The 24th March 2020 address by the Honourable Prime Minister, Mr Roosevelt Skerrit, did not provide the general public with adequate protocols for effectively managing the extent of the looming public health, economic and social disaster that is likely to evolve from the present and continued impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We note that the Prime Minister has not truly been in contact with the leadership pf the private sector as the Dominica Business Forum, incorporated by six (6) of the major private sector business organisation as the umbrella body of the private sector, and therefore puts it in that leadership position, is yet to be contacted or invited to any consultation on COVID-19. Notwithstanding that some of our members were contacted, and, invited to a meeting with the public sector a mere 30 minutes before holding a planned meeting on 24th March 2020.
The effects of the current COVID-19 pandemic, which are similar to that of war, including unpredictable loss of life, as well as social and economic hardship, is already having some devastating effect on the country. Given that the enemy is invisible but predictable, the address by the PM Minister did not go far enough to assure the public, the business community or employees, that the State understands or is able to deal with the looming crisis. It is widely accepted, at this time, that there are three effective ways to curb the spread of the COVID-19 (Coronavirus):
- to close one’s borders to new entrances of infections,
- to employ quarantine, isolation as well as lockdown/shutdown and stay-at-home protocol to limit contact between individuals except within families and those engaged in essential services, and
- to pass necessary legislation to ensure that the protocols under 1 and 2 are effective in the interest of public health and to safeguard the economy.
The Prime Minister limited the State’s intervention to a continued delayed response to the closing of borders, even given the many urgent call to do so with dispatch by organisations including the Dominica Medical Association.
The present unfolding of the COVID19 pandemic means that there is a very grave chance that in continuing to attend work, our employees will contract the disease and very importantly, likely to pass it to their relatives at home, including the elderly, and others venerable to being critically ill and dying from the disease. There is a real risk to life through the contracting of this disease through daily commute to work and the close working contacts that are inevitable in some work environments, either with co-workers or with the business clientele. In these situations, it is virtually impossible to continually maintain the 6 feet minimum social distancing that is recommended. As employers of our workmen and women, we have the legal and moral responsibility not to put our employees in any situation that will cause them harm. COVID-19 is a very serious health and safety issue at the workplace, or in the process of coming to the workplace, and our continued requirement that our employees come to work is not in keeping with this legal and moral responsibility at this time.
Specifically, therefore, Employers will be unable to continue the performance of businesses, in the immediate period and until we are provided with guidance that the risk to employees, and consequently their families, has been substantially reduced, without exposing these persons to the present risks.
Although our government is slow to pronounce a Stay-at-Home protocol and the shutting down of all non-essential business and social activities, many governments, including the UK and much of Europe, having regrettably learnt the sad outcome of not doing so early, has instituted this protocol. India, with a population of 1.2 billion persons, has shut down the country. We note however that the Diocese of Roseau has followed the learnt and Christian responsibility of other dioceses worldwide by asking the faithful in its Statement of 24th March 2020 to “Please stay home and save lives!” and giving dispensation for being unable to attend Sunday mass, given by the Roman Catholic Church only in grave circumstances.
While the economy is important, it is unacceptable for the State to ask its citizens, by delaying to urgently institute the required protocol with legislative backing, to risk sacrificing themselves or their employees while the State works to shore the financial impact. Many more people will die than is necessary if the above three strategies are not followed urgently. Many countries have, in tandem with the protocols to safeguard public health, have rolled up socio-economic packages to buttress both the people and businesses from the impact of the COVID-19 disaster. The Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis, a sister OECS state, has as of 24th March 2020, rolled out a State-financed $120M economic support packages, in addition, to immediately investing $16.9M into the public health system to combat COVID19. This is what is expected from a good and responsible government.
The circumstances of COVID19 fit perfectly in this definition of Force Majeure. Force Majeure is defined, in the context of a contractual engagement, as an exceptional event or circumstance (i) which is beyond a party’s control, (ii) which such a party could not have reasonably provided against before entering into Contract, (iii) which, having arisen, such party could not reasonably have avoided or overcome, and (iv) which is not substantially attributable to the other party. Hence, businesses, government and employees cannot be strictly held responsible for economic and financial hardships that will ensue. But we, as a people, are expected to act with compassion to safeguard the life and welfare of our fellow citizens.
As a responsible private sector umbrella body, the Dominica Business Forum Inc, therefore, solicits the good nature of every business employer to instruct our employees to stay at home as a health and safety requirement in the circumstances of the COVID19 pandemic. We are encouraged by the exemplary businesses who have already done so or are in the process of doing so. If the State does not want to, we call on all businesses, as responsible private sector members, for our employees’ sake, or our family sake, for the country’s sake, let us do it – shutdown and stay home.
We call on our employees, to Stay Home And Save Lives!