National Address By Dr. The Rt. Hon. Keith Mitchell

PR – Fellow Grenadians, as we come to the end of March 2021, it is important for us to take stock  of the challenges and successes of the past year, most of which we have spent dealing with the  impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

When the decision was made to implement a national lockdown to protect our borders and our  people, no one could have envisaged that a year later, we would still be wearing masks and  having to adhere to the various recommended protocols. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a long, unprecedented and almost immeasurable impact on  the entire world – from its unimaginable health and psycho-social implications to the reversal  of economic growth. Here in Grenada, we must acknowledge how fortunate we are, not to have  faced, so far, a true health crisis on the scale that some of our closest neighbours are now  grappling with. Sadly though, the fact that we have managed so well, has created a sense of  complacency among some of our people, a situation that can have dire consequences for the  entire population. 

The latest daily COVID-19 dashboard produced by the Ministry of Health, shows that we  currently have one active case, which is import related. Nevertheless, there is cause for concern  since it has been identified as the UK variant, which health experts say is deadlier and more  transmissible.  

Sisters and brothers, with the exception of the December 2020 cluster, we have been  consistently able to identify COVID-19 cases among arriving travellers, due to our stringent  entry protocols, and that speaks volumes for the efficacy of that approach. Through the  continued dedication of our frontline workers, we will maintain that approach to safeguard the  people of this country. 

Government, through initiatives led by the Ministry of Health, the COVID Sub-Committee and  the Cabinet, will continue to spearhead the fight against COVID-19, but we must acknowledge  our individual responsibility to protect ourselves and each other. This is not the time to engage  in actions that could jeopardise public health and undermine all the successes recorded in the  management of the pandemic locally. We have come too far for that. Too many of our  fellowmen and women have had to cope with the harsh impact of the pandemic, for us to do  anything that would prolong this period of suffering.

My friends, our country is being highly recognised at the regional and international levels for  its astute management of the health crisis. Just recently, the United States Centres for Disease  Control and Prevention, ranked Grenada at its lowest travel risk rating – Level One, making it  one of a few countries in the Caribbean to have that ranking. However, we cannot rest on our  laurels, we must continue to maintain the recommended protocols, and all of us, as citizens of  this country, have an important role to play in this regard – all of us, from captain, down to  cook.  

As Prime Minister, I am particularly aware of this responsibility and I try my best to lead by  example. I abide by the law, by consistently adhering to the recommended protocols. Though  difficult and contrary to my love for people and my usual social interaction, I have adjusted my  lifestyle to refrain from large social gatherings. This in itself is painful for me, but we must all  recognise the need for personal sacrifices as part of this ongoing fight against COVID-19. The  sacrifices we make now will help to ensure that our country is not sidelined on the path to  recovery. In other words my friends, we should be prepared to make the sacrifices today that  will ensure a safer tomorrow. 

I encourage one and all to do their part in this ongoing fight. I call on church and community  leaders, trade union leaders, business leaders, all influential persons in our society, we have a  duty and a responsibility to lead by example, to encourage appropriate actions among those  who look to us for guidance. Let us do the right thing for our people and for our country; let us  safeguard our future amidst the many uncertainties in the current global environment. 

Sisters and brothers, the successes recorded as a country, are only possible because of our  collective commitment as a people, to following the recommended protocols. We must continue to work together to keep our country, ourselves and our fellow brothers and sisters  safe. The pandemic must be at the centre of all that we do; we should not conveniently separate  our actions or a specific cause, from its potential impact as far as this health crisis is concerned.  We must remain mindful that although our COVID-19 management plan has been relatively  successful, all it takes is for a few, or even one undetected case to create far-reaching  consequences for our society. Just this week, the Commissioner of Police confirmed the rise in  the number of illegal immigrants detected in Grenada. This is quite alarming, particularly when  we consider the potential health implications. Therefore, safety must be our number one  priority at all times.  

My friends, as leader of this country, and as a citizen, it pains me to see that some of our  teachers and the leadership of the Grenada Union of Teachers, feel the need to engage in protest  action in the middle of a global health crisis and during a State of Emergency, and breaking the  laws of the land while doing so. Government has repeatedly reaffirmed that the 4% increase is  rightly due to public officers, but what we are saying is that we cannot afford to pay now. 

Let us stop for a minute and reflect – remember, this is the same Government that in past  contract cycles, has negotiated in good faith, pushing for timely agreement with trade unions  so that public officers can receive their increases on time and not long after they were due. This  is the same Government that concluded negotiations with the trade unions in November 2019,  agreeing to a 4% hike for each year for the period, 2020 to 2022; promptly started the payments  in January 2020, and continued to pay the increases throughout 2020, despite the sharp decline  in revenue for most of the year. This is the same Government that paid all public officers their salaries and allowances, in full and on time during the early stages of the pandemic, when most  public officers, including teachers were at home. However, the inescapable reality now is that  the significant shortfall in revenue caused by the pandemic, has necessitated tighter controls on  Government’s expenditure on recurrent budget items such as wages and salaries. 

By the same token, it is true that Government has incurred significant additional expenses in  recent months, some brought about by the fallout from the pandemic and the need to provide  support to various sectors of the economy and some, such as the repurchasing of GRENLEC  shares which was necessitated by an arbitration ruling that required action within a stipulated  time, failing which the entire country could have been adversely affected. Did you know that  failure to honour the arbitration ruling could have led to action being taken to put a hold on all  Government’s money? Had this been allowed to happen, Government services and spending  would have been disrupted, even the monthly payment of salaries to public officers. It was the  decisive action of Government to repurchase the shares that avoided this possible interruption  in its operations. 

Sisters and brothers, what must be understood here, is the distinct difference between recurrent  and capital expenditure. Recurrent or continuing expenditure includes wages and utility bills  which are paid from revenue generated within the current fiscal year. The capital side of the  budget provides for expenditure on development projects, asset acquisition or other such  initiative that represents an investment and fosters development. The responsible fiscal  management policies adopted and maintained by this Government, prevents us from using  money allocated in the annual budget for capital expenditure, on recurrent expenses. Failure to  abide by this will jeopardise millions of dollars in additional funding that Grenada can receive from donor agencies and development partners. In 2020, Grenada benefited from $133 million  in financing support and debt relief from the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, G20,  Caribbean Development Bank and the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank. So far, this year, we  have been able to attract $78 million in external support.  

These sums have helped to facilitate the additional spending Government has incurred in  providing relief to some sectors, purchasing the necessary protective gear for frontline workers,  investing in the educational infrastructure to ensure our young people are not left behind, and  creating a safer environment in schools, among other areas. Expenditure continues to exceed  revenue collection, therefore Government must continue to aggressively mobilise additional  resources to meet expenditure demands in 2021. I ask this, are we willing to sacrifice the desires  of a few when the future of an entire population is at stake? 

The reality of our current fiscal situation is this – the financial implications of the pandemic  caused a revenue shortfall of $96.6 million in 2020, with revenue collection in some months,  decreasing by as much as 50%, when compared to the same period in 2019. Although the  economy is slowly recovering, revenue collection is still below projected numbers and far  lower than what was generated in 2019, when the agreement with the trade unions was signed.  Statistics from the Ministry of Finance show a continued variation in revenue collection. In  January and February this year, Government collected $30.1 million less than it did in the same  period in 2020. We are optimistic about continued recovery, but the fact remains that the  revenue shortfall considerably affects the money that is available for recurrent expenditure. For  the avoidance of doubt, this revenue, collected monthly, is the source of funds for the wages  and salaries of public officers.

The overriding message here is that we must, at all costs, protect the future of this country. Any  actions that undermine the economic stability we have sacrificed long and hard to achieve,  would nullify those very sacrifices and jeopardise the future of this country and our children  and grand-children.  

Sisters and brothers, what must be pointed out as well, is that the projection for growth in 2021  is 6% but this will not take us back to pre-COVID levels of real growth. In 2020, the country  experienced negative growth of 12.2%. The reality is, it will take two to three years for our  GDP to recover from the significant level of output loss experienced in 2020. That said, we  remain guardedly optimistic that the recovery process will continue and the rate of recovery  will improve.  

Therefore tonight, I say to you in all honesty, and here I speak specifically to public officers, there is no question of if Government will pay the 4% increase. Our track record in this regard,  speaks for itself. It is rather interesting that some of the same individuals who are calling on  Government to pay the 4% now, did nothing to advance the cause of public officers, when they  had the opportunity to do so. That aside, my message to all public officers is this – you are  entitled to your increase and you will be paid your increase, but let’s be realistic, thousands of  your sisters and brothers forced into unemployment by the pandemic and left without an  income, are also looking to Government for much-needed help to survive this crisis. Your  elderly relatives, our treasured senior citizens, still require help buying their medication; your  sons and daughters still rely on Government scholarships to continue their quest for higher  education.  

Public officers, we recognise and appreciate your many sacrifices, you represent the backbone  of Government’s operations, but at the same time, this is a Government for all people, and we  take seriously our responsibility to look after the needs of all our people. Should we ignore the  needs of the thousands of taxi-drivers, vendors, hotel workers and others whose livelihoods are  linked to the tourism sector? Should we ignore the desperate needs of the road workers who,  three months into the year, have not yet earned a single dollar? Should we allow the  international airport to close, removing one of the sources of Government revenue, eliminating  a critical export avenue for fishers and farmers, and cutting off our link to the world? Any  responsible, conscientious Government will find a way to balance its many responsibilities and  that is exactly what this Government is doing, trying to ensure that none of our citizens are  disenfranchised while we safeguard the future of our beloved country. 

Notwithstanding the current challenges, my dear sisters and brothers, I am confident that we  will get past this; life will regain a sense of normalcy, livelihoods endangered by the pandemic  will restart, and our economy will resume its trajectory of growth.  

The signs are there – St. George’s University, which represents about 25% of our GDP, is  looking to resume on-campus operations later this year. This by itself, will have a positive  domino effect on various sectors of the economy, including farmers, fishers, supermarkets and  the general retail sector as well as the accommodation sector. SGU is currently engaged in  several expansion and re-development projects as it continues to play a key role in meeting the  increased global demand for physicians.  

Additionally, several hotels are on course to re-open in the coming months. In fact, Sandals Grenada, resumed operations today, with close to 400 of its staff, back on the job. Government  continues to invest heavily in its Public Sector Investment Programme, creating hundreds of jobs and spurring development in the country. Similarly, there continues to be a significant  level of investor confidence in the local economy, manifested through the several construction  projects which are underway, and which are also creating tremendous job opportunities for our  people.  

One year after Grenada recorded its first COVID-19 case, the big question is, how to we get  past this stumbling block? How do we begin to recover from the devastating impact of a pandemic that is still unfolding? How do we reactivate our economy? How do we get our  people back to work? How do we resume the level of social activity that is so much a part of  the Grenadian tradition? How do we lighten Government’s load and enable it to honour its  outstanding commitment to public officers? Multiple questions, legitimate questions, all  pointing to a single solution.  

To successfully get to the post-COVID chapter, we must get vaccinated. The experts call it  herd immunity and it is only by getting a significant portion of our population vaccinated that  we will be able to achieve it. I have done my part, I have already received my first dose of the  vaccine and in another few weeks, based on revised guidance from the World Health  Organisation on the timing of second doses, I will receive the second dose.  

Vaccination holds the key to any possible return to life as we knew it. If we fail to get on board,  we run the risk of being left behind as the rest of the world goes back to normal. Some countries  are already identifying vaccination as an entry requirement for visitors; some airlines are  making vaccination mandatory for travelers and as the cruise industry prepares to set sail again,  some cruise lines are already outlining vaccination requirements for both passengers and crew.  Therefore, as our entertainers prepare to resume international appearances and as our cruise  ship workers prepare to head back to work, they will have to be vaccinated. And for those who  engage in travel for leisure or even medical purposes, you will face similar requirements,  therefore you ought to start making preparations by getting vaccinated today. 

Here in Grenada, to help protect our frontline workers, all accommodation facilities providing  quarantine for inbound travelers, will be required to have all staff vaccinated soon. A few short  months ago, we saw how rapidly the case numbers rose when employees at one hotel contracted  the disease. With deadlier variants of the Coronavirus now in circulation around the world, we  must take all the necessary measures to protect our people but at the same time, allow them to  continue their livelihoods. 

I therefore encourage everyone who meets the eligibility criteria to get vaccinated. Despite the  heavy global demand for COVID-19 vaccines, Government has obtained 23,000 doses of  AstraZeneca, a good start as we seek to vaccinate at least 60% of the adult population. My  friends, in closing, I urge you to protect yourself, protect your loved ones, protect your  neighbours, protect your country. We are all in this together, therefore we must all work  together to safeguard our people, our country, our future. 

As we approach the holiday weekend, I wish everyone a Happy Easter. As you partake in  activities to celebrate this religious observance, remember to adhere to the recommended  protocols – wear your masks, wash your hands or sanitise frequently and do not engage in large  social gatherings. Stay safe my friends. I thank you.