Dominica is celebrating its 42nd anniversary of political independence from Britain overshadowed by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that has prevented the traditional military parade and other activities, but urging members of the population to bind together to build a country that could be an example to the rest of the world.
Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit in his Independence Day address also promised that construction on the long-awaited international airport would begin in the first quarter of this year and that despite the pandemic that has infected 50 people here, the island has been able to put in place measures to allow it to cope with the impact of the disease.
“However given the depth and gravity of the global crisis, no country anywhere has been spared the impact of this pandemic,” Skerrit said, noting that ‘it has challenged health systems in rich and powerful countries, infected over 46 million people, killed almost one and a quarter million people worldwide”.
Skerrit, speaking at the ceremony held at “State House” the official residence of President Charles Savarin where several Dominicans were awarded national honours for their contribution to the socio-economic development of the island, said that the pandemic had also transformed societies and made” large economies with higher GDP (gross domestic product) and per capita than Dominica, vulnerable.
Skerrit said that the economic impact of the pandemic continues to be “keenly felt” in Dominica and the Caribbean, which he described as one of the world’s most tourism-dependent region.
He said the analysis by international tourism stakeholders indicate that the pandemic will result in the loss of an estimated one billion tourist and the loss of US$910 billion to US$1.2 trillion in tourism revenue.
“In the Caribbean, we have experienced the reality where cities have grown silent, airports lie empty, cruise ships are not anchored in our ports, jobs have been lost, livelihoods have been disrupted and a sense of fear and uncertainty envelopes our people.
“In Dominica government revenue has decreased substantially while at the same time expenditure has increased to provide stimulus packages, support to those seriously affected and to adequately provide for the health response to the pandemic”.
Skerrit told the nation that despite the situation, his administration has ensured that no public servant has been dismissed, there has been no salary cut and no late payment of salaries. In addition, he said the government has provided EC$12.7 million to date to help Dominicans affected by the pandemic.
But he warned a further lockdown of many countries internationally, particularly those with whom Dominica conducts trading and other business ‘would have serious consequences for the already severely impacted economies of the Caribbean, particularly the tourism-dependent sectors.”
Skerrit said that his administration had developed an eight-point strategy to deal with the crisis including providing and maintaining a social safety net for the most vulnerable as well as preparing the local economy and society “to bounce back quickly after COVID-19 eases and travel resumes”.
In addition, Skerrit said that the strategy also calls for a continuation of “our quest to build resilience”.
Skerrit also announced plans for a major scheme that would assist micro, small and medium enterprises. He said the Entrepreneurship Visa programme would invite interested investors to make a substantial financial investment in Dominica in a designated fund from which those businesses here can obtain grant funding.
Prime Minister Skerrit also said there was need to further strengthen the agricultural sector as a means of preparing for the future and the opportunity is being made available to improve the island’s produce output.
Regarding the international airport, Skerrit said that he anticipates all payments would be made to landowners, whose properties had been acquired for the airport project by the end of this month.
‘We cannot talk about becoming a resilient country and not address the vulnerabilities and limitations of air access to our country. There can be no doubt that an international airport is a necessity now for Dominica.
‘An airport with the capacity to accept long haul flights will be a significant boost for expanding tourism industry, improve access to our island and its attractiveness as a place to do business,” Skerrit said.
He said that the International Airport Development Company will have a shelf life for the duration of the construction of the airport.
In 2013, Prime Minister Skerrit announced that he had signed a US$300 million deal with Chinese company, ASCG, with “reconstruction of an international airport” among projects to be undertaken, under the agreement.
Meanwhile, The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) has congratulated Dominica with CARICOM Secretary-General Ambassador Irwin LaRocque, pointing to “the great fortitude and resilience” demonstrated by the citizens in rebuilding Dominica after the devastating effects of natural disasters such as Hurricane Maria in 2017.
“The chosen theme for this year’s festivities, “Embracing New Opportunities”, is a resounding call to all Dominicans to look towards the future as they overcome the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, and undertake initiatives that will aid the country’s drive for resilience and sustainable development,” the Dominica-born Secretary-General stated.
He said the efforts of the government and the people in promoting regional integration are most appreciated.
“I am particularly appreciative of your leadership in the Community’s efforts towards the world’s first climate-resilient Region. I look forward to Dominica’s continued active engagement in advancing the Community’s integration objectives,” the Secretary-General said.