Friday, Jun 5, 2020
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Life in the time of COVID-19

Dear Editor,

Sunday morning in New Providence revealed more vehicles on the road than one would expect during a 24-hour-a-day lockdown.

And, long lines of customers extended from the doors of most food stores with a degree of social distancing being observed by some, while others stood wherever they wished.

Too many individuals are failing to comply with the COVID-19 Emergency Orders shuttering businesses, reducing operating hours of permitted essential services and imposing a curfew.

The number of vehicles on New Providence roads last week was difficult to distinguish from the number on any ordinary day of the year, particularly considering that all schools have been closed for two weeks.

The gatherings of hundreds of patrons seeking to take advantage of sales offerings at a wholesale food distributor and at farmers markets made a mockery of social distancing or the existence of a curfew.

As a whole, too many in The Bahamas fail to understand the severity of the threat facing the country and this even in the face of closed hotels and thousands of laid-off workers, an end to cruise ship passenger arrivals, stilled jitneys, tour companies and taxis, shuttered straw markets, retail shops, eat-in restaurants, the closure of most business places, work from home rules for most essential professionals and an end to landscaping and home cleaning services.

Experts from around the world advise that social distancing, keeping people apart, is the best way to slow the spread of the COVID-19, to contain it, flatten the curve of infections and, hopefully, bring the pandemic to an end in the shortest time possible.

Bahamians need to know and accept that social distancing prevents the spread of the coronavirus. Separation prevents the spread of the disease; contact will result in its proliferation.

It is hoped that, soon, Bahamian musicians and artists will join their international colleagues in producing songs and artwork encouraging citizens to support curfews and self-isolation and to, thereby, become a part of the campaign against the coronavirus.

International experts also say that the effectiveness of a lockdown depends on the behavior of the public.

So, Bahamians, most particularly in New Providence, need to know that the duration of closure of businesses and hotels and the return of cruise ships and, hence, employment for thousands, is directly connected to the success of the COVID-19 Emergency Orders.

And, they need to understand that the public’s non-compliance with the emergency orders may result in the further strengthening and oversight and enforcement of the emergency conditions.

In short, the health of us all depends upon compliance. So does the wellbeing of our economy.

There is only so much that the civil authorities can do, even with the backing of emergency powers that restrict some individual freedoms typically guaranteed in democracies.

What authorities must do is explain the danger in terms that are understood by the public, provide the best advice or means to avoid the infection, put clear rules and regulations in place and ensure, to the extent possible, compliance. Such action and oversight will bolster public confidence and buy-in; that is crucial.

What does not engender compliance, is charging and convicting vagrants for violation of the curfew and imposing high fines that can only translate to incarceration at the expense of the state.

It is instructive that, in countries with high public compliance with government strategies of social distancing and curfews, political and health leaders are widely available to the media for daily and, sometimes, twice daily briefings. For example, information on testing and on the results of testing is easily accessible, as is information on ‘hot spots’ where most contaminations are occurring.

Bahamians want to know about testing for the virus in The Bahamas. They are anxious to learn if testing will be carried out in additional medical laboratories, not just the single government national lab now being used.

In The Bahamas, overly structured press events where a prepared statement was delivered by the prime minister and, thereafter, only limited questioning permitted from the media, did not inspire trust or confidence in the information being conveyed.

Other press briefings by the minister of health and his team have, in the main, been informative, but are also overly restrictive and limit journalists’ ability to elicit answers to the one or two questions each one is permitted to ask.

It is encouraging to see the improved scope and quality of information disseminated on the Ministry of Health’s COVID-19 Dashboard and additional questions allowed more recently, but, still, that is not enough.

Inattention to details forced amendments to the COVID-19 Emergency Order within days of its issuance and again several times thereafter; an unjustifiable “exception letter” to a liquor distributor had to be rescinded, but, still, another appears to continue to operate under the guise of a hotel license; Bahamian citizens have been denied their constitutionally guaranteed right to return home even as foreign governments and commercial airlines are permitted to enter The Bahamas to evacuate foreign nationals.

Now, at a time of increasing numbers of infected persons with no travel history, when we are told to expect even more infections and when the world is extending its social distancing rules, the prime minister tells us that he will extend the Emergency Order for seven days. That is short-sighted.

These matters contribute to the lack of public buy-in to the restrictions put in place to fight the spread of COVID-19.

The Observer

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