Philipsburg, Sint Maarten — On March 17, 2020, the first positive COVID-19 case was confirmed on St. Maarten; thus, we are just over one year since the coronavirus cases came to our doorstep. Since then, we instituted one lockdown, followed by a phased reopening of essential services, businesses, medical services, schools, sports and arts facilities, as well as to the world. Today, we are welcoming visitors to our shores safely, releasing more and more restrictions, and moving forward with our vaccination program, though we are still in recovery. I can proudly say we are well on our way to normality.
I felt it pertinent to take the time to reflect on what the past 12 plus months have meant for St. Maarten and her people. Over the past year, our first course of action was to protect our citizens from the pandemic with risk to Public Health by restricting travel, while still ensuring our residents and visitors could travel home. This was done via the activation of the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) which I chaired as Prime Minister and Minister of General Affairs. Many difficult decisions were made after advice from the professionals in the field and in consultation with international agencies. These decisions included the need to temporarily shut down our way of life and avoid unnecessary movement. This was deemed necessary, especially seeing our lack of resources to deal with large numbers of serious infections. It was and remains a fact that the COVID-19 pandemic was/is causing widespread illness, hospitalization and death among the populations of much more developed countries within Europe and the United States.
After our first positive case was detected on March 17, 2020, and to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19, all schools and non-essential businesses were shut down for 14 days on March 18, 2020, at 12:00 am. As cases increased, the difficult decision was made to implement a lockdown for St. Maarten. The economy came to a halt, and many people experienced a loss of income. Slowly but surely, we worked towards reopening through de-escalation of our measures during May and June. The handling of the pandemic saw the de-activation of the EOC on May 28, 2021, whereby the Council of Ministers, and its relevant Minister resumed the full responsibilities related to the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues today.
The pandemic exposed vulnerabilities in our cooperation with our French counterparts, and exacerbated the difference in competencies of the local governments. It further highlights the need for better understanding between European and local counterparts to the realities of living and working in these Overseas Countries and Territories (OCTs) and how we must improve collaboration in the interest of our shared territory.
As a government, we also provide support for those who need it the most via the various programs, St. Maarten Stimulus and Relief Plan (SSRP) and Unemployment Support via the St. Maarten Development Foundation (SMDF) funded via the liquidity support received from the Dutch government. The Red Cross feeding program also started and continues to play a key role in providing direct food assistance to the most vulnerable in our society, which the government is expected to also take over within the next few months.
Over the past year, St. Maarten has had a total of 2101 confirmed cases per March 20, 2021, and today we can say that we have followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines to bring our number of active cases to 18. Today, we can also say that thanks to the hard work of the Minister and Ministry of VSA, specifically the departments of Collective Prevention Services (CPS) and Public Health for their continued due diligence throughout the handling of the pandemic here on the island. As a result, we have started the implementation of our vaccination program and strive to reach our goal of a 70% vaccination rate of eligible adults by June 2021.
I express great gratitude with pride for the fact that as a Small Island Development State (SIDS), though facing financial ruin, we have been able to successfully contain this deadly virus, even after serious spikes which unfortunately led to the deaths of some 27 persons, whom we can never forget for the sacrifice of their lives. The loss of their lives, and the loss their families and loved ones still feel and will feel for some time to come, remains in our hearts and prayers as a country of faith. The loss of economic development occurring around the world, which also negatively impacts St. Maarten and which has jeopardized the livelihoods of many families, who now have had to rely on family, friends, even government and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) support has been even wide spread and requires all hands on deck to get us back to pre-pandemic levels.
The successes in the fight against the virus were only possible due to the hard work of the relevant authorities on the front lines, assistance from our Kingdom partners and the discipline of the business community and residents alike in upholding the legislated protocols when out and about in public, as well as the increased hygiene practices which were highly promoted throughout the pandemic via various media. It is indeed a beautiful thing when we all work together to keep everyone safe.
On behalf of the government of St. Maarten, I would like to thank first and foremost the Ministry of VSA for their on-going work and support during this pandemic. I would like to thank the EOC and all ESF teams and our front liners for getting us through the darkest days, which began just 12 months ago.
Our heartfelt gratitude goes out to our teachers, the business community, and of course the people of St. Maarten for your hard work, patience, diligence, and determination to survive and succeed, as well as your resilience in seeking alternative income streams to provide for your families and keep them safe. This is not the end of difficult times, but we know that together we are stronger, and as a unit we can face anything after surviving 2020. Building a more sustainable and diverse economy able to withstand external shocks while ensuring that our citizens can enjoy a good quality of life is the goal of this government.
Moving forward we are to ensure that not one more life is lost to COVID-19 and that the health of our population improves substantially thereby minimizing the risk of death from these types of viruses and other known medical threats which are currently prevalent such as hypertension, diabetes, heart and lung disease as well cancer. How we individually prioritize our health will play a big role in this, such as building our immune systems through the consumption of healthy food, getting enough exercise and rest for the body and mind.
In remembering our journey thus far, I encourage you to continue to follow the health protocols and ensure that you continue to uphold the protocols that ensure our safety, as well as register for the vaccine at www.sintmaartengov.org/coronavirus. If you are still in doubt, do your research, and speak to your doctor for in-depth information and advice.