Hon. I. Chester Cooper, M.P.,
Exumas and Ragged Island
PLP Deputy Leader
Shadow Minister of Finance
We are living in trying times, under incredibly stressful circumstances that would test even the most unshakable amongst us.
These are desperate times for many who have lost their jobs, their livelihoods and see no light at the end of the tunnel.
These are times that will define a generation.
And while it is no one’s fault that we are living in such times, the decisions we make as leaders and lawmakers will determine how smoothly we can find our way to better days; and how much we can mitigate the worst of the impact on the most vulnerable.
From the outset of this crisis, I was careful not to speak in political terms.
I have sought to be helpful and offer solutions, even though the outreach for any help or input from our side has been slow to come.
I believe that being overtly political, opposing for opposing’s sake, doesn’t benefit the nation in most circumstances, and certainly not this one.
But there is no benefit in masking the truth because we believe it will bring comfort to those making decisions that have a serious impact on our lives.
And the truth of the matter is that many missteps have been made since March 23.
The truth is that bold and progressive leadership is required.
We do not expect perfection from leadership.
We do not expect them to flawlessly navigate a situation that is new to all of us.
But we do expect the government to think things through.
And to listen to the cries of the public and consult broadly.
There have been too many amendments to the orders given by government.
The public and businesses are often confused as to what is happening.
People are not clear on the guidelines.
One week a business is essential; another week it is not.
One week, you can shop on a certain day at a certain time; another week you cannot.
Again, I don’t expect perfection. But I don’t expect never-ending shifts.
We lose confidence that way.
With that in mind, I want to bring to the attention of the government, some challenges that it may not be aware of, or it is, it is moving painfully slowly in addressing them.
Where is the Plan?
We are now extending this state of emergency without any definitive plan on how we navigate all this.
What was announced this morning is an outline.
We need to know with more specificity what will trigger each phase and what support businesses and the public will have.
What will the new normal look like?
Businesses and individuals want to plan.
When the lockdown ends and people have no jobs to go to will be a time of reckoning.
I have released ‘A plan to mitigate the economic fallout of COVID-19’.
I have shared this plan with the minister of finance and discussed it broadly in the media.
I thank my parliamentary colleagues and the many bright Bahamian minds locally and in the diaspora who contributed to it.
I have shared it on my website teamcooper242.com and the TeamCooper Facebook page.
My time is limited today, but I endeavor to lay it on the table of the House during the upcoming budget debate.
In the meantime, we welcome comments at CovidEconomicPlan@gmail.com.
The 24-hour curfew and lockdowns on weekends generally have my support, because I believe they have saved lives, based on what the medical experts have said.
But I think they are too broadly applied throughout the entire country.
A Plan for re-opening Family Islands
I speak for Exuma and Ragged Island in this place.
Ragged Island construction has rightly been exempted from much of the regulations and provisions from early on.
Exuma and her cays, however, have not.
I note that there has been very little testing if any done on Exuma or any of the Family Islands, not even on a random basis.
From the literature on best practice I have read, widespread testing is key to opening up the economy.
More testing is something the opposition has advocated for from the start.
If we test a number of people on Exuma, we could determine if there are still asymptomatic carriers out there and whether the lockdowns should continue.
While I don’t support opening Exuma to domestic and international travel, I do not understand why, after more than a month, Exuma continues to be on lockdown when there have been no cases of COVID-19 on the island, and no one there has yet to display any symptoms.
There are many businesses that can reopen with social distancing being practiced.
Schools do not have to reopen, but at this point, I have yet to hear a medical reason as to why they cannot.
Many other sectors of the economy on Exuma remain closed with a 24-hour curfew still in place.
Dr. Merceline Dahl-Regis has stated that these Family Island communities, aside from Bimini and Cat Cay, are safe.
I trust her word and would urge the government to reconsider its curfew and lockdown policy with regard to some of these Family Island communities.
The Nassau-centric attitude of governing The Bahamas has carried over into the managing of the coronavirus crisis.
I note that the recent economic recovery committee has not a single Family Island representative on it.
How insulting and unfortunate.
For Nassuvians to pretend to know what it good for communities they are not a part of is part of the reason the Family Islands are so underdeveloped as it stands.
They deserve to be around the table, not just forwarding ideas to people who don’t understand the underlying concerns.
I also note that the government did not even bother to ask the PLP for one recommendation to serve on this committee.
I wonder if the economic recovery of The Bahamas is just an FNM issue.
I guess, there is a time and place for politics in all of this.
I say again, blatant partisanship is a terrible way to build a country or foster unity during a time of crisis like this.
I note that the committee also has no small business representation, no disability affairs representation, no one from the church, no light manufacturing representation and no representation of the construction or agriculture of fisheries sectors.
This is not how we should approach this.
We need a real national plan.
The National Development Plan is an ideal way to start.
We should build upon all of the work already done in the previous administration.
A PLP government would immediately reinstate the national planning unit, this is a more progressive path to nation building.
The poor are suffering
As is usually the case when tragic events occur, those who are most underprivileged are hit first and hit hardest.
The government’s measures are not fulsome enough and the help is not getting to who most needs it quickly enough.
The competent authority shut the borders.
The competent authority closed business, stopped street vendors from operating and caused thousands to be essentially out of work.
Therefore, the competent authority must ensure that people do not starve.
But the reality is there are people who were barely making it from day to day before this all happened.
Now, the need is acute and critical.
I have heard countless complaints about NIB not moving fast enough to accommodate both unemployment benefit and unemployment assistance claims.
For this, I do not necessarily blame NIB.
NIB was not set up to move quickly and is likely overwhelmed by the number of claims.
It is also encumbered by checks and balances designed to ensure minimization of waste and fraud.
But, that means, many who applied weeks ago have still not been helped.
Many who were unemployed for different reasons, not to mention Hurricane Dorian, are being told they cannot claim again within the same 52-week period.
Those who have not been working for 52 weeks are ineligible.
This is wholly unacceptable.
Those who do not meet the criteria for unemployment benefit should be able to apply for the unemployment assistance.
Or, better yet, relax the criteria for claiming.
This is a national emergency, surely all the same rules should not apply.
A better approach by government would have been to send the money NIB would pay in unemployment benefit directly to the credible employers to disburse through the normal banking channels.
I also note that, in my view, it is unfair and cruel to deny those who were on work permits, who pay NIB, who have lost their jobs, to claim neither the unemployment benefit or unemployment assistance.
They should either be allowed to claim or be allowed to leave the country.
We must see this in practical terms and exercise compassion.
Too many are still falling through the cracks.
And a committee will not put food on their table tonight.
Too many are still going to bed hungry as they wait for the go ahead to return to work, in cases where they still have a job.
Food assistance is woefully lacking.
People are hungry now.
They need to feed their families now.
They do not have the luxury of waiting on the recommendations of a committee.
The Department of Social Services, like NIB, was not designed to work quickly, and has been unresponsive to many, I am told.
It would make good sense to funnel money for food assistance directly to apolitical community food banks, NGO’s, churches and civil society organizations that want to help as they did in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian.
The auditor general may set-up a mechanism to audit these Non-Profits and food banks.
There must be effective delivery systems to reach persons without cars and the vulnerable in distress during the lock-down.
This money would allow the issue of food assistance to be tackled in zones and have many more people working on it.
This, as opposed to a central department processing thousands of claims for vouchers that require people to expose themselves to long lines and possible super spreaders.
I see that many MPs have been much more efficient in delivering meals and food to constituents in need and I commend my colleagues for rising to the occasion.
I have donated my entire parliamentary salary to establish a food bank for the most needy in this crisis on Exuma and Ragged Island.
But maybe that’s not the best approach for everybody.
It has been nearly a month since the prime minister promised rental assistance.
I am thankful that he addressed it today.
I am, however, doubtful that it is workable.
A deferment is basically a loan.
It seems as if the government is trying as hard as possible to spend as little as possible.
This government is, in essence, not lifting a finger to provide rental assistance.
There are more hurdles to jump through for people who are weary of these processes to receive any form of aid.
Residential rental assistance should be provided by the government in monetary form.
The approach announced, which still isn’t finalized, is too hands off.
My suggestion would be a disbursement of up to $500 for those Bahamian citizens paying residential rent who are laid off or unemployed due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Renters should be asked to provide proof of job or income loss and a copy of their lease.
This could cost the government up to $15 million, but it would provide a lifeline for many people.
The Bahamian people are proud people.
This crisis has reduced many to rely on others for their most basic subsistence.
We must allow those in the need to access assistance with dignity.
Food assistance and rental assistance have been too slow to come.
It is condemnable.
The government is failing the Bahamian people in this regard.
It is wasting time forming committes to address needs that are exigent. This administration must step up its efforts.
I would also like to say a special thank you to all essential workers who are holding it all together at this time.
To all the doctors, nurses, health care workers and officials, to all the law enforcement officers, to the grocery store workers, the pharmacy workers, the sanitation workers and the public servants who continue to serve, my family and I appreciate you and thank you.
We know that you have families too.
Know that your sacrifice does not go unnoticed.
I also want to take this time to send a special message to Exuma.
This weekend, we tragically lost a young Exumian in a boating accident.
I send my sincerest condolences to the family of Antonio Rolle in Rolleville and may his soul rest in peace.
These are not normal times.
I know that it is difficult to shelter in place in this situation.
I know that you have been indoors for a while and perhaps feel it is not imperative to abide by these orders in light of no COVID-19 cases appearing on Exuma and her cays.
I know that there is great uncertainty and tension with regard to what is happening.
But I would ask that you heed the government’s orders while they are still in effect.
For those of you who are in dire need of food, please contact the Team Cooper office at 524-8587.
I continue to work on your behalf and will see you all as soon as the travel ban is lifted.
This period in our lives, this moment in history can either bring out the best or the worst in us.
When we are at our best is when we are kind to one another, when we are considerate of one another.
Humanity is at our best when we are generous with one another, when we carry our brothers and sisters who no longer have the strength to carry themselves.
We are at our best when we learn from each other.
The Bahamas will rebound from this.
Exuma will rebound stronger than ever.
This virus will not be our downfall.
It is taxing our patience and our resources.
But we will not be broken.
We are children of God, the creator of all things; the father of wisdom.
He did not put us on this magnificent planet to perish from the face of it.
He put us here to manage it and to see it endure so that we may honor him.
There is light at the other side of it.
And with God’s grace, we will see it together.
May God bless Exuma, and her cays and Ragged Island.
And may God continue to bless the Commonwealth of The Bahamas.