Let me pay my respects to His Majesty, King Letsie III,
The Right Honourable Prime Minister, Motsoahae Thomas Thabane,
All Cabinet Ministers,
The President of the Senate and the Speaker of the National Assembly,
The Honourable Members of Parliament,
Her Ladyship the acting Chief Justice, His Lordship the President of the Court of Appeal, senior officials of the judiciary,
Senior officials of the government, commanders of the security forces,
Members of the diplomatic community, high representatives of the United Nations,
Leaders of religious communities and civil society organizations,
My dear friends from all over the Mountain Kingdom,
I deeply regret that this year, we cannot have our usual Europe Day celebrations. This is particularly deplorable, because this year is a special anniversary for us, for the European Union: Today we count 70 years since Robert Schuman, the Foreign Minister of France, made his famous declaration that we consider as the founding moment of European integration; 70 years ago, the former enemies of two World Wars decided to put their differences behind them and to build a common future, a future of peace, prosperity, and solidarity.
The momentum created by the six founding members has over the past decades drawn in almost the entire European continent, leading to a Union of now 27 member states and 450 million people. Five more countries are officially recognised candidates to join the Union, showing the continued appeal of the EU, in particular to countries in the Western Balkans.
Apart from expanding geographically, the seven decades have also been a period of progressive deepening of integration, leading from an initial commercial partnership to an advanced economic, monetary and political union with a growing ambition to match its financial clout with a recognised role as a global player. Progressive integration has led to a common currency shared by 19 of the 27 member states, and to an area of open internal borders, the Schengen area, which covers 22 EU member states plus Iceland, Lichtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. This means, in normal times, it is possible to travel across the entire European continent from Lisbon to Helsinki or from Athens to Oslo without any border controls.
Alas, we are not in normal times. As we all know, the whole world is in the grip of a terrible pandemic, which has affected almost 4 million people and cost the lives of more than a quarter of a million. It has also caused tremendous socio-economic stress due to the lockdown measures, which have affected more than half of the world's population. International travel has practically come to a halt, supply chains have been disrupted, global trade is declining dramatically. The world economy will go into a recession and there will be structural changes that will outlive the pandemic itself by many years.
For many of us, it is the biggest crisis in our lifetime. But it is a crisis that we will overcome. The European Union was born out of the deepest crisis our continent has ever seen, the two World Wars; it has survived superpower competition between the United States of America and the Soviet Union; it has overcome the divisions between the eastern and western part of the continent after the fall of the Berlin Wall; and it has managed the tensions between northern and southern and eastern and western Europe, which emerged after the financial crisis a decade ago. With every crisis, the European Union has bounced back stronger, EU integration has progressed.
And it will be the same this time: after initial hesitation and nationalistic reflexes, European leaders have accepted the obvious – that viruses are indifferent to nationalities and international borders that the fight against COVID-19 is either won collectively, or not at all. This has strengthened not only the solidarity among European countries, but also international solidarity. The European Union is taking decisive action to dampen the inevitable economic downturn and to rescue jobs and enterprises, in particular small and medium enterprises, which are the backbone of the European economy; and the European Union is acting globally to help containing the pandemic, mitigating the socio-economic hardships of those affected around the world, and financing research to find effective medical treatment and, hopefully, a vaccine against the virus.
Bo-'M'e le Bo-Ntate,
Lesotho, it seems, has so far been spared by the virus, and I commend the government of the Kingdom for taking decisive action by ordering a lockdown and gearing up medical preparedness for the pandemic. It was a daring decision – Lesotho is the only country in the world which declared a lockdown without any confirmed cases. But the experience of other countries which hesitated has shown that it was the right thing to do. And I commend the people of Lesotho for abiding, by and large, with the restrictions imposed by the government, so as to protect all of us from the virus.
We know that these restrictions have had a price, and we know that many of the most vulnerable families – those whose breadwinners work in the informal economy, either here or in South Africa – have been particularly hard hit. I express my sympathy to all those who have suffered additional hardships during the time of the lockdown. The European Union is not oblivious to your difficulties. We have redirected an amount of 5.5 M€ – about 100 million Maloti – to enable the government to expand the social grants to families in need. An additional 4.4 M€ - or 88 million maloti – has been mobilized for humanitarian assistance and disaster preparedness in order to mitigate the effect of the lockdown. The beneficiaries are identified by the National Information System for Social Assistance, which was built up by the government with the help of UNICEF and with EU funding.
In addition to this, the efforts of the Ministry of Health to contain the pandemic by gearing up testing and to prepare for a potential outbreak is supported by WHO and the Global Fund, which both received significant contributions from the European Union. The World Health Organization has received a donation of 113.5 M€ from the EU to boost public health emergency preparedness worldwide; from the Global Fund to fight HIV, Malaria and Tuberculosis, Lesotho received an allocation of 62 M€ – 1.2 billion Maloti – for the period from 2020 to 2022; about half of this contribution comes from the EU and its member states, or roughly 10 M€ per year.
Bo-'Me le Bo-Ntate,
Money is important to gear up the fight against COVID-19 and to mitigate the socio-economic stress related to the lockdown measures, but eventually, the pandemic will be defeated – or prolonged – by the way we all behave in these difficult times. We all have to make sure that we abide by the recommendations concerning hygiene and social distancing, and we all have to make an effort to get back to our feet economically when the pandemic subsides. We have to make an effort to recover the lost economic productivity, but also to re-shape the world as it emerges from the worst pandemic of our generation.
COVID-19 is not the end of the world, but it may well be the end of the world as we used to know it. As a matter of necessity, we have all accepted restrictions to our freedom of movement that we had previously known only from morbid science fiction movies; for several weeks, the world we used to know as the proverbial "global village" suddenly shrank to the very small personal space of our homes. Our friends and family members, and all the other people we were used to interact with, have suddenly become "suspects" potentially carrying a deadly infection.
If the imposed "social distancing" lasts very long, fear and suspicion of our fellow citizens may become a subconscious habit that alters the way we interact with others. Xenophobia, already a nasty feature in many countries before the pandemic, may become widespread. Government restrictions, and perhaps surveillance, may outlive the pandemic and the need to contain it, thus undermining fundamental human rights and freedoms. The inevitable economic downturn could exacerbate pre-existing social tensions and leave the most vulnerable totally destitute.
However, none of this is inevitable. The future will not just happen, it will be what we collectively want it to be, how we shape it together. Just as fighting COVID-19 is a collective responsibility, so will the world after COVID-19 be the result of a collective effort to recover the time lost; to rebuild our lives, our societies and our economies; and to roll back the restrictions that we currently accept as necessary, when their usefulness expires.
So let us not drown in anxiety and despair, but assume our responsibility in playing our role now to help contain the spread of COVID-19, but also look forward and imagine the world we would like to see re-emerging after the calamity. A world of renewed openness, creativity, humanity, and solidarity.
Bo-'M'e le Bo-Ntate,
The Kingdom of Lesotho has experienced a difficult and tumultuous time before the pandemic hit southern Africa; it has been beset with serious socio-economic and political challenges: high unemployment, stark inequalities, record levels of HIV and TBC prevalence, and a government partly paralyzed due to the infighting in the main party of the ruling coalition.
But Lesotho has also experienced a time of reflection, renewal and promise: the last two years have seen the most thorough and widespread process of public consultation on national reforms. Politicians, representatives of civil society leaders, business people, religious leaders, and ordinary citizens from all over the country have engaged in a comprehensive dialogue which has produced a blueprint for reforms, a blueprint, as the subtitle says, for the Lesotho all of you want.
The threat of the pandemic has temporarily slowed down the reform process, which is now at the onset of implementation. But if Lesotho can avoid or successfully contain the spread of the pandemic, then the threat of COVID-19 can act as a salutary shock that jolts society and politics into action, because:
This is the time for decisive and collective action. This is the time for the political, economic and social leadership of the Kingdom of Lesotho to set aside their differences, to work together, to address the immediate priorities and at the same time to resolutely implement the recommendations of the Multi-Stakeholder National Dialogue. This is not a time for political bickering and manoeuvring, or for settling of old scores.
Bo-'M'e le Bo-Ntate,
In the two and a half years since my arrival in the Kingdom, I have had many interesting discussions with a broad range of citizens, from farmers and herdsmen in the mountains to students, labour representatives, business people, and to politicians at the highest level. I am aware of the difficult, turbulent, and sometimes violent history Lesotho has experienced since its independence, and of the deep mistrust and suspicion that this history has left among many of its political leaders. I know that overcoming such distrust can be difficult.
I am also aware of Lesotho's complex relationship with its one and only immediate neighbour, South Africa, which has recently given rise to curious debates about the Kingdom's future, vacillating between self-doubt and revisionism.
But I have also experienced something different, which gives me hope for the future. I noticed this in particular during my recent participation in the Moshoeshoe walk. I have seen scores of citizens of the Kingdom – and many Basotho from South Africa and visitors from other countries of southern Africa – braving the hardship of the gruelling three-day march through the foothills of the Maloti. I have seen Lesotho citizens seemingly oblivious of the political squabbles going on in Maseru, but proud of their nation and of their history. Among all these walkers, I felt a strong sense of identity, a sense of belonging, and a sense of resilience and self-confidence. All along this historic pilgrimage in the footsteps of the founding father of the Kingdom, I strongly felt that there is more to this country than political instability and socio-economic calamity. There is a strong sense of community, of national pride, and an unwavering determination to face the challenges ahead. With these foundations, Lesotho can achieve great things.
Bo-'M'e le Bo-Ntate,
On this day of celebration for the European Union, I would like to extend my best wishes to His Majesty King Letsie III, to the government, and to all the people of the Kingdom of Lesotho, my best wishes to muster the courage and the energy to overcome the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. I also want to assure you of the solidarity and support of the European Union in these trying times. The European Union is keenly aware of the challenges we are all facing, and of the importance of community and solidarity, both internally and internationally. We can only overcome this crisis if we act together, and the European Union will stand by you in your efforts to manage the crisis and to build a better future.
Khotso, Pula, Nala !