The government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines “has made so many missteps” on the COVID-19 issue “in terms of attitude and trust, and so forth” which have led to a breakdown in trust among the population.
“And so we have to continue to struggle, however, we have to continue to put our best foot forward. We have to continue to treat this as a serious, serious problem that it is; it is the most serious problem confronting our country, there’s no question about it,” Opposition Leader Godwin Friday said on his party’s radio programme this week.
He made the point amidst a spike in cases, which has seen the number of active cases move from 27 at the end of August, to 602 to date.
As of Sept. 9, a further five people have died of COVID-19, bringing the total in the country to 17.
“And you know, the more you read, from reputable sources, the more you understand the gravity of the situation; that is not a quick fix. And it’s not something that any single government can do on its own; it requires all of the social partners and the stakeholders and individual citizens to play their role.
“That requires trust; that requires confidence between the government and the people. And that trust is earned. It’s not something that you can presume, and the way in which we have been going in the past year and a half or so, it’s been a situation where the government has gone from one extreme to another. We have taken positions that seem to minimise the seriousness of this problem,” he said.
In the early days of the pandemic, Friday and his New Democratic Party (NDP) called for a bi-partisan approach to tackling the pandemic, including the appointment of a parliamentary committee to oversee the spending of an EC$73 million supplementary budget that lawmakers approved in response to the pandemic.
However, the Unity Labour Party administration, with elections on the horizon, largely went at it on its own, and was returned to office last November for an historic 5th consecutive five-year term.
The government, as part of its campaign, boasted that it had handled the pandemic well, but seems to have dropped the ball in the post-election period.
And, on Dec. 28, a day on which Minister of Finance Camillo Gonsalves boasted to Parliament that the world could learn from SVG about responding to the pandemic, the country began registering a spike in numbers, which has forced schools to remain closed since then.
And, since vaccines became available in the country in March 2021, neither the government nor the opposition have been able to convince the population to take the jab in numbers that health officials say are necessary to ease pandemic measures.
Friday, who before vaccines became available, said without reservation, that he would take the jab, and lived up to his word, is, however, opposed to mandatory vaccination.
He and his party have said that the government should use education to encourage people to take the jab, rather than forcing them to do so.
Friday, speaking Monday on his weekly programme, noted the increasing number of COVID-19 cases amidst the latest spike.
“And that is the wrong direction we’re going in, and obviously, we all have to do our part, to come back and do the things that we have learned over the past year and a half: the social distancing, the wearing of masks. I mean, masks are essential for protection when you go out and don’t go out unless you have to. It’s as simple as that.
“We can’t live like this forever, obviously. So there has to be a longer term solution. And this is why in countries where you have high uptake and vaccination rates, and so forth, people’s lives have returned to normal in many instances, almost there and they are working on that.”
He said this is why he has said that vaccination is “the fastest and safest way” out of the pandemic.
“And that is something that each citizen has to take on board very seriously,” the opposition leader said.
“What is somewhat encouraging is that I’ve seen that more people who have been, at one point, completely decided that they will not be vaccinated are reconsidering their positions because they’ve seen the evidence over the number of months. And new vaccines have come on board, and so forth.
“And so they are in the process of deciding for themselves, which is what it ought to be: that everybody has that right, to decide for themselves once they have the proper information. And so that is something that we urge that people will take on board very seriously, and make the decision as quickly as they can.”
He noted that the current spike is also affecting the Grenadine islands, including Canouan where 52 cases have been detected.
“… and I’m sure there’s more,” he said, referring to the island where 300 people were in quarantine as of Wednesday.
“In Mustique, we’ve heard of cases there and in Bequia there are cases, although we don’t know exactly how many; that needs to be clarified.”
Friday said that the last information he had was that there were six cases in Bequia, located in the Northern Grenadines, the constituency that he represents in Parliament.
“… most people seem to think that there is more, but that needs to be clarified by the authorities.
“There is no advantage to not actively promoting the information. The authority should be informing people actively, especially where there are hotspots in various communities so that people can make informed choices as to what to do, then stay at home or they decide if they are not going to the mainland, they’re going to be much more vigilant in the wearing of a mask and so forth.
“So, it is good practice, to proactively provide that information rather than having people having to go and seek it out or to speculate as to where hotspots are or how many cases are there.”
He noted the health impact, in that more people have died of COVID-19, adding that this is something that is preventable.
“So it’s something that you don’t want — to see any more people dying of COVID. Not St Vincent and the Grenadines, not anywhere,” Friday said.
He also noted the economic impact, adding that this should be the tourism season.
Tourism is the mainstay of the national and Grenadine economy.
“Cruise ships are coming here in Bequia but business people complain that they’re not seeing any benefit because the tourists are not coming off the boat and walking through the communities and making that impulse purchase that they would do normally — buy a drink, or sit in the bar or go and buy something from the vendors under the Almond Tree and so forth.
“Those things are not happening. So that is the direct way in which this is affecting the economy of the country. And imagine this continuing this year, next year and the year after, that would be a calamity for us. So we need to get out of the situation…
The opposition leader said that one business person has told him that they have not sold even a bottle of water although there have been about five cruise ship calls to the island.
And you know, he hasn’t sold a bottle of water, you know, to cruise ship visitors, because they don’t, they don’t come through the hub as they used to. And you could understand the reasons that they are concerned about COVID and all that stuff. But it has a very, very direct impact on the economy. So that’s the other component.
The opposition leader spoke to the issue of long COVID, where some people who have recovered from the virus still experience certain symptoms such as shortness of breath, cognitive dysfunction (“brain fog”), and fatigue.
“… even if you don’t die from COVID-19, and, thankfully, the death rate is low. But still the infection rate because it’s so high, the numbers are still staggering. But even if you don’t die, you can suffer long term consequences: damage to lungs, even neurological functions.
“It seems to me that … the more studies that they do, the more time we have living with this disease, the more they’re discovering the diverse nature of its health impacts on people, not just becoming ill and dying or being hospitalised and recovering. There are still long-term effects,” the opposition leader said.
“And this is something that has to also be part of our information when people are making decisions as to how to protect themselves and their family members and those around them from the virus.
“The one thing we must all agree upon, which is what I said in my press conference the other day. The one thing we must all agree upon is that this is a serious problem. It is not some sort of conspiracy or something made up. It is a serious problem and we, therefore, have to arm ourselves with the best information we can to defend ourselves and our family members and our communities,” Friday said.