Note: This address to the nation aired on Thursday, 19 March 2020.
National address by Franka Alexis-Bernardine, Political leader of the National Democratic Congress
Fellow citizens, I greet you this evening with mixed feelings because of the national crisis of the Covid-19 threat that we face at this time. It has always been a pleasure to share thoughts with you on matters of such importance, but this occasion marks an exception where we are called to greater action, togetherness and national unity. We can no longer be only observers, reactors, and consumers of information but, must proceed with wisdom and readiness; acting decisively in the interest of our homeland and people.
The National Democratic Congress urges all our people to remain calm as the worldwide pandemic Covid-19 grows. With over 6,000 deaths and over 160,000 people infected worldwide, Covid-19 is having catastrophic effects on many countries and communities.
Here at home, we are yet to have our first case of the virus officially recorded. Yet, a number of our Caricom neighbours have already recorded cases. It will therefore only be a matter of time before we record our first case. We have heard of a case in St Lucia recently where the victim diagnosed with Covid-19, was in Grenada for 7 days prior. On Tuesday the Minister of Health confirmed that in that case, the patient exhibited symptoms while in Grenada and that some persons who were in contact with that person, are exhibiting certain symptoms. These people have been tested and thankfully, the results are negative. The NDC endorses the minister’s urging to all, to observe the protocols issued and to act responsibly and as though the disease is already here. Indeed, it is quite possible that we may have cases that have not been diagnosed.
While we acknowledge that in recent days, government has intensified its efforts to curb and contain the spread of the virus, we will be remiss if we do not point out that it was reckless of government to have permitted those early morning flights from China and elsewhere without observing established protocols particularly in the light of our weak healthcare system. The further lack of transparency in the process led to heavy speculation, which was not good for the country. People remained anxious and concerned about what took place. The lives of our people are paramount above all things.
At this time, I encourage students to use these 2 weeks off school to continue to revise your school work and to use the available technologies to connect with your teachers and friends and study together. Your second term is too critical to miss out on any information!
The NDC urges the public to follow the general guidelines and protocols issued by the World Health Organisation, the Pan-American Health Organisation our local health official Coordinator, and Chief Medical Officer and his team, so that we can stay safe! Wash your hands often with soap and water, avoid crowds, practice social distancing, and avoid shaking hands and other personal contact as much as possible.
Again, the NDC acknowledges and commends the extra efforts that have been made recently and the protocols that have been established. However, we also know that the circumstances change daily and rapidly and there is always room for improvement. We remain vigilant as citizens and also remain co-operative with all government’s efforts especially in the area of public education and awareness, as we recognise that this as a major national issue, not a partisan issue to score political points.
The NDC stands ready and able to continue to support the efforts of the Ministry of Health and we offer the following suggestions as we believe they will positively contribute to us winning this fight:
- Government must, in the shortest possible time, put Grenada in a position where tests for the virus can be conducted locally with the appropriate quality assurance program in place. Several other Caribbean countries, including Dominica, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago and Haiti have announced that they have the capacity to test for the virus. There is no reason why we should not be able to as well. Utilising the resources provided by the Shipping Fund Programme may prove helpful in this particular effort.
- Step up screening at all our ports of entry, particularly our seaports. Government may want to consider quickly training and diverting some of the traffic wardens to assist with this task.
- Flag ‘cleared’ vessels with some sort of identification mark.
- Enhance surveillance by the establishment of a rapid response team for contact tracing and monitoring so that possible cases can be quickly identified and tested. A community-based surveillance mechanism will be helpful in this effort.
- Infection prevention and control for healthcare workers are absolutely critical. Therefore, we are pleased to learn that the Government of the People’s Republic of China will be supplying us with some protective and other gear. We thank them for this gesture. However, we urge government to reconsider its call for retired healthcare workers to volunteer on the frontline. Being retirees, they will be mostly in the high-risk group of the elderly. Our aim should be to avoid critical illness and death as much as possible. This call puts this specific group of people at particularly high risk.
We in the NDC are very concerned about the decision to house the isolation unit for people who come down with Covid-19 at the General Hospital. We urge government to consider identifying a facility that is sufficiently isolated from the General Hospital, that combines the space requirements with the contagious disease criteria, so that both hospitalised patients from the General Hospital remain at minimal risk, and new patients with breathing issues and coronavirus could be as comfortable as possible, and housed on their own. We urge outfitting and use of the Mirabeau Hospital as the best option, not only for isolation, but for people seeking advice, or questions by the public on coronavirus. This could be addressed there in one location.
The update and release of daily information at regular times should be considered, eg 6 am and 6 pm as we do during hurricanes, so minimising misinformation and rumours.
I urge the public not to be lulled into believing the coronavirus is trivial. It can be a dangerous and deadly virus. As we have been told 80% of people have mild symptoms and recover in a few days, 15–15½% have severe symptoms and 4½% have very severe and must be hospitalised. However, we must know that if anyone catches the virus, it is certainly not a death sentence.
You must take special care to observe the protocols if you are over 60 or suffering from diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, kidney disease or if for any reason, your immune system is compromised.
To defeat this virus and its impact on our people, we need all hands on deck. We at the NDC state quite clearly that along with specific, transparent, and proactive leadership from our government, we definitely do not need anyone playing petty politics at this time and hiding facts.
It is critical for the PM to deploy a Covid-19 response team to effectively lead the effort against the virus. The team should include representatives from across society. In the NDC we have several persons with the relevant training and expertise who can be part of this national effort, and we all stand ready to join in. Last Thursday, on the invitation of the Prime Minister, the NDC attended a meeting of stakeholders. We stand ready and able to do much more than that.
We note certain friendly countries have begun to offer assistance. We encourage government to continue to draw on these offers of help. Assistance and advice should also be sought from the nations where the spread of the virus is being arrested. All of these efforts should be approached with great transparency to the Grenadian people.
The Prime Minister has mentioned that EC$2 million has been allocated to the fight of Covid-19. We believe that much more will be needed to delay and minimise the impact of the disease, including the economic and societal impact. Our individual economic status will be affected so the time is now, for government to begin considering ways in which our people will be relieved. Here are some suggestions from our party that need to be looked at immediately:
- Tax breaks
- Replacement of income packages as was done after Hurricane Ivan by NIS
- Engagement with the financial sector for temporary waiver of mortgage payments
- Cancellation of selected fees for affected persons
- VAT reduction on certain health and medical items etc.
These are just some of the areas that can be looked at.
Once more, I urge all Grenadians to remain calm and focused. Follow the protocols established, and look out for each other! We must all look out especially for the sick, the elderly and the little ones amongst us. We have done it before and overcame some overwhelming circumstances and diseases in our past with little support, just boosting our immune systems with herbs and spices and caring for each other and taking the good advice offered. The good Lord will do the rest!
May God bless you all. And may God bless our Grenada.