The main priority of the Government of Belize is the safety and wellbeing of the citizenry. As of today, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Belize but this is an ever-evolving situation. The public health, social and economic ramifications are such that absolute focus and the greatest concentration of effort are required to grapple with them. Belize is therefore preparing for all scenarios and being guided by the lessons and best practices coming to us everyday from our own professionals and from the experiences of countries regionally and globally.
The Cabinet convened a special meeting yesterday to address COVID-19. Coming out of that meeting, Cabinet confirmed the establishment of a COVID-19 Task Force and a COVID-19 National Oversight Committee. I have asked the Leader of the Opposition, and he has accepted, to co-chair with me the National Oversight Committee. Apart from Government and Opposition, the Committee will be made up of representatives from the Belize Council of Churches, the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Belize National Network of NGOs and the Belize Social Security Board. The NTUCB has also been invited to name a representative but has not yet responded.
The purpose of this Committee is to provide ultimate overall supervision of Belize’s efforts to deal with COVID-19. The day to day public health response will, of course, be the principal responsibility of the Ministry of Health and the COVID-19 Task Force and you will shortly hear extensively from the DHS in this regard. Accordingly, while the National Oversight Committee in its efforts at superintendency will look at everything, it will especially zero in on the economic aspects of the crisis. Thus, at our first meeting scheduled for this coming Monday, we will hear from the Governor of the Central Bank, the Financial Secretary, and the CEO of the Ministry of Economic Development. They, together with SSB, will help the committee map out the necessary response to deal with the impacts of the crisis on employees, employers and all sectors of the Belize economy. Matters we will be looking at include: emergency aid to workers; a possible tax payment extension; a supplementary allocation for Corona-related outlays; duty free importation of essential supplies; a moratorium on loan repayments at banks and credit unions; and post-Corona stimulus by even more accelerated capital spending, salary advances etc.
The second entity we are creating is the COVID-19 Task Force. That will be chaired by Dr. Marvin Manzanero, Director of Health Services. It will include mainly representatives from the frontline Government and quasi-government agencies. But all the Social Partners are being asked to participate as well in this committee. We are also seeking expert assistance for the committee, to come from both locals not in the public service and from foreign Governments willing to help. We have in particular reached out to our Cuban friends and will seek from them one or more public health experts to join their medical brigade already in our country. Taiwan seems to have had great success in dealing with this crisis so we will also be looking to borrow some of their officials. Locally, persons such as Laura Longsworth, Head of the National AIDS committee, retired Belizean Dr Michael Vernon who worked in the US with the CDC, and the heads of agencies like the Diabetes Association can also be pressed into service. I need to make clear that while this Task Force is now being expanded and formalized, the Ministry of Health has had its own working group operational since January 2020. Dr Manzanero will also say more about this and speak to all that has already been done and is being done. The newly named and beefed up Task Force will meet weekly or as often as may be needed.
I also need to point out that as the key implementing agency the Ministry of Health already has in place a COVID-19 plan. The Task Force will refine and further develop this plan as we go along; but one of the elements already agreed on is a communications strategy to ensure the delivery to the public of accurate, up-to-date information regarding COVID-19.
Internationally, COVID-19 is constantly evolving. Thus, the Government is also working with our external partners to coordinate responses and to keep updated on the latest information and best practices. We will continue to do everything in the effort to keep Belizeans safe. In this context we have to be prepared at any moment to respond properly as the threat evolves. Accordingly decisions have to be taken on the following:
Whether or not to allow cruise ships to enter;
Whether or not to disallow large gatherings;
Whether or not to close schools;
Whether or not to ban air travel;
Whether or not to restrict freedom of entry at our land borders;
These are not easy decisions to make given the obvious and astronomical impact they would have on us and the economy, especially tourism. But nothing is more important than preserving the health of our people; nothing is more important than saving Belizean lives. I did not want to announce any such decision today without putting our country, as well as those that visit and service Belize, on notice. But I advise now that immediately after this press conference I will be meeting with the health team and speaking to the Leader of the Opposition. I will, of course, also be talking to tourism and business stakeholders.
Shortly thereafter I would expect to announce when, not if, any or all of the cited measures will go into effect.
Meantime, we want immediately to discourage all non-essential travel and prescribe the start of social distancing.
I want to close on a note of reassurance. I wish not to be facile, not to be simplistic because I cannot underestimate the looming danger. But neither can I sell short our ability to get through this. At a time like this Government is called upon to be the nation’s guardian; and each of us is called upon to be the other’s keeper. It is together, therefore, that we face this crisis; it is together that we will address this crisis; and it is together that we will overcome this crisis.
Belize will emerge, Belize will rebound, God bless Belize!