There are rumours and much speculation that the caretaker coalition Government may soon be moving towards a total countrywide lockdown in an effort to control the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). However, while this may have proven to be effective in other countries, the Government must think carefully before moving in this direction considering the current hardships being faced by families across the country.
Hence, we urge the authorities to seriously engage the various stakeholders, including the Private Sector, with the aim of reducing the impact of the closure, on individuals and businesses.
It would be nonsensical to shut down an entire country where citizens are already facing severe economic hardships without putting in place certain support measures to cushion the impact. Guyana, at the moment, is facing not one, but two major threats to our economic survival – the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) and a major political crisis due to a stubborn APNU/AFC Government fighting to the very end to stay on in power.
At the moment, thousands of persons are facing unemployment, small businesses are facing closure as they cannot afford to sustain themselves, prices for basic commodities have gone up and are rising steadily, there has been no break from paying utility bills and households are facing additional expenses to purchase items such as sanitisers and other medical supplies to protect themselves against the coronavirus, etc.
While many countries around the world have justifiably instituted partial or full lockdowns and other measures to contain the spread of COVID-19, they have all taken steps to provide relief measures to citizens so as to avoid much bigger social and economic problems.
It must be noted that already there is a partial lockdown in effect in Guyana, which requires certain ‘non-essential’ businesses to close operations and persons to adhere to curfew measures. It is now going on two months that these businesses which are classified as ‘non-essential’ have been out of operation. For example, small clothing boutiques, barbershops, hair salons, etc, which provide employment for mostly low-skilled persons have been forced to close their doors due to the strict enforcement of the Orders.
Small businesses have been pleading for some leniency on the part of the Police in relation to enforcement of the measures, to allow them to operate, but these calls have largely been ignored. Several minimum-wage earners were thrown on the breadline and face starvation due to the enforcement of these measures.
Since the Orders were issued, the authorities have not come up with a single plan to seriously address the impact of the shutdown on poor families and small businesses. It’s as if they have become oblivious to the suffering of these persons in spite of pleadings from various quarters for them to show some care and concern.
In fact, the Government’s intervention thus far explains why it lost the confidence of the majority of the citizens on March 2. Its policies in relation to the COVID-19 relief measures continue to be lacklustre as they lack serious planning and are not designed to benefit the poor or working class. For example, the VAT reduction on electricity announced by the Finance Ministry will not benefit the working class, since that measure caters for persons whose consumption surpasses $10,000. Similarly, the VAT reduction on interior travel will not benefit the poor or the working class, as they rarely utilise such a service.
The Government has basically ignored the recommendations made by the various stakeholders. The Private Sector Commission (PSC), in particular, had made some important recommendations in relation to various tax waivers and suspension of financial household commitments; these include: immediately raising the threshold to accommodate no taxation for employees earning $65,000 to $100,000; zero rating VAT on food items, detergents, a temporary removal of the requirement to pay income and corporation taxes upfront, reduced excise taxes on fuel, and emergency funding for small establishments or businesses at risk of closure.
Several other organisations had also made recommendations in relation to utility companies deferring payments and/or reducing charges by at least 50 per cent and direct payments to citizens; such as unemployment payments.
The caretaker President has shown extremely poor leadership during this crisis. He has said and done very little to ease the suffering of persons. It clearly does not make any sense to implement a total lockdown when there are no proper support or relief measures in place to assist households and businesses. The situation is already pressuring and it will get worse if the Government moves in this direction without any real support measures.