The news came as no surprise. We’re talking about last evenings announcement by our Prime Minister, the Honourable Gaston Browne, that we had four (4) new cases of the awful COVID-19. That brought to seven the total number of cases here in our fair State. Again, we all knew that it was not a matter of if, but when, andwith the dervish-like manner in which events are unfolding worldwide, we knew that it would be sooner rather than later. After all, our airport was still open to flights from the United Kingdom (UK) (the mother-lode of cases in Antigua), and from the United States (US), and that was problematic. Of course, now that we’ve completely closed our borders to air traffic from the UK and the US for the next two weeks, starting from last night, we will significantly lessen the possible cases of imported infections.
Meanwhile, we have quarantined at a hotel, all the passengers who entered Antigua yesterday, and we see that as the prudent and responsible thing to do. To be sure, it was the action by the international carriers to stop flights to Antigua that forced our government to shut down the V.C. Bird International Airport, and when this COVID crisis is all over, we will look back at why our government seemed to be dragging its foot on closing it. Remember, folks, most Antiguans and Barbudans were in favour of shutting it down, never mind the economic reasons for keeping it open, to wit, “Many jobs and family livelihoods depend directly, and indirectly on tourism.” It was a choice between life and livelihoods, a sobering testament to the grim circumstances facing Antigua and the entire world.
Of course, we are certainly hoping that with the airport shut down, and the call for social distancing and good self-protection health practices, that things will get better from here on in terms of new imported infections. We are praying that there will be little or no community–spread. (So far, we have had only one community-spread case).
On the economic front, we are pleased that the government has promised to “extend and expand the [Construct Antigua Barbuda Initiative] CABI initiative for another year and increase the threshold to a further $500K.” This could bear good fruit since it is an initiative under which private builders and homeowners can avail themselves of zero Antigua and Barbuda Sales Tax (ABST), and Customs Duty and Revenue Recovery Charge exemptions on all building materials that are locally purchased. We believe that citizens will take advantage of this initiative, and to that, we say, bravo!
The sudden renewed emphasis on agriculture (food security – our sustained ability to feed ourselves) is also quite laudable, and it ought to be encouraged (eg. the seedlings giveaway this past Monday), Nonetheless, we fear that the reaping of the first fruits of this initiative will not be any time soon. The long-term good that will come out of this crisis is that more Antiguans and Barbudans will see their backyard gardens and agriculture as a necessity rather than an optional hobby. And that our government will no longer treat agriculture as an afterthought.
Folks, our grim reality is that this government, as are many governments around the world, is in a bad financial way! Our Prime Minister, and Minister of Finance, has said that we did not have the fiscal space to save any money, and our Minister of State in the Ministry of Finance, the Honourable Lennox Weston, is on record as admitting words to the effect that “We owe a lot of people a lot of money, and we don’t have the money to pay them!” Seemed, in times of plenty, to wit, the CIP windfall, and a booming global economy, this administration did not heed grandma’s advice to put aside a little sumn’ sumn’ for a rainy day. Not one solitary dime was squirreled away for an event such as this pandemic. So now we are left running hither, thither and yon, trying to secure funding to prevent a total collapse of our economy and ameliorate hardship.
The Medical Benefits Scheme is projecting a $22 million revenue decline, and “The Social Security System has reported also that its revenue has declined as incomes for workers who have been laid-off come to a halt or are reduced significantly. The Government’s revenue has also declined significantly as several sources, including tourism receipts, decline. Salaries and wages and pensions for the month of March 2020 will be paid by March 31, 2020. Nevertheless, the challenge to meet salaries and wages in full will come on April 30, 2020.” [Cabinet notes, Wednesday March 25th, 2020]. Help us, Lord!
But it is not all doom and gloom. Our financial institutions and other private sector entities have come up with reasonable and gracious packages to alleviate displacement. We applaud them all. Seems, this unprecedented crisis is bringing out the very best in us. We also tip our hats to the Cuban government and the team of thirty-one Cuban medical professionals who arrived here last night to assist us in this existential struggle. We are grateful. Moreover, we salute the government on the basket of goodies unveiled in the Prime Minister’s address to the nation yesterday. Said he, “In addition to the previous interventions; our government will borrow a few hundred million dollars, to cover us for as long as we can, but the efficacy on the economy will depend on how soon the world and our own country, can throw open its doors to normal economic activities. Additionally, APUA will reduce electricity bills by 20 percent, to bring relief to their customers and no one will be disconnected during the next 90 days. Also, effective Monday 30, 2020 the price of petrol, that is, diesel, and gasoline for fishermen will be reduced by 20 percent and the dollar barrel initiative will be reintroduced immediately for 90 days. Our government is encouraging increased investments in the construction sector to mitigate against the decline in tourism revenue and the unemployment from the closures.” All well and good!
Meanwhile, we are a little disappointed that the Margetson’s Ward Isolation and Quarantine Unit is not yet fully ready as a result of some reported logistical hiccups. The PM has acknowledged those setbacks and promised that it will be completed by next week. We wish those involved in that retrofitting effort, God-speed!
Again folks, let us pull together. This is hardly the time for bickering. We can slay this COVID dragon if we act responsibly, ever mindful of the protocols set by the authorities. Let good sense and brotherly love prevail. And of course, let us pray without ceasing. Actually, we did just that yesterday, what with the National Day of Prayer and Fasting. We salute the organisers of that wonderful effort, and we are confident that their “Effectual fervent prayers will avail much.” Help us, Lord!
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