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Minister of Finance, Camillo Gonsalves, says it is now clear that, like every other country in the world, it  will take St. Vincent and the Grenadines “many years to recover from the extraordinary health and economic challenges of COVID-19. 

“But we will recover,” he said in his Budget Speech last week.

The minister said that the EC$1.3 billion budget “takes a multi-pronged, far-reaching approach to addressing the health and economic impacts of COVID”. 

He told Parliament that the Ministry of Health will be fortified by increased resources to prevent, treat and test for COVID infections. 

“Budget 2022 plans to hire an additional 22 dedicated medical personnel to staff the Argyle Isolation Centre”.

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He said that the  emergency operations of the centre since the start of the pandemic have stretched the existing staff complement. 

“Budget 2022 will also expand the pandemic policy of hiring more medical staff temporarily through the SET Programme to address the short-term demands of COVID outbreaks.”

He said that in addition to the continued support of the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access programme (COVAX), and vaccine donations from friendly countries like the United States and India, the 2020 budget allocates capital and recurrent expenditure to facilitate the procurement, transfer and storage of fresh vaccines and boosters. 

“The Budget also provides EC$2.5 million to procure COVID testing kits and supplies, whose utility is self-evident.”

He said that last year, as severe infections rose globally, the government noted the challenges that many countries were having in ensuring an adequate supply of oxygen to COVID patients. 

“Unfortunately, high demand and supply-chain challenges meant that it was very difficult to immediately increase our capacity to produce oxygen.”

SVG addressed this problem by purchasing 280 additional oxygen canisters, and utilising existing private oxygen producers to fill those surplus tanks to create a lifesaving buffer supply in times of increased need. 

He said that the arrival of the first 80 additional canisters last year successfully took the nation through 2021 without any oxygen shortage. Another 200 canisters arrived in SVG this month.

“We have thus far effectively tripled our stock of available oxygen. Budget 2022 has additional resources available, if necessary, to further buttress our oxygen tank buffer.”

He said that though SVG emerged from the first year of the pandemic less affected than most of its neighbours, the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) was among the regions most impacted by the COVID-induced economic slowdown. 

“Undoubtedly, COVID has caused higher unemployment, increased poverty and greater inequality in every single country of our region. The pain of COVID is felt not only in hospital wards, but in uninfected households, where job and income losses, food insecurity, increased indebtedness, rising inflation and ongoing uncertainties threaten the very make-up of our societies,” Gonsalves said.

He said Budget 2022’s COVID response necessarily goes well beyond the immediate medical aspects of the pandemic. 

“We recognise the need for large macroeconomic stimulus to support economic recovery and reverse the socio-economic declines associated with the pandemic. 

“However, we are also aware that our small economy and rising debt mean that we have insufficient fiscal space to employ a conventional short-run Keynesian stimulus to adequately address the full socioeconomic impact of COVID.”

The finance minister said that the fiscal package contains “further targeted, temporary and self-limiting stimulus activity, as well as additional one-off support policies that will be phased out before they can create a permanent fiscal drag. 

“These include a further round of modest income support to entertainers who have experienced another lost Carnival and curtailed the Christmas season. 

“An allocation of EC$1 million to community improvement projects is also designed to put villagers to work on activities that will both benefit locales and generate income. The augmentation of the venerable YES Programme serves a similar purpose. “

The minister said that  Budget 2022 “is under no illusions” that future waves of COVID-19 infection will take place. 

Therefore, the government has expanded its capacity to deliver online education, and made contingencies for selected “master teachers” to deliver pre-recorded instruction to students in multiple schools. 

“Similarly, reforms to policing methods and tactics will take greater advantage of technology and deployment reforms to compensate for any staff reductions caused by vaccine hesitancy,” Gonsalves said.