ST. JOHN’S, Antigua – Prime Minister Gaston Browne Thursday night welcomed the return of international flights into Antigua and Barbuda saying citizens cannot live their lives hiding from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and insisting that failure to re-open the borders could result in economic collapse, high unemployment and overwhelming poverty.
In a radio and television broadcast, Browne said that the re-opening of the airport on Monday to regional and international air traffic was done amid every precaution being taken “to control the transmission of COVID-19 to the domestic population”.
An American Airline flight arrived on the island late on Thursday night and Browne said it brought both nationals and visitors and was piloted by a national of Antigua and Barbuda.
“We will not deny our own nationals who are abroad, the solace in returning to the common home we share,’ he said, adding that the foreigners “will be among the first tourists to our country, since COVID-19 caused the necessary closure of our airport and seaport to human traffic, triggered the shuttering of our hotels, and instigated the worst damage to our economy in many decades”.
Browne said no one here had “escaped the ravages that COVID-19 has visited upon our economy” adding that “in one way or the other, it has touched us all.
“Some have felt that unwelcome touch more than others. In their cases, they have not only experienced job losses, they have also suffered the misery of losing a loved one prematurely. As a nation, our heartfelt sympathy pours out to those families, even as we thank God Almighty for guiding and protecting us, in ways that controlled the disease and curtailed its awful and fatal reach.”
Browne said that it was not easy to do battle with that enemy.
“COVID is as invisible, as it is vicious. We did not seek this COVID battle, but we did not shirk from the fight. Safeguarding our people’s lives was – and remains – our principal objective. Until there is a vaccine against COVID-19, our nation – like every other nation in the world – is engaged in a war in which there will be other battles.
“What we must not do is live in fear, paralyzed in terror, and rendered helpless in the face of this enemy.
That cannot be the course we take. For, if we do so, we will surrender ourselves to further ravages to our lives and to our livelihoods. We cannot live our lives hiding from COVID, but we must never become complacent in fighting this enemy. We must recognise that it is a formidable foe.”
Official figures here show that Antigua and Barbuda recorded 25 positive cases and three deaths associated with the virus that was first detected in China last December and blamed for more than 376,000 deaths and 6.7 million infection worldwide.
But while Browne acknowledged that the island had been able to curb the spread of the virus here, he said it was imperative for citizens to continue to practice the various measures that had been put in place including social distancing and the wearing of masks.
He said rebuilding the local economy was also vital and the re-opening of the borders to tourism can contribute to “sustaining us again, while we adopt new ways of diversifying our economy.
“Unless we open our borders and restore our economy, we face another powerful enemy, economic collapse, high unemployment, overwhelming poverty, and no financial means to sustain ourselves.”
He told citizens that this is a time to “face the inescapable truth, frankly and boldly, that we cannot take the unviable, risk-averse decision, to keep our country’s borders closed.
“We cannot pretend that our nation’s economy and our family prospects have not been severely hurt from the disruption of tourism and the lock down of our country caused by the threat of COVID,’ Browne said, adding that his administration is deeply conscious of the effects that private sector lay-offs have brought to families.
“We know that, in many cases, it is only the earnings of a government employee in the family that has kept food on the table. That is why, despite the precipitous reduction in revenues, my government has employed every tool that we could use, to continue to pay public servants.”
But Browne said unless the economy is re-opened and every possible thing is done to rebuild it; “the challenges we now confront will not be overcome any time soon.
He has promised that the government will not further undermine the country’s resilience and pawn the fortunes of the population by contracting large unsustainable debts.
“My government has kept our extremely vulnerable economy afloat and buoyant through increased tourism and investment revenues. That was our only choice. Now that these revenues have been curtailed, the underlying vulnerabilities of our country have asserted themselves.
“My government has been systematically addressing these vulnerabilities, by reducing our debt to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio from the 101 per cent we inherited to 69 per cent as at January 2020, and by promoting sustained and robust economic growth, which, unfortunately, has been abruptly paused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Browne said that the government cannot countenance a scenario of increased taxes, high unemployment, and poverty and “that’s why we are moving assiduously to re-open and rebuild our economy to put our people back to work as soon as possible”.
He said to this end the government has commenced recapitalising the Antigua & Barbuda
Development Bank and expanding the Entrepreneurial Development Fund to support small and medium size businesses with concessional loan funding.
“Our Government will also extend up to EC$50 million (One EC dollar=US$0.37 cents) in guarantees to the commercial banks, to support lending to businesses so as to maintain jobs in the private sector, during this challenging period.”
He said additionally, cash support will be provided to the vulnerable through the Board of Guardian, Petro Caribe, cash and food grant programmes operated by the Ministry of Social Transformation, Human Resource Development and the Blue Economy.
“We cannot contemplate firing public servants and burdening our people, by imposing high rates of tax in conditions where life is already hard. We will borrow on reasonable terms where we can for productive purposes but, first we must rebuild the elements of our economy that will allow us to earn revenues from which we can repay the debt incurred,” Browne added.