Swifter COVID-19 testing, distance education delivery, loan repayment relief- Pres. Ali

President Irfaan Ali on Wednesday night unveiled a package of measures to ease the cash strain on thousands of Guyanese due to the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, even as he announced plans to increase testing countrywide and acquire results in a short time and clear a backlog of 700 tests.

The President said his administration wants to deliver an “all encompassing plan” aimed at reopening the economy, getting people back to work, improving health care  and delivering education to children.

Dr. Ali’s announcement came as the Ministry of Health announced that 40 new cases were detected and the death toll has risen to 26.

Although testing already increased from 40  to 60 per day to about 96 to 140 per day, the President said there is a backlog of 700 tests due to the manual PCR machines and a lack of medical technologists. He noted that two weeks ago there was one medical technologist but by the end of this week 30 more would be trained in PCR testing from the public and private sectors. The President said two new PCR machines would be acquired to increase testing turnaround time from nine hours to 2 hours. “This will not only clear the backlog but significantly improve our capacity to do mass testing which will become necessary in the eventual opening up of our economy and country,” he said.

Dr. Ali said 29 additional ventilators would be added to the  four already in place at the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation. He said a number of the new ventilators would be dispatched to other regions in Guyana including “hot spot” areas in Regions 7 and 9

Concerning the use of the Infectious Disease Centre (formerly Ocean View International Hotel, Liliendaal, Greater Georgetown, he said 150 patients would be isolated there.

In the area of education delivery, the President said Minister of Education Priya Manickchand has been asked to implement a “comprehensive plan” to ensure children and teachers remain engaged in education. He said GYD$500 million would be used to equip schools and provide COVID-19 support services to students and teachers along with Distance Education through state radio and television and private media houses.

“I am deeply concerned and recognise that our children have not been academically engaged in the traditional way since March. We are particularly concerned about the impact of non-traditional schooling structures and also, the unavailability of resources and infrastructure on our children in the hinterland, our children with disabilities and our children who do not have access to data or internet,” he said.

The President said the Bank of Guyana has persuaded commercial banks to grant a further delay to customers’ repayment of loans and other debts to December 2020 “to cope with the low revenue generation needs to meet revenue needs.” “This accommodation will result in loans not being classified as non-performing  and hence would not require loan-loss provisioning,” he said. The President said several Central Bank supervisory guidelines would be relaxed to allow financial institutions to operate with  more flexibility. The Bank of Guyana would lower the reserve requirement from 12 percent to 10 percent, lowering the liquid asset requirement for demand and deposit from 25 percent to 20 percent and saving and time deposit from 10 to 15 percent.

With the reduction in reserve requirement, he said GYD$9.4 billion would be injected into the economy and the reduction in the liquid asset requirement would immediately release GYD$23.3 billion. The President said commercial banks agreed to provide short-term working capital needs at 5 to 6 percent instead of 8 to 11 percent to “encourage businesses to remain open.” General concession of interest rates of 1 to 2 percent on customer loans below GYD$10 million would be provided until the end of December 2020.

The President also announced that commercial banks have agreed to waive all bank charges especially Automatic Teller Machine (ATM) and local merchant charges to encourage transactions as well as charges for transactions by senior citizens.

“These measures will not affect the soundness of our banking system and financial architecture,” he added.

He said government was mobilising US$60 million from the World Bank, OPEC Fund for International Development, Inter-American Development Bank and the Islamic Development Bank in addition to US$2 million from India and bilateral support. Since coming to office just over two weeks ago, he said the number of N95 masks has increased from less than 10,000 available to 65,000 and an additional 10,000 on order.

Referring to statistics from the government’s Small Business Bureau and the Private Sector Commission, he said the economy declined by 4 percent at mid-year, contraction in business by more than 20 percent to 70 percent, increased unemployment, reduced operations and output and the loss of income  which has “led to starvation in many communities.”

“These measures outlined today are not intended to be the answer to all of the potential consequences of COVID-19. As a Government, we will work tirelessly on implementing the objectives of our all-encompassing plan. We cannot do it alone. We need your co-operation. We look to you, the citizens of Guyana to play your part,” he said.

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