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Politics affected Guyana’s COVID-19 fight -former Health Minister Lawrence

by Samuel Sukhnandan

Volda Lawrence

Former Health Minister Volda Lawrence has claimed that politics played a major role in the increased cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in Guyana because certain persons had not cooperated fully with the David Granger-led  administration.

Ms Lawrence who appeared on the A Partnership for National Unity/Alliance for Change (APNU+AFC) live social media programme on Tuesday gave reasons that she believes this may be the case.

“What is sad is that politics stepped into COVID-19. And all across the world, all those countries where politicians used COVID-19 as a tool, believing that they are using it against their opponents, they end up in situations like Guyana,” said Ms Lawrence during her second public appearance since the coalition demitted office.

According to the former minister, Guyana was the last country in the Caribbean to get a positive COVID-19 case, but it didn’t take long before these cases started to increase rapidly, “because of bringing politics into the COVID situation.” To date, Guyana has 602 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 22 deaths and 189 recoveries.

But the new Health Minister Dr Frank Anthony has claimed that the national COVID-19 response under the APNU+AFC government was disjointed and poorly coordinated. He said the government is committed to putting in place a new structure that will be more responsive to the pandemic, by increasing testing, establishing national protocols and utilising several experts.

Ms Lawrence argued, however, that while in office, the APNU+AFC coalition did not get the full cooperation of key personnel and other relevant stakeholders to tackle the pandemic. “Some people refused to work. Some refused to be part of the COVID-19 team and the Guyanese people had mixed messages that it was a Volda Lawrence and APNU thing. And that is what is beating us today,” she remarked.

The then opposition People’s Progressive Party (PPP) had declined to nominate someone to sit on the COVID-19 National Task Force.

The former health minister added that while she never claimed to be a medical expert, she is a “good manager” at utilising those skills, and as such, she worked hard to ensure that the pandemic was handled well.

She said, “Every decision that we made was not made by political people…by the end of two weeks we had another assessment done. We also had surveys being done and that also helped us to see where people were going, in terms of their thoughts and how they were responding to the COVID-19 measures and what we were doing at the Ministry of Public Health. So that guided us in what we needed to do.”

However, the National COVID-19 Task Force under the previous government was heavily criticised. The task force which was headed by former Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, later saw Mr Joseph Harmon being appointed as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Executive Secretariat of that task force.

Shifting attention to the multimillion dollar Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, Ms Lawrence explained that when the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) projected that Guyana could get approximately 1,400 COVID-19 cases, with 300 people being critical, this led to the decision to establish the centre. Consideration was also given to the fact that without a specialist facility for COVID-19, all public hospitals could be overwhelmed with patients.

However, Dr Anthony said the project by the former government amounts to an “absolute disaster” and that it is basically a “shell,” since no equipment nor tools were purchased and installed. The government has since ordered a financial audit for the $1.6 billion refurbished facility. The report has since been completed and could be handed over to the new government soon. This will help to determine how the facility will be utilised, especially since the new government was told that the property was never transferred to the state. The owner is also demanding millions of dollars in owed rent.

On the other hand, the former minister said while the country was still awaiting a new policy under the new government that would help to shape the response to the pandemic, she is not happy with the increasing cases being recorded daily. “I am not happy with the numbers that are going up. I still want Guyanese to adhere to the measures and guidelines. I still want Guyanese to protect themselves. We don’t have people to lose,” she stated.

According to sources, the government has established a COVID-19 National Coordinating structure with a high-level policy team which includes Dr Anthony, Prime Minister Mark Phillips, former Health Minister Dr Leslie Ramsammy, and Mr Ramesh Dookhoo, a representative from the Private Sector Commission (PSC). The team will also include representatives from the (World Health Organisation) WHO/PAHO and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). A national coordinating committee and a medical response team have also been put together.