By Hon. Matthew Wale
Leader of Opposition
Awii Mr. Speaker for the opportunity to speak to the motion moved by the Hon. Prime Minister. This motion is born of uncertain times and circumstances. I would therefore seek your indulgence to read from the Bible to help us see who we are and understand from where our help comes, in times such as these.
1:2-4 The prophet complains, “How long, O Lord?” in the face of the long and slow destruction of God’s people by an evil Babylon. The prophet could not accept how God would allow an evil empire to punish and destroy His own chosen people. The Babylonians destroyed their enemies by laying very long sieges against their cities to cut off food supply lines. The suffering and hunger imposed by the sieges were slow and long.
1:5-11 God responds by saying Yes my people have become wicked and I am raising the Babylonians to destroy them.
1:12-2:1 The prophet felt a sense of injustice that God would use a wicked people, the Babylonians, to punish the backslidden people of God. He raised this as his second complaint
2:2-20 God responds to the prophet’s second complaint by saying Babylon will also be punished at the right time. The hand of justice will destroy the evil and rescue the righteous who live by faith (2:4).
God’s word to his people in Habakkuk is ‘In uncertain, trying and unprecedented times, live by faith’. Trust God in the toughest of times, in days of looming trouble.
What does it mean to live by faith in the face of the suffering effected by the coronavirus?
We can be sure that there is nothing that happens in this world by chance, nothing that happens apart from God’s will and purpose for his world. It is hard for the human mind to understand this, and can often lead to bitterness toward God. However, like the prophet Habakkuk, this must lead us trust in God’s perfect and righteous justice. God is not idle, and we can trust Him. However slow and painful the suffering will be, Habakkuk summons us to quiet trusting patience.
3:16 & 18 Habakkuk expressed His trust in God’s perfect timing saying in V.16 “Yet will I wait for the day…”, and in V18 “Yet will I rejoice in the Lord…” Habakkuk’s “Yet will I…” responses were statements of faith and trust in God’s perfect timing and righteous justice.
3:17-18 “Though the fig tree does not blossom, nor there be fruit on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.”
The prophet Habakkuk is saying in the face of economic ruin – incomes lost, livelihoods destroyed, uncertain food supply, uncertain health outcomes – his joy remains in the God of his salvation – not in those temporal things.
The coronavirus has been described as a great equalizer – that is, it has no respect for whether a person is rich or poor, educated or illiterate. Its impact on all persons is the same. In the face of this coronavirus, man cannot put his hope in his possessions and or his passions. Let us humble ourselves and return to the God of our salvation. Let us put our total trust in Him, and find our true joy in Him.
When we live by faith and trust in God – it is not a blind faith. We must still practice social distancing, no face-touching, regular hand washing and personal hygiene and follow the advice of the experts who God has given knowledge and wisdom to, to help us face this global pandemic.
Let me now turn to the motion itself and make a few brief observations.
We are thankful that to date we are among a very few countries in the world who are yet to record any case of coronavirus infection. I must congratulate the government for responding to the call to act early and place the country on heightened alert against the global pandemic. We must all accept that in such unprecedented times such as this some mistakes will be made in our efforts. However, we must have the humility to learn quickly and adapt to changing situations.
Let me also express my gratitude to those who serve on the frontline of our efforts to respond to the pandemic. All of Solomon Islands owe them a debt of gratitude. They must be recognized for their service and efforts. However, I would like to say to the Prime Minister, it is important at the outset that any reward or incentives for those working on the frontline in this pandemic be agreed and set now – rather than wait for the claims after, as has been the practice from other past events that led to exaggerated claims.
States of public emergencies are usually situations that a country has already found itself in. In this case, we are yet to record a positive case of Covid-19. However, the exponential growth and fast spread of the coronavirus throughout the world present the situation that as part of the global village we are not immune from. We must take the steps that are necessary to protect our people against this pandemic. In many ways the entire world is in a state of emergency, and we are no exception. Our laws are made for the normal functioning of society, the economy and government in ordinary times. There are very few laws that exist to guide our efforts and responses in states of public emergencies. In Solomon Islands, the Constitution provides for it, and the Emergency Powers Act [Cap 11] is an attempt to regulate government actions during an emergency. However, this Act may not be adequate. There is a need for government, at the appropriate time, to reflect on these experiences and ensure that our laws are updated to provide adequate and clear powers and mechanisms to guide our efforts and responses in an emergency.
As we can see with other countries, the covid-19 pandemic has closed down education systems, forced economies into hibernation, citizens into self-isolation, disrupted food supplies, and overwhelmed healthcare systems. A health pandemic has become the source of a national security crisis for many countries, including the world and middle powers. We are no different. This pandemic has exposed inadequacies in various countries’ laws and capacities to respond effectively. A country’s speed and effectiveness to marshal resources and reallocate them to where they are needed most in a crisis may be the critical success factor in how that country protects its people and assures its national security. The enabling environment for such speed and effectiveness must include a robust legal framework, flexible administrative mechanisms, removal of red tape that may otherwise be necessary in normal times, stocks of strategic reserves, sound policy advice based on science, consistent clear simple messaging and effective communication to the people, political will, and clear headed leadership. As in other countries, we see our nakedness clearly in the face of this pandemic. We must plan for, procure and store equipment and items that would be needed to protect our frontline professionals and citizens in an epidemic or a pandemic. Our total reliance on donations from outside makes us even more vulnerable than we would be. In the face of the pandemic, we see countries are prioritizing their domestic needs and banning exports. This too is an important lesson to learn. Our hand to mouth fiscal situation must not be an excuse for the lack of planning for strategic stores of items that would be necessary in an emergency.
In emergencies, decision-making must not be compromised by political calculations nor by any other calculation that might sacrifice the health safety of our people. We would do well to reflect on these and see if there is room for improvement going forward.
In this state of public emergency, and because of its overwhelming cross-cutting nature, all other policy considerations and priorities must be set aside. I pointed this out in the recent debate on the address from the throne. Government’s primary focus must solely be on protecting the health safety of our people, and ensuring our national security. Anything that does not help government to achieve those two objectives must be set aside for the time being. The address from the throne outlined government priorities for 2020, at a time when the world was being overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic. That address was almost oblivious to the unfolding global pandemic. As we now see, the pandemic, as it has done elsewhere, dictates what becomes priority. And this is as of necessity.
The declaration of a state of public emergency by His Excellency on the 25th March 2020 describes the bases for the declaration being the declarations by the WHO regarding the Covid-19 pandemic and its spread throughout the world. His Excellency’s declaration of a state of public emergency also sets the parameters or boundaries of all regulations and decisions made, and actions taken in the emergency period to be for the preservation of public security and as measures necessary to stop the importation into and or the spread of covid-19 in Solomon Islands. Any regulations, decisions and or actions taken that do not preserve public security or are not necessary to the protection from importation into and the spread of covid-19 in Solomon Islands would be outside the scope of the emergency declaration under section 16 of the constitution. Such regulations, decisions and or actions, to the extent they do not relate to those two policy objectives, would be abuse of the declaration of the state of public emergency.
Solomon Islands is still a democracy even in a state of emergency. All who exercise emergency powers must do so guided by the democratic values and ideals we hold dear. It is unfortunate that the constitution does not explicitly provide for an oversight mechanism for a period of the state of emergency. However, there is nothing preventing the Bills and Legislation committee from exercising parliamentary oversight over regulation making during the state of emergency, if it so wishes. I would encourage the Bills committee to explore if this will be feasible during the emergency. Of course, in an emergency situation oversight must not be obtrusive. It must not impede the speed and effectiveness of government responses in the emergency. I suppose we will have to rely on His Excellency to exercise some oversight on the use of emergency powers.
I wish to acknowledge and appreciate the donations offered by our donor partners, at a time when their own countries are bearing the brunt of the effects of covid-19. This is a global pandemic and we will benefit from the experience of other countries.
State of public emergency declaration by His Excellency 25th March 2020 under the Constitution S.16 (2).
Emergency Powers (COVID-19) Regulations 2020 published 26th March 2020, under the Emergency Powers Act [Cap 11]
Public service Circular Memorandum No.03/2020 dated 31st March 2020
If the coronavirus is not in Solomon Islands:
- Ban all international flights into the country, except for cargo and samples for tests (until testing can be done in-country). Regular tests for air crew who will be in isolation whilst in country and baggage handlers at Henderson.
- Appropriate isolation/quarantine for incoming international shipping freighters.
- Economy needs to keep functioning to provide jobs and incomes for families. However, the PM’s hope that donor funded projects be brought forward may not be feasible, as it would involve mobility of labour. Further, it is important to note that the spread of the coronavirus from China to other countries followed Chinese workers returning to those countries to work. We must learn from that experience. The Pacific games construction project may be affected by this, if it will require Chinese workers. Government must not take the risk of importing covid-19 through foreign workers. Our national security and public health safety cannot be compromised even for the Pacific games. Some preemptive planning must now commence to consider postponement of the games.
- Public service needs to keep operating to provide support services to the private sector to keep the economy functioning. The Public Service Memo dated 31st March 2020 should be withdrawn.
- Ban on flights may only be lifted once source/destination cities/countries have demonstrated sustained reductions in the number of coronavirus infections. In such an event, all travelers into the country must:
- obtain medical report confirming lack of covid-19 infection within 4 days prior to travel, and
- be quarantined on arrival for 14 days
- All Solomon Islands citizens abroad, including students, wishing to return must comply with 4 above. SIG to pay for tests for its sponsored students.
- Quarantine facilities must be fit for purpose to not become fertile ground for the spreading of the coronavirus.
- Conversely, the government could enter into dialogue with Australia to beg that Solomon Islands students be quarantined in their detention facilities on Christmas Island. This would work for our students in Philippines, if a decision was taken to evacuate them.
- All citizens with no jobs or business interests in Honiara to be urged to leave for their villages. Ideally, all these should be tested for covid-19 to ensure the virus is not unwittingly spread to the provinces.
- Close and police the border with Bougainville.
- Set up lab to conduct all tests in-country.
- Procure new test kits recently approved by the US FDA that takes 2 mins to get results.
When first case is recorded in Solomon Islands:
- Maintain ban on all international flights
- Immediate lock down of Honiara for 14 days
- Ban all domestic travel to/from Honiara
- Rigorous exhaustive contact tracing
- Strict social distancing rules promulgated; group size to be at 2.
- 100% testing of suspected cases. Adequate supply of test kits.
- Isolation of suspected cases. Random checks on persons in isolation to ensure compliance.
- Hospitalization of positive cases away from general public and away from NRH
- Three field clinics set up to do tests in East, Central and West Honiara
- Multi-purpose hall converted to field hospital for covid-19 cases
- Adequate supply of PPE for health professionals. PPE must be independently proven to work.
- Payment of incentives to frontline health professionals
- Better coordination of procurement of medical equipment and supplies in the face of fast dwindling global supplies
- New grave yard for Honiara
- Strict regulations for burial of covid-19 victims.
- Clarification on Emergency Powers (Covid-19) Regulations 2020 –
- Regulation 21 – whether 72 hours is unreasonable;
- 26(1) Gag on public officers – it is important that public officers on the frontline are free to speak on issues they face. Any bottleneck in the chain of command and equipment supply may result in deaths of frontline officers. The government has asked them to put their lives on the line, and the government must not silence them from speaking out if they see problems that ought to be addressed or areas for improvement. Government should not see such speech as contradictory or inflammatory. This part of the regulation ought to be amended to separate frontline workers from the general cadre of public officers. Their freedom to speak may save lives.
- Power to ban access to media – we know social media is majority fake news. Worse, there are some who perpetuate fake news with malicious intent. And given the emergency, the consequences may be tragic. However, I would caution the Prime Minister to weigh carefully the advantages and disadvantages from a ban to media access in any particular situation. In this emergency, safety is primary and must weigh more heavily than other considerations. However, the benefits of ongoing media access to citizens in an emergency may be in itself a lifeline to knowing what to do in certain situations and accessing help.
- Although not provided for in the constitution or the Emergency Powers Act – unobtrusive oversight of the exercise of emergency powers should be exercised by the Parliamentary Bills & Legislation Committee, on behalf of Parliament.
- International trade in the main commodities exported by Solomon Islands are severely curtailed.
- Commodity prices are expected to remain relatively low on the back of weak demand from the manufacturing slowdown in China. The length of time for demand to pick up again is uncertain, perhaps as long as six to ten months.
- Imports of food and essential items will continue, but expect a weakening demand of non-essential items.
- World price for oil has dropped to its lowest level in the last 18 years.
- Government revenues expected to fall significantly
- Government borrowing may increase to fund the emergency costs
- Government budget to be reprioritized
- Government to urge banks to grant loan repayment holidays, at the very least, and to consider reducing lending interest rates.
- Need economy to keep functioning to keep as many jobs as possible
- Government must address the need for a stimulus package.
- SIEA should be required by the Prime Minister to immediately suspend disconnections, and reduce tariffs by at least 30% for 3 months
- SIWA should immediately suspend disconnections
- Clear, simple messaging from government in simple Pijin
- Food security is paramount. Vietnam has closed exports. 90% of rice is imported from Vietnam. Rice should be rationed, if insufficient stock levels.
- Supply of local food produce may need to be nationalized, & distribution coordinated. Food prices to be kept very low or subsidized.
Confinement and hard economic situations may lead to domestic abuse. Appropriate agencies dealing with this matter need to be adequately resourced to respond to domestic & gender based violence. Clear consistent messaging to prevent domestic & gender based violence will be important. Isolation rules will need to take into account the need for victims of domestic and gender based violence to move away from their abusers to safety.
It is useful to parliament, as it is to the country, to hear the government’s planning going forward into the period of the state of public emergency. If we succeed at keeping the covid-19 from entering Solomon Islands, how long will international flights remain banned? What conditions would have to be met to see public service recalled?
All individuals must take primary responsibility for social distancing, hand washing and not touching their faces. As in many other countries, social distancing is not in our nature or culture. There is need for consistent messaging in clear simple Pijin to ensure it becomes second nature to our people. Funerals in particular, with its cultural implications, represent potential super spreaders when we get the coronavirus. Government must now develop regulations to appropriately regulate how corpses and funerals are handled. Government must take the steps necessary to assure food supply to emergency zones and to regulate distribution and access to food. The closing down of satellite vegetable markets may make the central market a super spreader in the event we get the coronavirus. As we would expect city residents to travel by bus to the central market, with the risks involved in that. Government must bear responsibility for coordinating food supply, distribution in the emergency zone in the event of a lockdown.
We live in uncertain times. There is no cure for or vaccine against covid-19 yet. There is much that the scientists still do not know about covid-19. But this must not lead us to fear. It must lead us to our God, who is our loving Father in heaven.
Let me conclude by reading from Psalms 121:
“I will lift up my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip – he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord watches over you – the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm – he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”
And again, Psalms 23:
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in paths of righteousness For His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; my cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Awii Mr. Speaker, and I support the motion.