks or when tests are easily available at our schools.
- Ensure that all teachers and students have the necessary technology to enable online learning during that period. The government’s callous stopping of the SLP’s Laptop Programme in schools has been exposed for its stupidity, now that online teaching and learning is critical.
- Resume the National WIFI Programme, which was supported by the Republic of China (Taiwan), again callously stopped by the government, so that children can access the internet from their homes.
- Many children depended on the School Feeding Programme. Many parents now struggle with having to feed children at home all day, every day. I call on the government to show some compassion and to provide food vouchers or grants to the parents in need.
Quickly implement a vaccination programme: While all these actions, if implemented, will keep us safe, our best path to returning to normalcy is through immunity. We need to immunize our population as quickly as possible. We believe that a suitably resourced vaccination programme should aim to have 75 percent of our population at the earliest. This vaccination programme should be voluntary and should be accompanied by an education campaign.
I am also pledging the support of all the parliamentarians and candidates of the Saint Lucia Labour Party in the vaccination process, to build public confidence in taking the vaccine.
Implement an economic and social relief programme: The government has failed to ease the pain of the farmers, fishers, barbers, hairdressers, hospitality workers, taxi-drivers, small business owners, and the unemployed who are facing the economic repercussions of COVID-19.
As early as March 2020, I recommended such a programme which the government ignored, and to make matters worse, International financial assistance meant for economic and social support from COVID-19 was shamefully deflected to other uses, such as the unnecessary DSH Project and over-priced road works. The prime minister claimed last year that government had “no more money” for social and economic relief yet it borrowed over $300 million for COVID, most of which has not been spent on COVID; the government would have had the necessary fiscal space if its priorities had been aimed at saving lives and not unnecessary concrete and steel projects.
The government must bring forward a second income support programme for the next three to six months, as well as support to SMEs in the form of grants, not only loans.
- We estimated that it will cost in the region of $120 million in the next year.
- $45 million is for income support and SME assistance.
- $20 million for support for our education system.
- $55 million for health-related spending including testing and vaccination.
These interventions we believe are necessary to ensure we can protect lives while supporting livelihoods.
Fellow citizens, there is no moral value in telling lies regardless of any short term political gains it may sometimes provide. Any structure built on falsehoods will eventually collapse.
We cannot run our country by deliberate misinformation and telling lies to our citizens; it amounts to nothing less than a show of contempt for the citizens of the country, not to mention the uncertainty it creates in the business environment.
We should be able to trust our leaders and where we cannot do so, we must have the courage to call them out.
In presenting this plan, we have been honest and truthful in our determination of the nature of the problem with which we are dealing; and that is the difference between [us] – the Saint Lucia Labour Party – and the United Worker Party (UWP) government.
Our response to COVID-19 will only be successful if we can build trust which requires transparency. Unfortunately, this government has lost the trust of the people.
In an effort to rebuild this trust, I recommend the country establishes a non-governmental COVID-19 Scientific, Technical & Research Group made up of a multidisciplinary cross-section of Saint Lucians to provide open and independent guidance to provide ongoing COVID responses as the situation demands.
I have no doubt that the Saint Lucian people will do what is necessary to crush COVID. We will wear our masks; we will practice physical distancing, and wash or sanitize our hands regularly. We will self-quarantine if we have symptoms and remember to be our brother’s keeper. And because we are a resilient people, we will overcome in spite of the mistreatment and false claims that we the people of Saint Lucia are the problem.
In closing, I am well aware of the immense challenges ahead of us, however, I am not daunted because of my faith in the collective will of our people. We can overcome these challenges and arrive in a better place if only we are prepared to put our differences aside for the good of our nation. And in this year of electoral judgement for our country we must also be prepared to take the decision for the better governance of our nation. I look forward to a better year with less economic hardship, better health and a safer Saint Lucia.
The plan I have presented will put us on this path. It puts your needs first, your healthcare first, and your lives first. It puts you first.