photo: Tim van Dijk

PHILIPSBURG – “There’s a lot of attention for the state of the companies during the corona crisis, but we should also pay attention to those individuals who already had problems making ends meet, like the elderly. They are often forgotten.” These are the words of the Ombudsman for Sint Maarten about the impact of the corona crisis on the island.

Due to the worldwide corona crisis, Sint Maarten had to close its borders for all tourist visits. This was a difficult measure for the islands because their economies depend on tourism. The amount of individuals who don’t have an income is climbing.

16 infections and 1 death

The number of COVID-19 cases on Sint Maarten tripled on Wednesday. On Tuesday the government confirmed that there were 16 cases on Sint Maarten and that one person had passed away who had been in self isolation. It is suspected that he had the coronavirus.

On the French side, Saint Martin, two people have passed away due to the coronavirus.

Deep poverty even before corona crisis
Ombudswoman Gwendolien Mossel had already sounded the alarm before the  pandemic about the harrowing situations in which a lot of Sint Maarten’s inhabitants had been living since hurricane Irma hit in 2017. She specifically mentions undocumented immigrants as a group which deserves special attention.

“Some of them are insured, but when they get fired – a lot of hotels and tourist driven companies are closed at the moment – it will become a larger problem”, says Mossel.

Hurricane season approaching
The ombudswoman doesn’t think that tourism will be picking up any time soon. And then there’s the hurricane season: “the hurricane season will begin again in two months, we also have to prepare for that.”

After hurricane Irma there was a lot of looting. Mossel: “A pandemic can also lead to looting; the first robbery has already taken place where individuals wanted to steal food. There should be surveillance, especially in Philipsburg where almost everything is closed at the moment and there are no tourists.”

Shortage of data
Exactly how many people on Sint Maarten live in poverty remains a mystery because an official poverty line has not been established. The last yearly report from the Department of Statistics dates from 2017. That report states that 59 percent of the households on Sint Maarten have to make due with an income of less than 4.000 Antillean guilders per month, that is about 2.000 euros per month.

“In reality a lot of people live in poverty”, says Mossel. “The elderly receive a very meager AOV pension of between 400 to 1200 Antillian guilders per month (about 200 to 600 euros per month).

The Red Cross indicated, according to Mossel, that it was hard to start up relief efforts after Irma because there was no data on who needed help.

“We advised the government to create a database. A start was made by the Community Development department of the Ministry of Public Health, Social Development and Labor (VSA), they register the elderly so that they can distribute food packages to them. But a clear list doesn’t exist yet.”

Government working on aid package
The government of Sint Maarten is working on an aid package for individuals who might lose their jobs due to the corona crisis. The proposal talks about compensation for lost wages and income, and food stamps amongst other things.

The Ombudsman for Sint Maarten can’t give a reaction on the aid package as of yet: “It’s too early to says something about it, the government hasn’t made any concrete decisions yet.” She will continue to monitor the developments.