Statement by Junior Minister for Trade and Economic Development
Honourable Shereen Flax-Charles
11th September, 2020
Balancing Lives and Livelihoods During COVID-19
Good morning British Virgin Islands.
There is an African saying that “Money cannot guarantee life, but with the life, you can guarantee an opportunity to make money.”
I wish that the extraordinary circumstances which we face today could be tidily summarised and summarily addressed with the application of a wise quote from our Motherland.
But for those of us that are struggling the most, I know that clever words and empty parables do not begin to satisfy your growing needs in so dire a situation. What we need now are solutions that protect the health of our public and balance with these attempts sensible, economically reinvigorating commerce.
The BVI may be formed by islands but we are part of a global community; and more than many others our capacity to earn and to survive reflects the viability of economies native to our international partners. Therefore, we cannot ignore what is happening in other parts of the world.
As a Government for all the people of the Virgin Islands, we are concerned –as we must be - with the ever-evolving presence of COVID-19 in the world.
Your Health and Safety Comes First!
Unfortunately we here in the BVI have seen an unexpected spike in our own population of COVID-19 cases that our health team is aggressively tracing.
For this Government, health and safety come first; for there can be no wealth without health.
I am proud to report that this leadership style which places foremost emphasis on your individual and collective vitality is shared across the board.
Just a few weeks ago, we were able to sit as a body of elected officials in an informal Sitting of the House of Assembly, where the Honourable Leader of the Opposition and other Members of the Opposition were present. We took yet another opportunity to put aside partisan politics, and to collaborate in addressing the pressing affairs of the Territory, especially since Ministers were going into Cabinet to deliberate on the options for safeguarding the population as guided by the Health Emergency Operations Centre, provisions of the Public Health Ordinance, the Quarantine Act and the Infectious Diseases (Notification) Act.
With all the evidence available to it, Cabinet instructed that a 14-day curfew be put in place from 2 September until 16 September, 2020, from 1:01 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. daily to restrict the movement of persons to reduce the impact of the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic on the BVI population.
With saving lives at the forefront, this curfew period is important for allowing our hard-working health team to locate, test and contact trace persons who have been exposed to the virus and whose health is at risk along with that of their family, friends and coworkers.
We appreciate the intense work the health team is doing and the many long hours they are going to ensure that we manage this invisible enemy called COVID-19. They understand that business owners need healthy customers to patronise their establishments. They understand that businesses need healthy employees to operate successfully. And, Government understands that all of us need to be healthy so that our economy can be healthy.
We also appreciate that this curfew represents a significant challenge for our small business community, workforce and general public. In combatting disease there are seldom easy roads, but as we near the end of the mandated curfew period we are hopeful for a return to normalcy supported by a largely minimised active caseload.
As early as March 2020, the Government sat in press conferences, and with the Leader of the Opposition and Members of the Opposition, and thereafter released our HEOC’s National Action Plan against the COVID-19 Pandemic. As detailed this pandemic planning is based on a six-phase strategy.
1) Plan For It (the planning and preparedness) phase
2) Keep It Out (the border management) phase
3) Stamp It Out (the cluster control) phase
4) Manage It (the pandemic management) phase
5) Manage It: (the Post-Peak) phase; and
6) Recover From It (the recovery) phase.
As the situation evolves, so too must we. We have had to re-adjust the plan to address the recent unexpected spike, while still moving forward with Phase One of the plan for the Controlled re-entry of Virgin Islanders, Belongers, Permanent Residents and Naturalised Citizens.
And, as of 1 September, I am happy to report that we have steadfastedly commenced Phase Two of controlled re-entry welcoming work permit holders, work permit exemption holders; those with resident immigration status; H. Lavity Stoutt Community College students; exceptional approval for persons employed by the Government of the Virgin Islands and its Statutory Bodies, Agencies and Boards; and teachers (public and private); dependents (spouses and children) of Belongers, Permanent Residents, and persons desirous of conducting business in the Territory.
Local businesses and local entrepreneurs are an important part of our BVI economy. Their perseverance and innovation are the driving forces of our domestic marketplace. Your Government is ever mindful that our BVI economy will be in serious trouble if local businesses go under because if that happens they will not be able to help with employment generation and circulation of cash in our economic system.
So, we have been balancing this COVID-19 experience carefully, helping to save those jobs and those businesses so that they can save our economy. We even have been urging our entrepreneurs, business managers and innovators to recognise the importance and urgency for regrouping, retooling and reorienting their operations for the new era of living and working with COVID-19.
The business operating environment as we knew it is forever changed – whether we like it or not and whether we are ready for it. Over the last few months, business owners and managers around the world and here in the BVI have been learning how to function efficiently and effectively with less staff and through remote working using technology such as WhatsApp and Zoom. Many businesses have gone online.
We must accept the fact that we must adapt to survive.
The people of this Territory would recall that your Government presented our $62.9 million Phase Two COVID-19 Economic Response Plan, which contained several programmes to help support families and small businesses during these trying times.
Your Government recognises that COVID-19 has caused – and continues to cause - significant economic impact on workers and on businesses. That is why we put forward those initiatives to help our people to get through this pandemic.
One of the initiatives is the Small Business Sector Grant Relief Programme that was established to assist Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprise (MSME) Businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, in meeting their operational expenditure, while stimulating economic activity by facilitating the circulation of money within the Territory.
A Committee consisting of representatives from the Premier’s Office serving as Chair, the Ministry of Finance, and the Department of Trade, Investment Promotion, and Consumer Affairs facilitated the design and implementation to ensure the effective administration and management of the process.
The policy guideline is in place to ensure transparency and accountability, and to ensure that these funds deliver the desired results. The appropriate application mechanism through which the grant programme will be administered and effectively managed is in place.
We have encouraged those businesses that may qualify to complete the online application form available on the Government’s Website and submit it electronically. Provisions were made through the Department of Trade, Investment Promotion and Consumer Affairs to assist applicants who may have difficulty completing an electronic application form or do not have access to a computer or the Internet.
As you know, on Tuesday, 21 July, 2020, I launched the economic response programme on behalf of the Premier in a live ceremony.
Thereafter the application period started for the duration of one month from 22 July to 21 August. Various meetings were held with businesses and organisations including Pier Park businesses and BVICCHA, where the Committee members were able to provide further information and clarity on the application process and guidelines for the stimulus, as well as address questions and concerns of particular interest to the business community. Some of the concerns addressed included, but were not limited to the following:
Qualifying businesses were required to complete an application form and submit electronically. The application form was available on the Government’s Website at www.bvi.gov.vg. Provisions were made for uploading supporting documents electronically.
Provisions were also made through the Department of Trade, Investment Promotion and Consumer Affairs to assist applicants who may have had difficulty completing an electronic application form or do not have access to a computer or the Internet.
As part of the application process outlined in the Policy Guidelines, MSMEs were required to provide information on revenues and expenditures pre-COVID-19 and during the COVID-19 period to date. This information was used to calculate a value loss figure, which was important in determining the amount of funds a business is granted in a transparent, objective and equitable manner.
I am pleased to report that on Monday, 14 September at 10:00 a.m., we invite you to join us for a virtual ceremony live on Facebook as we launch the COVID-19 stimulus payment of MSMEs who have qualified for this grant. Indeed, we are pleased to reach this point as we know that businesses have been looking forward to some assistance.
Additionally, we have made a provisional extension to the application process recognising that a small amount of our business persons faced significant difficulty with meeting the deadline for whatever reason. To meet this extension’s deadline please contact the Department of Trade, Investment Promotion and Consumer Affairs at 468-4280 or by email at email@example.com.
I am happy to report that all eligible grant applicants will be achieving some degree of help from the limited allocation we were able to make available.
I must say that your Government is pleased that we have been able to ensure that several small businesses continue to benefit from Government’s funding in the areas of:
1) Security Services for the quarantine requirements;
2) Taxi Operators on Tortola who are part of the Park and Ride since the traffic turn around;
3) Taxi Operators on Virgin Gorda;
4) Boat Operators who were able to transport the health professionals to and from Anegada and Virgin Gorda and Jost Van Dyke;
5) We looked to our small business community to provide the platforms to assist with the enhancement of Border Security.
We saw the need to take further measures as a Government to further protect our South West Borders with three platform station barges; and this is NOT at a cost of $17,000 per station, as has been wrongfully reported, but alternatively at a cost of $4,666.67 per station.
As a Government, we took the decision to boost the local capabilities of our Joint Task Force comprising Her Majesty’s Customs; the Royal Virgin Islands Police Force; and the BVI Immigration Department.
Assistance from the British Naval Forces will always be welcomed but to deploy such force between St. John and Little Thatch is asking a bit much at a cost that has to be carefully weighed. Together our Joint Task Force shall disrupt the illegal actions to the South and North of Jost Van Dyke!
6) BVIEC would also have supported qualifying businesses with electricity bills.
So in many ways we are making sure that small businesses, who have applied under various arms of our stimulus programme are beneficiaries of what little we have to offer and to work with.
I ask God to continue to be with us and multiply our two loaves and five fish to take care of all of our businesses and our people. We know that once we safeguard our business community, they will safeguard our economy.
We are working diligently to ensure that our businesses are long-lived. We want our MSMEs to be given the greatest chance of success. Information was gathered as part of the application process to determine the extent to which applicants have in place the fundamental business tools (business plans, financial and reporting infrastructure etc.), that are necessary for business success and for the development of entrepreneurial skills.
We are not just giving them money, we are giving them the necessary business tools and management skills, and we are even making provisions for applicants to attend a one (1) day certificate training programme, aimed at sensitising applicants to the importance of these tools and providing general guidance, in the first instance, for their implementation as well as to strengthen their entrepreneurial skills.
So, let us encourage our people together.
I am inviting the Leader of the Opposition, who is a former Junior Minister for Trade under the previous administration, and other members of the Opposition to join us in strengthening small businesses.
I am inviting all members of The House of Assembly to stand with us at this critical juncture. While we may deliberate quite intensely behind the scenes and in the House of Assembly, politics aside, this is for the betterment of our people. So if I am correct in honouring the valour of our intentions, people first; not points, not politics, stand with us against COVID-19
The lessons learned after Hurricanes Irma and Maria can definitely go a long way during this time of a new challenge to our structures and livelihoods.
I have a host of business centred initiatives coming on stream shortly. These programmes will emphasise the collective, not selective.
I am inviting all of our community leaders including the Leader of the Opposition and other members of the Opposition to share our key message, we must balance lives and livelihoods.
Encourage our people to not engage in mass, social or family gatherings with persons outside their immediate households. Stop with the house parties and getaways by our aunts, uncles and cousins for a bit. Wear our masks. Social distance. Tell them not to let their guards down because it is our family because they go back to our homes and affect their immediate love ones.
I call on you and your team to encourage people to come out and get tested. Tell them to call 852-7650 if they have any symptoms. Tell others to support them and not discriminate against them. Let us together pray for the safe recoveries, health, strength of those who are in quarantine and isolation.
Encourage our businesses to ensure they have all the safety measures in place so that they keep employees and customers safe, and to ensure that those measures are abided with.
Tell those who want to break the laws at our borders that we will not tolerate it any more, enough is enough. Tell them to stop putting us in danger and to stop retarding us from opening up fully as an economy.
Tell the people that COVID-19 is real. Tell them that the world is going through this just as they are and as they too have families abroad that may be affected.
We have eight ventilators as the world continues to ‘scramble’ to find them to add to their numbers because of the rise in cases.
If we have healthy business owners and employees, we can make money. If we have healthy customers, we can all make money. What will we be able to do if everyone gets sick, or worse?
Now is not the time for rhetoric; leave that for the General Elections. Now it is time for us to run this country together as we get ready for Constitutional Review. Now is the time for persons to show their leadership abilities and statesmanship by rising above narrow interests and putting the country and its people first.
Let us work together and not against each other. We welcome constructive advice, but we also welcome the Opposition’s commitment to the people. Division, chaos and misinformation are not what we need at this time.
There is a time and place for everything; now is the time for unity.
On Sunday, September 6, was three years since Hurricane Irma devastated us. That experience did not break us; it made us stronger. We are coming off the heels of remembering our Emancipation from Slavery; the inhumane treatment did not break us; it made this bird sanctuary a nest of hope, perseverance and strength.
So let us look up to the heavens and work together in COVID-19.
Let us fill the atmosphere with the positive words of prosperity in this COVID-19 era.
Money matters, but Lives Matter Most. So let us tell the people together that we will work collectively together to ensure that better days are ahead.
Remember, we are Virgin Islanders first. This means that when the going gets tough, we band together, and we march together. That is why we still have the BVI in our hands.
I thank our foreparents for saturating the soil of this Territory with prayers. Their blood is still in the soil, in the roots of our trees.
Let us have Faith in our creator, our Freedom Giver, as we work together with what is in our hands for a better life for all of us.
I want to express gratitude to all the people, the business community, public officers, the private sector, health officials, my elected colleagues, our families, pastors and prayer warriors, and everyone.
Let us work together with patience, resilience, innovation, drive and commitment, for these are critical assets for diversifying the economy if we are to survive and thrive through this challenging time which is The New Regular living and working with COVID-19.
I thank you and God Bless You!