Published On: Thu, Sep 16th, 2021

Governor’s address: Focus on pandemic and economic recovery

PHILIPSBURG — Close to 4,000 infections, 183 people hospitalized and 57 deaths. Governor Drs. Eugène Holiday thus summarized the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the community of St. Maarten during his speech at the opening of the new parliamentary year on Tuesday. Of the 57 citizens who passed away, 29 died since June of this year.

The Governor’s address outlines the Government’s response to the crisis and its policy plans for the coming year. Combating the pandemic’s impact is obviously at the top of the list.

Economic activity dropped by 24 percent in 2020, the Governor said. The result was a sharp rise in unemployment and a budget deficit of 160 million guilders ($89.4 million).

The government’s seven-point action list shows however that its weapons against the pandemic are limited. These actions are about including COVID-19 on the list of infectious diseases, providing daily updates, setting safety protocols and a drive to reach an 85-percent vaccination level. So far, that level remains elusive: the Governor mentioned that currently 54.1 percent of “eligible persons” are fully vaccinated.

“It is critical that more people get vaccinated. We must not let out guard down; we have an individual and collective responsibility to keep each other safe,” the Governor said.

The government is focusing on economic recovery by executing its governing program that calls for “the implementation of structural reforms directed at rebuilding a strong, unified and multi-pillar economy.”

Other key-issues are the establishment of a comprehensive disaster management plan and the introduction of a social registry system.

The Governor’s address also mentions the intention to make the labor market more flexible, but how the government wants to achieve this remains unclear. The Governor only mentioned “fostering employability in key sectors” and “the establishment of an unemployment insurance fund.”

The government is putting measures in place to ensure a more robust and sustainable health care system,” the Governor said. These measures apparently focus on the ongoing construction of the new hospital and the development of a new mental health care facility. There is no mention of the introduction of a national health insurance.

Health-issues are also closely associated with the tourism-based economy. The government has established COVID-19 travel-screening guidelines through its Electronic Health Authorization System. Via the Netherlands, St Maarten has signed on to the European Digital COVID Certificate program.  Holders of this certificate will be able to travel more easily between participating countries.

The Governor addressed the implementation of the government’s Digital Transformation Project. This will affect local citizens in various ways. The project entails the introduction of a digital identity “to allow for accurate identification when conducting business with government.” A new financial management system will make online billing and payment services available.

Government furthermore aims to facilitate TelEm’s efforts to create an island-wide fiber-optic network.

Another item on the to-do list is the improvement of the entrepreneurial and investment climate. This includes initiatives like the digitalization of business license processes, the promotion of agri-tourism and supporting the Enterprise Recovery Program by providing $1.7 million in small business loans.

Other plans focus on the construction of a new prison in Pointe Blanche and the development of a project organization for the Crime Fund.

In the meantime, government’s finances remain under severe pressure. Revenue is down 30 percent and the budget deficit for 2021 will amount to 241 million guilders ($134.6 million) in 2021, and to 160 million ($89.4 million) in 2022.

So far, St. Maarten has received 253.9 million guilders ($141.8 million) in liquidity support from the Netherlands. This has increased the debt to GDP ratio to 64.7 percent. “Current projections show that the government will only achieve a balanced budget in 2025,” the governor said. “Government will develop proposals to modernize the tax system and tap into new sources of revenue.”

The Governor announced that Parliament will received the draft-2022 budget for handling in November.

Photo caption: Governor giving his address in Parliament on the solemn opening of the Parliamentary year 2021-2022. Photo taken from the Prime Minister’s Facebook page.


Related article: MP Sarah Wescot-Williams: “Government too comfortable with their lack of accountability to parliament.”