THE current state of emergency (SOE), which many Saint Lucians have expressed concerns about, has been extended to Mid-October.
The extension was deliberated in the House of Assembly this week with members voting strictly along party lines.
The government side contended that the SOE is intended to help citizens safeguard against the unprecedented global pandemic. But the opposition argues that this move is tinged with ulterior motives and that the government is ‘buying time’ in order to gain political mileage for the upcoming general elections.
Speaking to reporters outside parliament, Tuesday, Prime Minister Allen Chastanet defended the move to extend the SOE to mid-October.
“The state of emergency is required to be the legislative tool to allow us to implement a curfew system,” Chastanet explained.
Noting that all the other protocols are under the COVID Act, the prime minster stated: “The state of emergency is only being used to regulate the curfew times.”
“As you have seen, the curfew times, along with the economic activity are the two things we use to try to keep COVID under control,” said Chastanet.
He remains adamant that so far the authorities have been doing a relatively good job.
“I think that most people would agree that the 9.00p.m curfew has been working out relatively well,” he added.
However, he said, the SOE may not provide the ‘ideal business’ for some restaurants and bars.
Nonetheless, PM Chastanet noted that the SOE performs an ideal function as it has helped to keep cases under control. In addition, he said, it has allowed the economy to turn over, allowing people to keep their businesses open.
Addressing the parliament, the prime minister explained that the curfew is decided by the Office of the Chief Medical Officer (CMO), which then advises the Command Centre.
The CMO sits on the Command Center and the information is then passed on from the Command Centre to Cabinet. He said the CMO has recommended that “the current state of the protocols remain in place.”
In providing a general overview of the pandemic, Chastanet said that across the globe the situation with COVID-19 remains ‘very fluid’.
He added: “Indeed, for no country has the management of this pandemic been easy, as there is no manual on COVID-19.”
Furthermore, he said, “the evolving nature of the virus with its constant emergence of new variants that are considered more transmissible and potentially more deadly only serves to upsurge an already complicated and complex situation.”
However, the prime minister remains optimistic that ‘hope is on the horizon’ with utilization of the vaccine program. But, he noted, “We have not effectively cleared the hurdle until we have attained herd immunity, which requires approximately 70% of our population to be vaccinated.”
With the country experiencing an increased number of COVID-19 cases for the year, Chastanet said, it was important for the authorities to reinstitute an extension of the SOE. He said this was intended “to allow the necessary scope to respond expeditiously to the recurring threat of COVID-19, and in particular the curfew.”
The prime minister assured that though the pandemic has brought about untold hardships on the citizenry and that people felt ‘pressured’ by the state of disruption to social life and movement, nonetheless , over the past two months there has been a gradual decline in the number of active cases.
Consequently, he said, the authorities have begun a phased relaxation of the restrictions. Chastanet reiterated that he has spoken about the importance of reopening the economy “and getting our people back to work.”
He said it was vital for St Lucia to be able to undertake international trade and travel, since this is directly inter-connected to the country boosting its income generating revenue.
Chastanet said that while “vaccination offers great hope” and he is optimistic that the country can turn the corner and the page on the pandemic this year, yet “we cannot let our guard down.”
He said that until the country attains a level of herd immunity “through the contact tracing process, we note that the transmission of COVID-19 is greater during social activities.”
The prime minister noted that a curfew can only be instituted through a state of emergency.
Chastanet explained, “The state of emergency facilitates the imposition of the curfew, which curbs the night-time socialization documented to effectively control covid-19 escalation.”
To strengthen the case for the SOE, he said: “The 9.00 o’clock curfew has not been perfect, but certainly ideal to strike the balance between lives and livelihoods.”
The SOE is proposed to continue from May, 16 to October, 16.
But while the government stated that the sitting was supposed to be a ‘simple exercise’; for the opposition it was far from business as usual.
The House debate took an unlikely turn that oftentimes warranted the speaker to mediate, as he cautioned opposition members that the issue at stake was the extension of the SOE and not directed towards an electioneering campaign mode.
Opposition Leader Phillip Pierre in voicing his objection to the SOE extension, said the government could have instituted an extension for about four to five weeks and monitor the situation.
He said that instead the government was making its decisions based on assumptions. Pierre argued: “There is no reason that you keep the country under that tension until October…”
The Castries East MP proposed that if government’s intention is to curb the sale of liquor and limit social gatherings, they could have instituted instead a clause under the COVID act to regulate business hours.
“We never came to parliament for such a long extension, when COVID was at its worst,” he continued. “Today, the country is under tremendous tension and stress because of COVID and other factors,” Pierre said.
Nonetheless, Pierre warned citizens to avoid getting into confrontation with the police and the COVID wardens. He also appealed to security officers to be more emphatic to the plight of the people in this crisis and avoid conflicts stemming from the wearing of masks.
“If during the COVID situation the education of our people had been proper, our people would have been in a better state of mind,” he stated.
From the onset of the pandemic, Pierre said, more effort should have been focused on testing and quarantine, “as St. Lucia had no quarantine facilities at this time.”
Comparing the situation to what occurs in neighboring Barbados, he said, St Lucia has yet to begin to do some serious testing.
In Barbados, he said, a total of more than 150,000 persons have been tested in a country with one and a half times larger population than St Lucia; while Barbados has recorded 44 deaths.
Pierre declared: “This government insists on using COVID as a political football…the government did not cause COVID but they have handled the situation badly.”
In putting forward his arguments, MP for Dennery North Shawn Edward said the underlying reason for instituting the SOE is for “COVID management”. However, he felt that the extension being sought was “a ploy for a failed government to buy extra time to finish projects and to try and gain favour with the electorate on the eve of elections.”
Edward suggested that the prime minister would have been better served to come to the house “and to ask for the house to be dissolved and give St Lucians a date to go the polls to decide which of the parties (political) they want to govern the affairs of the country moving forward.”
He said that while several regional territories held general elections last year, why is it that “we cannot do the same.”