We have welcomed a new year under circumstances that most of us wouldn’t have expected, seeing how well we were doing as an island throughout this COVID-19 pandemic. In life we can and should expect curve balls, and what we are now seeing on Saba, throughout our region and the world, is definitely a wild one. For many of us, there is a sense of uncertainty and many questions; how many more cases can we expect? What will happen now that our schools have reopened? Why should we continue to follow the vaccination programs if vaccinated people are still getting infected? There are no right or wrong answers to any of these questions because there is still so much unknown about this virus and its variants. However, one thing that we do know is that being vaccinated and having the booster shot, will improve our immunity against the virus and in most cases, it will reduce the risk of having severe symptoms. If we want to protect ourselves, our families, our friends and our community while restoring a sense of normality on our island, we must do our part to collectively help in slowing the spread of the virus on island. I implore you to get the booster shot if you are already vaccinated. If you are not vaccinated, please reconsider your decision. I urge you to wear your mask, practice proper hand hygiene and follow the recommendations from the Outbreak Management Team and Public Health. We all need to do our part and we should all support each other during these times!
Although we have had a rocky start to the new year, I still look at the future with much optimism. We saw how quickly our economy and private sector was able to make steps towards recovery with the return of tourism. This shows that our product, the Unspoiled Queen, is still relevant in the eyes of the traveler and well-sought after. This recent surge in COVID-19 cases throughout the world has definitely slowed travel globally, but I am confident that this will rebound as it has done in the past. We also saw our medical school drastically increase its on island student population, which has filled apartments and rejuvenated on-island commerce.
As we have seen our economy starting to make steps towards recovery, it is concerning to see how global inflation has impacted the already high cost of living and cost of doing business. Not only does this impact prices in the stores and utilities, but it will also negatively impact planned projects such as the harbor and the new school buildings. Creative solutions, with support from the Netherlands, will be needed to help to curb these sharp increases which are severely impacting our ability to live and operate sustainably. Further promoting a strong relationship between the private sector and its representatives with the local government will be vital in achieving tangible results.
Our ability to further progress as an island will be greatly influenced by the new cabinet which recently took the oath of office in the Netherlands. After more than 9 months, there is a new government in place that has created a coalition agreement, in which, for the first time, the Dutch Caribbean has considerable attention. It will be interesting to see in the coming months how these promising words and intentions will impact our islands. For Saba, some of the most important developments will be how the poverty situation gets addressed, what measures will be put in place to help reduce the high cost of living and how the ‘vrije uitkering’ (free allowance) will be adjusted, as the local government can no longer properly execute its legal obligations without a considerable increase.
On January 17th 2019, the Council of State stated, “The islands should be central to achieving their objectives. The responsibility for formulating, coordinating and implementing the policy, as well as for the financial side of this, can ultimately be better placed with the islands than with the central government: after all, administrations that are closer to the citizens can better estimate which policy is best to serve those citizens as well as possible.”
It will be interesting to see if the Dutch Government will follow the advice of the Council of State. In the past we have seen that at times the priorities in The Hague, are not always the same as those on the islands. There are obviously priority areas that are shared, such as poverty, the high cost of living, connectivity, the lack of proper banking and social economic development. But experience tells us that structures and initiatives that may work well in the Netherlands, do not always translate to success on the islands. There should be a tailor-made approach towards each island because although we have the same constitutional structure and similar problems; what works on Saba may not always work on Statia and Bonaire, and vice versa. Nevertheless, with the inclusion of the Dutch Caribbean islands in the coalition agreement, we should expect to see some positive developments.
Over the years our government has focused on establishing a strong relationship with the various Ministries in The Hague which has produced many positive results for Saba. A consequence of this unfortunately was that at times insufficient attention was given to the local organization. It is important that we renew our energy and refocus on the core of our organization, the civil servant apparatus. Investing in education and providing opportunity for growth for civil servants must become a priority in the forthcoming period. With the high cost of living, and vying to be an example employer, it will be important that significant attention is given to the lower earners who work for government.
Throughout the course of this year, we should anticipate the further enhancement of several ongoing initiatives, while several important projects should start. As we continue to roll out our Saba Splash product, considerable efforts will continue to be made to ensure that the availability of affordable, quality drinking water, becomes more attainable for every household and business. Ongoing initiatives such as the hydroponics farm should soon start to deliver tangible results, while we must continue to promote and support traditional farming techniques and responsible animal husbandry. This will reduce our dependency on imports while providing a source of fresh and healthy food. Our efforts in waste management must also continue to improve, while significant progress should soon start to be realized with the enforcement of the single-use plastic ban. Creating a mobility plan, which focuses on public transportation, will become a priority as there is a considerable strain on our infrastructure, especially the availability of parking places.
As for the bigger planned projects, the tendering for the new harbor is expected to start this year. The road to the new harbor location has been under construction now for several months. This will be the biggest project in Saba’s history, and it will have considerable positive spinoffs during the construction phase for our economy while creating many business and employment opportunities in the short and long term. After many delays, progress is being made for the school housing project as well. All the relevant stakeholders are involved and a start should be realized during the first half of this year. Efforts are ongoing to create a bypass road which will reduce traffic while increasing the availability of parking around the schools. This bypass road will especially be useful during the construction phase of the school buildings.
Indeed, we have entered a new year under circumstances that are not ideal. However, as a resilient people we will pass through this as we have done with any other challenge we have been confronted with in the past. Having a positive mindset, a “can do” mentality and by supporting each other, what may seem impossible will become achievable. Our collective efforts will determine how we continue to progress and develop, especially now through adversity. Let 2022 be the year where we take the next steps to do more as a community for the betterment of our people and our island!