National Address by The Honourable Gaston Browne Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda on the 39th Anniversary of Independence

Prime Minister the Honourable Gaston A. Browne, MP

Fellow Citizens and Residents of Antigua and Barbuda 

The 39th anniversary of our nation’s independence has come, as a dark cloud hangs over the world. A small microbe has brought all nations – rich and poor, large and small – to their knees. We, in Antigua and Barbuda, a place from which no major disease has ever erupted, have become one of its victims in ways that none could have imagined. 

Our nation is at war with an invisible enemy. 

Our economy is badly weakened through no fault of our own. 

But, our nation did not survive hundreds of years of slavery, and another hundred and fifty years of colonial exploitation, to surrender all that we achieved. We did not rise from our knees to stand as equals in the councils of the world, to turn back the hands of time. We did not make of ourselves, a nation with one of the highest per capita incomes globally, to be cowered in the face of a pandemic, however menacing. Cowardice has never been – the way of our people. 

We get up. We stand up.  

And fight unrelentingly until we conquer the struggles and achieve our objectives. That is how we have overcome the challenges of the past, consistently creating a better life for our people. And, that is the way we will continue – cautious but courageous, careful but determined, vigilant but robust. We should recall that, as like all things, this too shall pass. Therefore, on this 39th anniversary of our independence, let us not crouch down in fear; let us not shiver in dread. 

Instead, let us do what, as a people, we have always done. Let us look ahead with absolute certainty that darkness is dispelled by light. In so doing, let us celebrate our nationhood with hope and optimism, eschewing all fear.  Let us set our feet firmly on a path to recovery, girding our loins with purpose to overcome and setting our eyes on the single goal of snapping back and building back better.  None can deny with any sense of fairness and objectivity, that we have succeeded in containing the might of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have protected lives and livelihoods, saving hundreds of lives and putting thousands back to work, by reopening our economy on June first of this year. 

We, in Antigua and Barbuda, are better off than most of the people in the world. Globally, there are almost 1.2 million deaths and increasing: in Antigua and Barbuda we have contained our loss of life to only 3 persons. Across the world, there are about 45 million infected persons; in our country, we had a total of 124 persons, of whom the majority have all recovered, leaving us only with 8 active cases. By any measure, our performance has been outstanding and exemplary.  While one death is one death too many – and we mourn each of them – as a nation we have kept our people safe. My Government acted immediately and comprehensively to contain the virus and to halt its spread. There was no dithering, no dallying, no indecision. We acted promptly, decisively, and in a big enough way to make a difference. 

Our decision to reopen our borders on June 1st, to receive passengers by air and sea signified confidence in the ability of our people to manage the risks associated with COVID transmission and was an inspiration to the entire Caribbean region. The lives and health of our people came first and remain first. We protected our nation against the worst cruelties to the health of our people. 

Without any help from the international financial institutions, we allocated scarce funds to build a fully equipped infectious diseases Centre; we expanded the number of hospital beds to three beds per thousand of population; and we invested heavily in equipment and other medical supplies to include rapid test kits. China, India and the Jumby Bay Fund were outstanding in their provision of medical supplies and we will always remember their friendship. Even as we celebrate our independence, it is good to know that, in times of crisis, we have committed friends. Cuba is among them. Cuban medical personnel readily joined our own doctors and nurses, and others on the front-lines of confronting the virus. 

Our nation is indebted to all our health workers and all the others on the frontlines. They are our warriors on the front-line of the battle, and they deserve our praise and our thanks. When the economic circumstance of our country changes for better, as I am confident it will, my Government will remember these champions and will do our best to reward and honour them for their special service. 

The global impact on tourism has affected our economy badly. 

Yet, my Government ensured that we would not suffer complete economic collapse, or widespread misery. We kept all government workers employed, giving most families a breadwinner. We looked out for the poor and vulnerable by making welfare interventions that included the provision of subsidized utilities, cash grants, food hampers and other necessities. Our Government continues to help through initiatives, supported by the corporate sector, civil society, and citizens. 

My brothers and sisters 

We all know that the pandemic paralyzed the world. It forced mankind to abandon, or significantly reduce the freedom of roaming, of socialising, and of physical communing. Across the globe, mankind has been forced to remain in their habitats, conducting business and maintaining contact through a virtual world. The latter is by itself a measure of mankind’s great creativity and innovation. It is also a tribute to our country’s vision and determination, not to be left behind in the availability of telecommunication facilities. 

My government considers the provision of affordable broadband services as a public good. That is why the Antigua Public Utilities Authority (APUA) is investing over $100M, in expanding its broadband services at affordable prices. Those facilities have kept us as an active participant in the global financial and trading systems. Thus, we used information and communication technologies as effective tools for governance, diplomacy, education, business, office work and social connections. 

We also used them to earn revenues through our Citizenship by Investment Programme, and more recently our Nomad Digital Residency Programme. Our investment in modern technology ensured that we achieved the twin objectives of saving lives and maintaining key aspects of our national life and livelihood. Much of that capacity has been attained only since independence just 39 years ago. 

That realisation should instill in all of us, not only recognition of what we have achieved as a nation; it should also assure us that we have the ability to carry on achieving; and that we have the power to continue our journey to progress and prosperity, which have been interrupted by COVID-19 only temporarily. 

My Brothers and Sisters. 

As your Prime Minister, and a fearless optimist, I remain confidently optimistic about the future of our country. I do not believe that there is any challenge that a vigilant, creative, innovative and entrepreneurial people cannot overcome. Our history has proved that we are such a people. In that sense, we can cast aside every weight and run with confidence, the race that is set before us. 

Who we must contemptuously ignore, are the false prophets, who prey upon fear for their own political advantage. They are creating fear, painting a picture of doom and gloom, through false claims; that the government’s policies have brought our economy to its present pass. They are seeking to create a culture of fear, so that they can fool you into believing that they represent your salvation and deliverance. The irony is, they themselves are mired in personal and professional failures and are in need of redemption.  

We must always remember that not all winged-creatures are angels. False witnesses, seeking personal gain, did not start with Dathan and Abiram who sought, for wicked purposes, to stop the people of Israel from following Moses into the promised land. Let us be mindful of the real purpose of these scaremongers who seek to undermine our nation’s recovery and not to be derailed by them. 

My Fellow Citizens and Residents. 

As we now know, COVID-19 has brought a tougher challenge for me and my colleagues, than any previous administration since the 1930’s has had to face. However, we will not shrink from it. We will press forward in optimistic solidarity.  

My Government, together with all other sectors of our society, did a comprehensive assessment of the conditions we confront; the measures we can take to alleviate them; and the plans we should implement now and in the future to build back our country better. That was what the Economic Recovery Committee was all about. The blueprint with the policies, strategies and programs is established – and the plan was devised by individuals spanning all sectors. We know what we must do to continue to keep our economy viable and our people secure, while we look forward to the passage of this terrible scourge. 

Brothers and Sisters  

When this pandemic first reached our shores, each of you was magnificent in your response and compliant with the protocols. Unfortunately, there is growing complacency and indiscipline that are now threatening to undermine the gains we have made and potentially expose our people to community transmission. Our entire nation could be endangered if any of you behave recklessly, and ignore the health protocols, which were designed to protect the entire population. The protocols must be strictly followed by all, in the protection of our citizens, residents and visitors.  

We cannot afford complacent and delinquency.  Our chain of success is only as strong as its weakest link. We need everyone to be responsible.   
We must all be our brother’s keeper and our sister’s protector. Look at what’s happening throughout Europe now.  The numbers of infected persons have risen dramatically because people ignored the protocols.  

They began to treat the virus lightly. Now, the lockdowns have returned; the restrictions have resumed, the economies have begun to slide. We must learn from the sad experience of Europe, of what is happening in the United States and even in Canada.  

Our country cannot afford another lockdown.  

That is why, I now appeal to each of you and all of you, not to make their mistake. The price we would pay for the errors and recklessness of a few would be extremely high. That is not what we want. So, I appeal once again, to all who dwell within our shores, to recognize that we are all together in one boat in this turbulent sea.  We can sink in it, or sail out of it to safe Harbour. I know that, if we pull together, we can ride out this turbulence and dock our boat on safe and protective shores. This is what we must do, and do it together as patriots, in the interest of all whom we love, and for our country.  

Brothers and sisters, 

It is confidence, not fear, that has always driven our nation. It is optimism, not despair, that has propelled us forward. The task before us is not easy, but our early actions would have prevented it being worse. And, if we continue to bind together in solidarity; as one nation, one people, with a common purpose and vision, we will emerge stronger when this crisis is over. 

I recall Corinthians, chapter 4 verses 16 to 18. 

Therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal”. 

Sisters and brothers. 

This 39th anniversary of our nation’s independence reminds us that, as a people, we rose up from poverty and exploitation and from austerity and deprivation. We stood up as a free nation convinced that tomorrow is ours to win, and despite all odds, we did. We have it within us to do it again and we shall do it again. 

Our 40th anniversary of independence – one year from now – will be more prosperous, healthier, better, brighter. We must get there together. Let us rejoice in this 39th anniversary, looking forward to the 40th, with all the resolve and resilience that has made us the proud and strong nation that we are. 

May God bless you and bless our fair and beloved Antigua and Barbuda.