Assalamu alaikum, Good afternoon
I too wish to begin by thanking Prime Minister Modi, for this timely call for a regional initiative to combat the increasing threat of COVID-19 in the SAARC region.
In times of crises, we do come together. In 2003, for example, when the region faced the threat of SARS, the Maldives took the initiative and hosted an extraordinary meeting of SAARC Health Ministers that adopted a regional common strategy for tackling the virus.
No country, on its own, can succeed in combatting the virus. It requires a shared response at an unprecedented scale.
The first COVID-19 case was confirmed in the Maldives on 7 March. To date, there are 13 confirmed cases. Fortunately no deaths, so far.
Since January this year, the Maldives has been taking steps to get ready for a possible outbreak. We set in place standard operational procedures and facilities for treatment and quarantine in various islands.
In the event of a major outbreak in the country, our health facilities will have to cope with the care needed for both our residents and the thousands of tourists who visit the Maldives every year. Our priority now is to use precautionary measures to contain the virus as much as possible so as not to over burden our limited resources.
The unique geography of the Maldives will always present itself both as an opportunity as well as a challenge.
The dispersed islands make it easier for us to isolate communities whenever there is a suspected case. But, in the event that a person tests positive in the outer islands and is seriously ill, requiring specialist care, the person has to be transported to the capital Malé. This is extremely costly and puts enormous pressure on an over-stretched team of healthcare workers. Our tertiary hospitals in the regions are currently under development.
Shortage of healthcare professionals in general, and shortage of specialist doctors in particular, are always major challenges, and in a crisis such as this, these challenges are several times greater.
The Maldives is fortunate to have received generous assistance from India, and I convey my Government’s appreciation to Prime Minister Modi and the people of India. We have received medicine, and a visiting medical relief team, to work with Maldivian healthcare professionals.
In the Maldives, the virus is showing, in the most destructive fashion, the country’s vulnerabilities to external shocks.
Tourist arrivals started to decline considerably several weeks before the first case was reported. In February this year, arrivals declined by 14.3 percent. And in the first 10 days of this month, arrivals have already declined by 22.8 percent.
The decline in tourist arrivals has now become so sharp that if the current trend continues, we will have a 35 percent drop this year.
Any significant decline in tourist arrivals has a ripple effect on the Maldives’ economy.
Tourism contributes over a quarter of the country’s GDP and is the source of well over two-thirds of foreign currency to the country. Every other job-creating and revenue-generating activity in the country is either directly or indirectly dependent on the tourism industry. Our industry is also deeply linked to many businesses and supply chains within the SAARC region, who will feel the knock on effects from the downturn in the Maldives.
China and Italy are the most severely affected countries of the virus, and they are also the number one, and number three, source markets for Maldives tourism.
Since the beginning of February, in the case of China and March, in the case of Italy arrivals from these two countries have been restricted.
As a result of this decline, the Maldives is now facing a serious shortfall in foreign currency earning, estimated to be at USD 450 million.
If the foreign currency shortfall continues, it will have a detrimental impact on the Maldives economy, which has an extremely high dependency on imports. The revenue and foreign currency shortfall are also seriously hampering the Government’s ability to respond to COVID-19 rapidly.
The decline means serious shortage in total Government revenue.
Current estimates show that if tourist arrivals continue to decline, Maldives will be looking at a shortfall in Government revenue between USD 135.9 million and USD 446.6 million this year.
I am therefore in full agreement with Prime Minister Modi on the need to formulate a comprehensive regional strategy. Such a strategy should, we believe, comprise three key elements.
First, we should create space for closer cooperation between the health emergency agencies to ensure that the countries in SAARC have unhindered exchange of information about the virus and best practices.
Second, there is a profound need to formulate an economic relief package, targeted to the affected countries.
Third, a comprehensive regional strategy to fight COVID-19 should include a long-term recovery plan for the region.
I will be happy to speak further on these elements in the discussion.
Thank you Prime Minister Modi.