WITH the global coronavirus crisis now declared a pandemic, Saint Lucia this week ramped up its preparation protocols with Prime Minister Allen Chastanet revealing on Tuesday that hosting large crowd events like Saint Lucia Jazz and Carnival are under consideration.
Speaking to reporters prior to a House of Assembly meeting Tuesday, Chastanet said that the Ministry of Health and Events Saint Lucia, which is responsible for these events, were set to meet to make a decision on whether these shows could be held.
Meanwhile equipment to test for the virus is now on island as noted by Chief Medical Officer Sharon Belmar-George during a press conference yesterday. According to her the equipment came in on Monday.
“Agents will be coming in tomorrow (meaning today) and our laboratory staff will be undergoing testing next week for use of the machine and for testing for the COVID-19 (coronavirus), so that by the week of March 23 we should have the capacity for diagnostic testing here in Saint Lucia”, she said, adding that how the country manages the disease in the early phase of transmission will determine the burden on the healthcare system.
Five community clinics in Gros Islet, Dennery, Castries, Soufriere and Vieux Fort will serve as first point of contact for people wanting advice and care about the virus.
Prime Minister Chastanet said that government is working aggressively to find a solution for a worst-case scenario stating that they had taken the approach of viewing the coronavirus situation as they would view a hurricane.
“By treating the coronavirus as an impending hurricane, we are operating with the understanding that we have a potentially catastrophic event coming. Like a hurricane, there is uncertainty: it could hit us, or it may not hit us. When it is going to hit us and how strong it is going to be are all things that we cannot predict with any level of certainty,” Chastanet said.
“But we have all learnt how unpredictable hurricanes have become since the advent of Climate Change,” Chastanet added, “Similarly, there is a tremendous amount that we don’t know. Hence, like a hurricane, we must be prepared,” he concluded.
He noted that instead of cleaning drains and cutting down overhanging branches, Saint Lucians would have to change their behaviour.
Chief Environmental Health Officer Parker Ragnanan Tuesday said that it is now mandatory for every vessel entering saint Lucia to submit a mandatory Maritime Declaration of Health on entering a port and that passports are more carefully screened for travel history of visitors and nationals entering the country.
Regarding certain courtesies given to certain vessels, Ragnanan called for these courtesies to be controlled.
Meanwhile on the tourism side, Minister for that sector of the economy, Dominic Fedee, told reporters Tuesday that global travel was down by 20 % as a consequence of the coronavirus. He also stated that bookings to the Caribbean had decreased by 12 %.
“We have a very important meeting which is coming up on the weekend in Miami to see how we can come up with a regional strategy to try to respond to what is a very difficult situation for tourism at this point in time,” Fedee said.
He went on to add that European bookings to the Caribbean were down by as much as 79 % and indicated that the cruise industry had dropped globally by 50 %.
“No one can really tell what the future holds, we see what’s happening with the cruise industry and how difficult it’s becoming,” the minister commented in light of the aforementioned figures.
The current situation is in stark contrast to expectations of tourism officials in terms of visitor arrivals for 2020. Last year was an impressive period for Saint Lucia’s Tourism sector as the island had broken a record in the history of tourism statistics with over 400,000 stay-over arrivals. Based on various statistics of that year, tourism officials expressed their optimism over what they described as “robust signs” of continuing growth in the tourism industry. Today, the global onslaught of the coronavirus appears to dampen the optimism of tourism officials.
“It is extremely crucial and extremely challenging times for everyone, and we just have to work together to come up with solutions,” Fedee remarked.
As the coronavirus continues to take a toll on global tourism, some persons have expressed the view that it is time for Saint Lucia to diversify its economy and focus less on tourism.
In response to that view, the minister took the opportunity to express his confidence in the resilience of Saint Lucia’s tourism sector. “I think tourism has been resilient; we’ve been through this with SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome), we’ve been through this with 911, we’ve been through this with the 2008 crash.”
He continued, “You are going to have, whether you’re in agriculture or financial services, issues that are going to affect your economy. Regardless of what sector you’re in, a situation like this is going to have severe implications on your economic fortunes.”
Prime Minister, Chastanet, also commented on the tourism aspect of the present situation. “We have run those numbers and we’ve taken different scenarios whether it’s 50 % decrease in arrivals for the rest of the year or whether it’s an 80 % decrease in arrivals and run those numbers in terms of determining what the overall impact is going to be,” he said.
According to the prime minister he has had two weeks of discussions on the issue with the Central Bank, Caribbean Development Bank (CDB), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank and that he has a regional audience with the IMF on Monday.
Chastanet added, “Again I will be announcing very soon a stimulus program and how we intend to do it. Also, the intention of having a budget by the end of this month is something that I’m having to review because I don’t know exactly what the total fall-out is going to be.”
Meanwhile Belmar-George noted that to date 11 persons have been quarantined in Saint Lucia and that a nurse employed at the National Wellness Centre had been placed in isolation as per protocols regarding the coronavirus. The nurse was put in isolation because of her travel history.
Regarding the TUI aircraft that landed at Hewanorra International Airport Tuesday night, Belmar-George said it was because a female passenger needed medical care. That passenger, the Chief Medical Officer said, was not a risk to passengers on the flight nor to the general public.