PR – Fellow Grenadians, in recent weeks, there has been a heightened sense of anxiety about the possible opening of our borders. The origin of this is understandable as we see daily reports of the increased rate of infections, particularly in the United States, which is one of our main source markets for visitors. As the global pandemic continues to spiral out of control, there is a corresponding increase in the potential for importation of the virus if we open our borders without the necessary protocols in place. At this point, we continue to work on the finalisation of protocols before we begin to accept commercial flights.
Many are wishing we can remain in the protective bubble that has kept us safe since March and that we can maintain the COVID-free status announced earlier this month. However, this is not a practical, long-term option. Caribbean countries may not have reached consensus on when to re-open our borders, but given the importance of tourism, this is generally regarded as one of the critical milestones in the effort to restart economies. The timing, however, must be right, and public health remains of paramount importance.
Speaking of timing, I know many of you were disappointed when this national address was postponed last Sunday and there was much speculation about the reason why. With the repatriation flight from the United States arriving just two days before the planned speech, we had to ensure that all testing and re-testing procedures were carried out so I can accurately report to the nation on Grenada’s current COVID-19 status. Thankfully, no new cases have been confirmed.
I understand the plight of our nationals who have been stranded overseas for months. I am also aware of the keen anticipation of others, to visit a country that has successfully managed the pandemic, prevented community spread and achieved COVID-free status. However, when we consider the overarching priority to protect our citizens, we must continue to do all that we can, to limit the potential importation of the disease.
To our nationals who were recently repatriated from cruise ships, the United Kingdom and the United States after several weeks of uncertainty, I say welcome home. We urge your fullest cooperation in adhering to the established protocols. We cannot afford to be selfish in the fight against COVID-19, as our actions or inaction can impact on the health and well-being of others.
Our protocols may be perceived as rigorous, but they have to be, because public health and safety are at risk. We have tested and evaluated the protocols and identified areas for improvement. Therefore, for the immediate future, Grenada will only continue to welcome chartered flights as these offer greater levels of due diligence, with respect to the established protocols which include testing before departure, testing upon arrival and agreement to bear the cost of quarantine. Commercial airlines have thus far not agreed to make it mandatory for passengers to test prior to travel and this is contrary to Grenada’s protocols.
Sisters and brothers, although the timing is not right, now, the day will come when commercial flights will resume. Therefore, training sessions have been organised for workers in the accommodation, transport and food and beverage sectors, as we strive for consistency in our collective approach to dealing with visitors.
We are entering the next phase in this fight against COVID-19. I must recognise and commend the dedication and valuable contribution made by the COVID Sub- Committee, headed by the Minister of Health, the Task Force for Rebuilding the Grenadian Economy and the various sector-based, Cabinet-appointed sub- committees. Over the last few months, you have all provided selfless service to the Government and people of Grenada, and for that, we thank all of you. Your commitment and dedication to the task at hand has helped to get us through one of the most difficult periods in our country’s history. Your service is greatly appreciated.
The COVID Sub-Committee is expected to wrap up its work at the end of July. Thereafter, Government’s decision-making on matters such as protocols, regulations, quarantine and testing, will be guided by a National Advisory Committee. This committee will draw upon the expertise of some of the same persons who have been involved thus far, but our approach will be different. The details will be announced later when we have finalised the composition of this new advisory body and the terms of its engagement.
Sisters and brothers, in recent weeks, Government has been granting additional easements in the COVID-19 regulations to allow more and more businesses to operate, in keeping with established guidelines for the various sectors. Further easement in operational hours is imminent as Cabinet will be recommending that as of Tuesday, June 30, 2020, the curfew is extended from 9:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. It is anticipated that the extended hours will continue to spur increased economic activity.
The construction sector, which is anticipated to be the driver of our economic recovery, is already showing significant activity. Since the resumption of work in that sector in May, more than 4,000 Grenadians have either resumed work or have been hired to work on various projects across the country. To date, the Ministry of Infrastructure Development has received 544 applications for approval to resume or start work on private projects. Additionally, there are several major public sector projects in various stages of preparation for the commencement of work. These include several feeder and other roads, as well as other major infrastructural development.
Since the lockdown was instituted in March, it has been a welcome sight to see many persons returning to backyard gardening. At the Government level, we continue to underscore the importance of the agriculture sector in promoting greater food security and to provide support. Significant financial resources have been made available for various initiatives including price support payments for cocoa and nutmeg farmers. These resources are not intended to support the administrative affairs of the Grenada Cocoa Association and the Grenada Cooperative Nutmeg Association but rather, go directly into the pockets of farmers.
The pandemic has compounded the financial hardship faced by many, and in particular, the farming community. As in numerous instances before, the situation highlights the need for urgent action to address the long-term financial viability of the cocoa and nutmeg associations and their ability to safeguard the livelihood of farmers. Therein lies the rationale for the proposed merger which is a recommendation dating as far back as the 1990s. Unfortunately, years of inaction have paralysed the associations, leading to chronic and acute financial challenges, similar to the current situation which necessitated yet another injection of capital by Government, to ensure the survival of the associations.
To those who question why now, the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated in no uncertain terms, that it cannot be business as usual. We must move speedily but with precision, to address the governance and management structure of the commodity boards, which successive consultancies have shown to be inadequate and archaic. It is said that in every crisis there are opportunities; this pandemic has provided a crucial opportunity to modernise the operation of our commodity boards, to strengthen the institutional capacity and viability of the governance structure, liberalise the market and improve the global competitiveness of our traditional crops. A successful merger will accomplish this and most importantly, will allow farmers to be at the forefront, another longstanding recommendation that Government will seek to implement.
We expect the merger of the associations and liberalisation of the sector to lead to better prices for cocoa and nutmeg farmers while also allowing them a chance of real ownership and shareholding in the commodity board. As it is now, farmers do not own shares in the Grenada Cocoa Association or the Grenada Cooperative Nutmeg Association. Government has no intention to take over the affairs of the associations but rather, we seek to empower the country’s cocoa and nutmeg farmers and to improve their financial returns.
Fellow Grenadians, just as many of you have experienced trying circumstances since the onset of the pandemic; Government too, has had its fair share of challenges. Revenue collection has declined by almost 50% but we continue to bring relief to the population through the economic stimulus package. To date, more than 4,000 Grenadians have benefitted either from payroll support to businesses or from income support to self-employed persons.
We are continuously evaluating the categories of persons eligible to benefit and have made some adjustments. Hairdressers, barbers and market vendors are now included among the beneficiaries. Requests have also been submitted by employees of LIAT and several other places, who have received little or no income and are facing the imminent threat of unemployment. Additionally, as the duration of the pandemic increases, Government is now considering extending the period of support granted to hotel workers for a further three months.
Another 2,000 Grenadians have also started receiving their unemployment assistance benefit from the National Insurance Scheme. In addition, several others have capitalised on concessionary financing, offered through the Grenada Development Bank and the Small Business Development Fund as part of the stimulus package.
Sisters and brothers, this in no way suggests that we have helped everyone who needs help, but I can assure you that we continue to work on your behalf. Government is sympathetic to the plight of workers dealing with reduced income and loss of jobs, but the reality is that Government itself, is limited by the significant decline in revenue. Therefore, as we consider additional requests for assistance, we also have to monitor the country’s fiscal position to ensure we are not over-reaching.
Public transportation has been restored for the most part, but this was not without some hiccups. We are now at the stage where we can discuss, in an amicable manner, critical matters relative to this very important service. Bus operators, like many others, faced significant challenge during the lockdown and Government has already provided relief through the stimulus package – more than 500 of them have benefitted to date. In addition, Government is spending about $50,000 monthly to ensure that all buses are properly sanitised after every trip.
To the many students across the nation, we continue to be very measured in our approach to facilitate a return to the classroom. For those preparing for exams, we wish you the very best and for the new graduates, we are incredibly proud of you for successfully completing this phase of your journey in the midst of a global health crisis.
Sisters and brothers, this is difficult time for everyone, but it also presents an opportunity for us to demonstrate that we are truly our brother’s keeper. Government welcomes all efforts intended to bring relief to people affected by the pandemic and will gladly recognise and give credit to all who make such contributions. However, even in giving, there are basic fundamental principles that must be followed. Therefore, all stakeholders wishing to contribute in one way or another, must collaborate with the management body of the intended beneficiaries. In many instances, there are specific guidelines for accepting donations and these must be followed. Additionally, there are specific COVID-19 protocols and these too, must be followed. In our haste to do good, we should not forget to collaborate with the relevant authorities, to ensure we achieve the desired outcomes.
I make a special appeal here to employers, trade union leaders and landlords, you are well placed to inspire positivity in this period of crisis. We urge employers to help ease the burden and allay the fears of their employees. Trade union leaders, at this time, should be more reasonable in their demands and landlords are encouraged to be more sensitive to the predicament faced by many tenants, especially those with good track records but who are now unable to operate their business or have lost their jobs. Eviction should not to be the preferred course of action at this time.
Sisters and brothers, the ongoing pandemic continues to test the resilience of our people and our nation. From an economic perspective, we are confident of Grenada’s recovery from the far-reaching impact of COVID-19. There is no denying that the road back will be a long one, but through resilience and unity, I am confident, we will recover and rebuild.
Through informed leadership, collaboration among stakeholders and the cooperation of you the Grenadian public, we have successfully managed the pandemic in Grenada so far. We are now at a critical juncture – the science says Grenada is COVID-free, but we cannot be lulled into thinking that the battle has been won. I have observed growing signs of complacency with persons being less diligent about wearing their masks and maintaining physical distance. Sisters and brothers, the fight against this acutely volatile disease is far from over and we must maintain the protocols that have served us well for the past few months.
In closing, I must offer sincere gratitude to our frontline workers. It is impossible to imagine getting through this challenging period, without the considerable sacrifices you have made in the line of duty. The Government and people of Grenada are sincerely appreciative for all that you have done and continue to do. I thank you.