ON THE OCCASION OF THE FIRST MEETING OF THE SECOND SESSION OF THE TENTH PARLIAMENT ON WEDNESDAY, 28TH JULY 2021
FOCUSING ON RECOVERY AND RECONSTRUCTION TO OVERCOME CRISES WHILE TRANSITIONING TO A NEW DYNAMIC DOMINICA
Mister Speaker, Honourable Members of the House of Assembly, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, a very pleasant good morning to you all as we give thanks and praise to God Almighty with a grateful heart, for He has been good to all of us.
I wish to thank you most earnestly for the kind invitation which you extended to me and my dear wife Clara to attend this First Meeting of the Second Session of the Tenth Parliament and for me to address this Honourable House. My wife and I are delighted to be here and she joins me in thanking you for your kind and gracious invitation.
Mister Speaker, Honourable Members,
Let me at the very beginning, acknowledge the passing of two former Members of this Honorable House in the persons of the Honourable Patrick Roland John, who was not just the person who happened to be Head of Government at the time of independence but whose vision it was to take Dominica into independence as declared in the Salisbury Declaration of 1976. Mr. John’s place is firmly inscribed in our history as the First Prime Minister of Dominica. He departed this life on Tuesday, 6th July 2021 after a long period of illness. Mr. Kertist Augustus, a lifelong friend of Mr. Patrick John, suddenly passed on Friday, 9th July 2021 after suffering a massive stroke two days earlier. Mr. Augustus served as an Opposition Senator during the life of the Interim Government of 1979/1980, but was more widely known as the SecretaryTreasurer of the Waterfront and Allied Workers Union (WAWU) and former General Secretary of the Caribbean Congress of Labour (CCL).
To the widow of Patrick John, Mrs. Desiree John, and to his children and grandchildren, I extend my deepest sympathies and likewise, I extend my deepest sympathies to the widow of Kertist Augustus, Mrs. Lyris Augustus and his children. Mr. Augustus was laid to rest on Monday, 26th July 2021 having been accorded an Official Funeral as is customary regarding former members of this Honourable House, and I have no doubt that Mr. John, as a former Prime Minister, will be accorded the courtesies due to him.
I also wish to note the passing of the President of Haiti, His Excellency Jovenel Moïse, who was shot and killed at his residence by foreign mercenaries on Wednesday, 7th July 2021. We extend our heartfelt condolences to Mrs. Moïse who was herself injured in the shooting, to the Government and people of Haiti and to the Haitian community resident here in Dominica.
This tragedy in Haiti should cause us some pause as a similar fate almost befell us in February 1981 and again later that year in December of 1981.
We are also reminded of the mutiny led by the Sandhurst trained former Lieutenants Raffique Shah and Rex Lassalle which took place during April 1970 at the Teteron Barracks, near Chaguaramas, which threatened the overthrow of the Government of Prime Minister Dr. Eric Williams of Trinidad and Tobago and the Jamaat al Muslimeen coup attempt to overthrow the government of Prime Minister A.N.R Robinson of Trinidad and Tobago, initiated on Friday, 27th July 1990. The Prime Minister, A.N.R. Robinson, had been beaten and shot when he tried to order the army to "attack with full force", but he survived.
We should also recall the Grenada revolution of March 1979 and the counterrevolution which resulted in the death of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop in October 1982.
lt is therefore with an extraordinary awareness of our political history in the region, and a sense of loss for us here in this Honourable House and in Dominica, that I address this august body on this most noteworthy occasion.
Thanking God for Overcoming the Many Burdens and Trials
In the intervening years since our independence in 1978, we have overcome many struggles, challenges and difficulties along the way. These experiences followed by miraculous rebound, accentuate the fact that we are truly God’s children and the sheep of His pasture. We therefore need to thank God for constantly coming to our rescue in our darkest hours. I wish at this juncture to commend Honourable Gretta Roberts, Minister for Governance, Public Service Reform, Citizen Empowerment, Social Justice and Ecclesiastical Affairs, and other Members of the Cabinet, for the initiative taken in the month of June to designate a three-day period of prayer and fasting as an indication of gratitude and to give thanks to our Creator God for His countless blessings, goodness, grace, forgiveness and love, and asking for His mercy and protection during this Hurricane Season which falls in the midst of a resurgent global COVID pandemic.
Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic
Following the passage of the two (2) major natural disasters of Tropical Storm Erika in 2015 and Hurricane Maria in 2017, and prior to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, Government realized that business as usual could no longer be an option to address the significant effects of these disasters that kept impacting us with increasing frequency. In light of Dominica’s high vulnerability to natural disasters, Government saw that the answer to responding to, and mitigating against future disasters lay in boosting resilience and thus the “build back better and stronger” approach was adopted in the recovery and reconstruction plan, focusing on the areas of health, education and training, tourism, agriculture, housing and physical infrastructural development.
Our commendable performance and achievements and high expectations for the year 2020, were brought to an abrupt halt by the emergence of a new challenge in January of 2020 – the coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic, which has had governments around the world operating in a context of tremendous uncertainty, triggering the most serious worldwide economic crisis since World War II. Commonwealth countries are estimated to have lost up to US$345 billion worth of trade in 2020, including $60 billion in intra-Commonwealth trade, according to the 2021 Commonwealth Trade Review on “Energising Commonwealth Trade in a Digital World: Paths to Recovery Post-COVID”.
Current COVID Situation
When I addressed this Honourable House on February 10, 2020, COVID-19 had already spread to at least 28 countries and was responsible for around 910 deaths and about 40,500 confirmed infected cases. The Caribbean, Dominica included, was not directly impacted then. Dominica recorded its first case of the coronavirus on March 22, 2020. To date, the global picture shows that the virus has spread to some 220 countries and territories, with over 195,705,870 reported infected cases; over 14,071,399 active cases; some 4,188,862 deaths; and 177,445,609 recoveries. The United States of America, India, Brazil, France, Russia, Turkey, the United Kingdom, Argentina, Colombia and Italy are the top 10 countries most severely impacted. After intermittent periods when we had zero active cases and overall reported infections of less than 100, we continue to see increasing imported cases, and currently, we have some 210 overall reported infected cases; 10 active cases; zero deaths and 200 recoveries. We are rated as a “low risk” country by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) along with the sister islands of Grenada, Anguilla and Montserrat and remains one of the safest countries to visit. The recent spike in active cases from 2 to 13, was due to a single incident of 6 imported cases. The Ministry of Health has responded with alacrity to contain the spread by deploying health teams to conduct contact tracing and instituting a seven-day lockdown which has now been lifted in the community in the South-East which was impacted.
All in all it can be said that we have and continue to do well in managing and containing this life-threatening disease as the government, businesses, local communities and individuals, collaborated and acted swiftly and strategically to impose unprecedented containment measures wherever and whenever necessary. The fact that the situation is not as chaotic in Dominica as it is in the rest of the world, does not in any way suggest that we can become complacent, as the virus has a very high presence in neighbouring islands coupled with the fact that there is the continuous emergence of new variants which are more virulent and transmissible. Therefore, every person who enters our ports, whether legally or illegally, is a potential carrier of the virus and we must continue to ensure vigilance and strict compliance with the Ministry of Health’s COVID protocols including prompt notification to the authorities of any illegal entry into the island. The virus continues to pose not only a health threat to entire populations, resulting in high hospitalization and death rates, but also severely impacting livelihoods, business activity and the economy in general, even in the most developed countries.
Vaccine Rollout Program And Herd Immunity Protection
We were advised by the public health experts that a “new normal” involving wearing of face masks, temperature checks, hand washing and social and physical distancing will be here for some time, at least until there is a general uptake of viable vaccines in every country in the region and across the globe. The public health experts have warned that the exit strategy from the COVID crisis will not be a straight forward exercise. There will be periods of lockdown and reopening of economies until all countries have succeeded in getting their people vaccinated and achieved herd immunity. In a nutshell, Mister Speaker, vaccination at the national and global levels is the only viable exit strategy from the COVID-19 crisis.
In December 2020, the world was introduced to three (3) clinically proven safe and effective vaccines namely, Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca. To date, there are at least thirteen (13) different vaccines available and being administered by at least 214 countries and territories. Dominica started its vaccination rollout program on 12th February 2021, first administering the AstraZeneca vaccine donated by the Government of India and later the Sinopharm vaccine donated by the Government of the People’s Republic of China. Science has confirmed that there is no other way for any country to achieve herd immunity and get past this pandemic without nationwide vaccination. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), herd immunity occurs when enough people become immune to a disease to make its further spread unlikely. Various governments have been overly burdened with the task of convincing their adult populace to take the prescribed COVID vaccine. Some governments have gone so far as to offer incentive packages to encourage a wider uptake of the vaccine. Here in Dominica, we have set ourselves the task of getting 70% to 80% of our adult population i.e. 50,000 persons, vaccinated, so as to achieve herd immunity protection. We have been struggling to meet this target. Currently, the total number of vaccinated persons stands a little above 20,784, i.e. 41%.
Mister Speaker, Honourable Members,
The Coronavirus is the most beleaguered situation confronting us, our region and the world today. It is not a hurricane nor a tropical storm nor an earthquake; these are events which are localized, devastating as they may be, they are seldom global. The COVID pandemic is an insidious malaise gnawing at all the vital components of civilized living. We must therefore cooperate to fight and eliminate the common enemy, the coronavirus, together. We must do so without being sidetracked by our political, religious and other differences or persuasions, but by focusing on our civic responsibility and on the extraordinary challenges and difficulties that confront us as a people and a nation on a daily basis. Recent reports from the international news networks confirmed that the new surge of COVID-19 cases is most common among the unvaccinated populations, including the young adults. We need therefore to take full ownership of the vaccination rollout program and be more aggressive in our awareness and advocacy campaigns – the messaging has to be more persuasive to our young adults and elderly people alike.
I wish to take this opportunity to thank the Honourable Dr. Irving McIntyre, Minister for Health, Wellness and New Health Investments, for taking the lead and guiding his Ministry in coordinating this effort. I also wish to commend the Members of this Honourable House who are vaccinated and advise you, all of you, both on the government and opposition benches, to encourage others in your neighbourhoods and constituencies who have not been vaccinated to do so as a matter of urgency, as the achievement of herd immunity protection is very critical to the return of any semblance of normalcy not only here in Dominica but in our region and across the globe. In the alternative, Mister Speaker, consideration may have to be given to making vaccination mandatory or at the very least, limitations may have to be placed with respect to access to certain services regarding persons who refuse to be vaccinated for no legitimate reason. This matter has already been addressed by Law Professor, Rose-Marie Belle
Antoine, Dean of the faculty of Law at the UWI Campus in Trinidad when she said that: “It’s a fairly easy sell for me to accept that mandatory vaccination is constitutionally legitimate and we have good precedent for it since we already have laws mandating vaccines for children’s entry into schools." No decision has been taken on that score but Professor Antoine sees no legal or constitutional hurdles. Persons who discourage others from getting vaccinated are doing a tremendous disservice to themselves, their family members and others, and to the country by extension. Our ultimate goal should be to play our part in ending this pandemic by taking the vaccine and encouraging all those who have not done so, to also get vaccinated against COVID-19. We owe this to ourselves and particularly to the vulnerable ones in our midst who are unable to take the vaccine for valid medical reasons.
Progress Made Amid the Pandemic
As I mentioned earlier, we have made and continue to make significant strides in our national recovery and reconstruction efforts particularly in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Erika and Hurricane Maria, although we have suffered significant setbacks, as focus and resources had to be diverted to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
Government therefore took an in-depth look at the significant impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in its health, economic, social and fiscal dimensions and adjusted its post Erika and post Maria recovery and reconstruction plan to make the country and the economy more resilient and responsive to the unprecedented circumstances of the COVID-19 crisis. Consequently, we have been able, after some delay, to proceed with a series of plans and programmes that are geared at ushering our country into a new development paradigm. These include:
- The development of the new International Airport;
- Continued progress with our Geothermal Energy Programme;
- Our new Road Infrastructure Development Programme;
- Our new Dominica-China Friendship Hospital and the new North East Hospital in Marigot that are nearing completion;
- Twelve (12) new Health and Wellness Centres;
- Our Housing Revolution Programme;
- Our International Hotel Construction Programme;
- Focusing on reviving the agricultural and fisheries sectors;
- Ushering in our new digital economy initiative;
- Development of a Cruise Port and Cruise Village at Woodbridge Bay and a major hotel on the site of the old Public Works Garage; and
- Continued efforts in improving air access into Dominica via the DouglasCharles Airport, resulting in an announcement by American Airlines in its Press Release of July 23, 2021, that as at December 8, 2021 it will be launching its new international direct service from Miami to the DouglasCharles Airport in Dominica, to be operated on a biweekly basis (Wednesdays and Saturdays).
I wish at this juncture to commend the Government on the following decisions taken recently that are all geared at accelerating the transition to a New Dynamic Dominica:
First and foremost, is the signing of an agreement to undertake the single largest infrastructural project that this country will witness – the construction of the long awaited International Airport. Dominica needs to build its international airport not because other islands have international airports but because we are transitioning our economy from an agriculture and goods based economy to a tourism and services based economy, and an international airport is critical for the development of this new thrust in our tourism and services based economy and to support our expanding hotel sector. A vibrant tourism sector will bring thousands of jobs to a cross section of the population, stimulate the commercial sector and create markets for the produce of farmers, fishers, craft workers, processors and manufacturers. The entire economy and population stand to benefit, and therefore we must all embrace the International Airport unreservedly.
Secondly, the passage of the Dominica Hospitals Authority Bill at the Seventh Meeting of the First Session of the Tenth Parliament on Monday, 28th June 2021. This Act is one of five pieces of legislation which taken together are expected to enhance the delivery of health care services to the citizenry with a strategic focus on strengthening accountability and transparency within an accreditation framework thereby placing our hospital services on a level to offer high end services not just locally but regionally and internationally.
And thirdly, responding to the call from the Eastern Caribbean Currency Union (ECCU) to all member countries of the Union to enact Fiscal Responsibility Legislation. This legal framework which is still to be approved by this Honourable House, is simply meant to reinforce financial discipline across Member States and to reduce fiscal deficit. Ultimately, this would increase transparency in Government’s management of public funds and put the country and the subregion in a position to better respond to future health, economic, social or climate-related shocks.
Constitutional Rights, Freedoms and Responsibilities
There is a matter of great concern to me that I wish to highlight at this time, and it has to do with the perception of impunity regarding incidents of disorder and lawlessness taking place in this beautiful island that God has blessed us with.
I wish to draw our attention to Section I of Chapter I of the Dominica Constitution which states:
“Whereas every person in Dominica is entitled to the fundamental rights and freedoms, that is to say, the right, whatever his race, place of origins, political opinions, colour, creed or sex, but subject to respect for the rights and freedoms of others and for the public interest, to each and all of the following, namely –
- life, liberty, security of the person and the protection of the law;
- freedom of conscience, of expression and of assembly and association; and
- protection for the privacy of his home and other property and from deprivation of property without compensation, the provision of this Chapter shall have effect for the purpose of affording protection to those rights and freedoms subject to such limitations of that protection as are contained in those provisions, being limitations designed to ensure that the enjoyment of the said rights and freedoms by any person does not prejudice the rights and freedoms of others or the public” End of quote.
In a nutshell, Mister Speaker, our Constitution bestows certain fundamental rights and freedoms on every one of us and we have the right to enjoy the said rights and freedoms. I am, and have always been, a firm defender of those rights. However, while enjoying those rights and freedoms, we do not have the right to prejudice or infringe upon the rights and freedoms of others and to go against the public interest. The rights and freedoms that are guaranteed by the Constitution are not absolute and are subject to limitations in the interest of public safety, public order, public morality and public health. These exceptions are provided for in subsections 10 (2) and 11 (2), and subsection 12 (3) of the Dominica Constitution.
Building On Our Achievements To Face The Post-COVID World
The development thrust which I highlighted earlier should instill in us a great sense of hope and optimism as Dominicans, whether living at home or abroad. Notwithstanding the global crisis, there will be opportunities to be embraced in certain fields of endeavor in the current and post-COVID world, more particularly, in the digital transformation of the economy. The coronavirus crisis shows that the digital revolution can serve as a useful platform for improving our country’s resilience to crises. It shows that while the well-established businesses benefit from access to digital solutions that are in place, for instance, collaboration tools, cloud storage, and connectivity, this is not the case for small and medium-sized businesses. It is therefore crucial for us to continue to take concrete and actionable measures that will provide access for all to qualify for digital infrastructures that will support the development of the digital economy. I envisioned that the Caribbean Digital Transformation Project valued at US28 million dollars will do so. Additionally, the digitalization of the economy can foster growth and increased opportunities in other avenues such as digital technologies, offshore medical services, risk assessment and insurance, project management, renewable energy, e-commerce, online education, and employment, entertainment and gaming, etc. We need to take ownership of this growth prospect and ensure that no one is left behind. Tremendous opportunities will also become available to us in the construction phase of the International Airport as well as when it becomes operational. Let us therefore embrace these new opportunities as they unfold, and maintain our focus, and concentrate all our efforts on the national recovery and reconstruction plan designed for the emergence of a modern, resilient and sustainable Dominica; remembering the words of King Solomon as written in the Book of Proverbs, Chapter 3 verses 5 to 6 (New International Version), to:
Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.
I pray for God’s continued blessings and His peace upon all Members of this Honourable House, on all those present here today and on all the citizens and residents of this our blessed country, including those citizens residing abroad in the diaspora. I therefore extend to you every good wish for a fruitful and successful session.
I thank you for your patience and attention.