By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” Feb. 4, 2021)
“What is life in a hopeless society?” is a question that a significant section of our country continues to ask. With poverty levels of 37% and unemployment among our youth more than 40%, the prospects going into this year cannot be bright.
SVG is in the throes of a dengue epidemic and the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, the chief volcanologist made the ominous disclosure that La Soufriere volcano could erupt at a moment’s notice.
Last Monday, Finance Minister Camillo Gonsalves made a brave attempt to spin gold out of straw. While delivering his EC$1.2 billion budget, he labelled 2020 as a year of accomplishments. He offered 15 projects as proof: bridges, jetty, roads, footpaths, early childhood centres, tablets for students, sea defence, market facilities for vendors, CCTV cameras, a medevac coast guard vessel, 1,000 grants to entrepreneurs, three hard courts and a synthetic athletic track.
The Minister lauded the starting of the Joshua Shopping Centre. Does the name of the shopping plaza portend a downgrade of the plans to build a modern city at Arnos or will this “new city” be called “Joshua”?
He told the nation that the COVID-19 pandemic turned 2020 “into an economic catastrophe”. According to the finance minister, nine of CARICOM’s 14 member states “suffered a double-digit economic contraction in 2020”. Sadly, he does not point to the economic contraction number for SVG.
Similarly, the minister mentioned that worldwide more than 100 million people have been pushed into extreme poverty by the pandemic. It would have been far more useful for him to tell us how many Vincentians lost their jobs and sank into poverty.
Gonsalves, citing estimates from the IMF, ECCB, World Bank, ECLAC or the Finance Ministry, claimed that SVG’s gross domestic product will contract between 2.2% and 5% in 2021. However, he praised his dad’s stewardship as prime minister for the fact that our country remains “standing and unbowed though battered”.
Gonsalves said the fallout from the pandemic has been tangible. He noted that businesses have closed and jobs disappeared. Again it would have been helpful to point to the closed companies, especially the bigger one and the estimated number of lost jobs.
He pointed to the government’s stimulus package, which he said was designed to protect citizens’ health and lives, strengthen the social safety net, and keep the economy ticking. He noted that over 30,000 of the country’s population was “touched” by the stimulus, and 14,000 Vincentians were directly affected by government intervention at the cost of $20 million.
The elections are over. The ULP returned to power. With projections that the virus may be coming on more potent than ever during this year, all of us wait to see if the government will remain as generous with its distribution of “Love Boxes” and other goodies.
In charting the government’s plan for what the minister described as “a stronger SVG”, Gonsalves said that the government does not intend to “place blind faith in uncertain sectors or the shifting sands of global factors” beyond its control.
We can expect an active state intervention. There will be no implementation of austerity measures or slashing of services. Good news for an already unbalanced society!
Minister Gonsalves said the government has been “cautious not to impose tax measures and postponed many of the fees and measures” passed previously. However, he did not name the tax measures placed on hold. He has announced a on percentage point increase on Customs Service Charge.
These are challenging times. We can only hope that the triple threat we currently face subside without further loss in life and livelihood.
We have options
Vincentians have an option, but we doubt they will be allowed to exercise it. They can either count their “lucky stars” or engage their minds in reasoned judgment. It is either God is genuinely a Vincy and protect them mightily or that the coronavirus is not as deadly as it’s touted.
Our country has confirmed 1,059 cases of COVID-19, of which 910 are local cases, meaning cases detected among residents with no recent travel history.
To date, 275 persons have recovered, 782 cases remain active, and two persons with COVID-19 have died.
By contrast, with a population of nearly 24 million, Taiwan has recorded probably the world’s lowest rates per population size with less than 900 positive cases. They credit their success to strict quarantine rules and tracing of sick people’s contacts.
Our numbers tell a powerful story. They indicate that just about 1% of the country’s population has tested positive for the virus. And of those who tested positive, about 25% have fully recovered. We have not heard of any lingering effects of the illness. Those who recover seem to go about their business just fine.
But there is a larger story here. In January, the number of COVID cases has grown exponentially. For three consecutive days this week, the National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO) announced positive cases of at least 50. These revelations presuppose at least two possibilities: the country’s testing capabilities are being tested and that there may be many more positive persons in our midst.
However, with two deaths reported in SVG and with similarly low numbers across CARICOM, our people may do well to recall the wise “Don’t Panic” advice of former Prime Minister Robert Milton Cato following the eruption of the volcano on April 13, 1979.
Nothing said here must be interpreted to mean that people should drop their guard and become either reckless or carefree. With evidence of community spread, it remains prudent for all Vincentians to strictly adhere to the health protocol of social distancing, hand sanitising and the wearing of mask in public spaces.
The Ministry of Health should also initiate a vigorous outreach to encourage citizens to engage in preventative health measures: frequent vigorous exercise, daily exposure to sunlight, conscious effort to consume more fruits and vegetables, clean water, daily intake of vitamin C and D, as well as a reduction in the consumption of alcohol, sugary drinks, fatty and starchy foods.
People can also reduce their anxiety about the virus by not looking at the media hype that passes for news on the cable TV.
Vaccines? Well, not so fast.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].