Appeal to fear
Current COVID-19 statistical trends suggest that the country’s outbreak of the disease has been contained.
A leveling off of cases has now opened the door to reopening the domestic economy.
New infections have not led to an increase in hospitalizations and existing infections have not resulted in an overrun on the capacity of our healthcare system.
External borders remain closed for now, returning Bahamians and residents are required to test negative and to quarantine on arrival and there have been no COVID-19-related deaths in The Bahamas since April 23.
Testing, contact tracing and mitigation protocols have been established over the course of the outbreak and the country is readying itself for a restart of its tourism industry.
The present containment of the COVID-19 outbreak indicates that the Bahamian people have generally demonstrated both the ability and willingness to do what is necessary to protect themselves and others from the threat of the disease.
Nevertheless, government parliamentarians voted yesterday to prolong the suspension of rights and civil liberties in the country under an extended proclamation of emergency, thereby voting to continue to keep the country under the edict of one man – the competent authority – whose sole permission we must receive to carry out much of our daily lives.
Bahamians widely accepted the necessity of an emergency declaration at the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, but were soon discomfited by the arbitrary decision-making of the competent authority which has made businesses, Family Islands and social and economic classes winners and losers in a pandemic that does not play favorites.
The dangers of social inequality, meanwhile, have been laid bare by the effect of mandatory provisions in emergency law which have resulted in a disproportionate criminalization of low-income and underprivileged residents.
International norms provide key guiding principles on the execution of states of emergency so as to limit abuse, including that such declarations should exist only as long as an outbreak exists; that extraordinary provisions should be limited to strict necessity; that measures should be proportional to the scope of the emergency and that a current or imminent crisis must exist.
By the end of June, the nation will have been under a state of emergency for over three months.
Given that current data does not point to a present health crisis in The Bahamas, but the prime minister desires a prolonging of his emergency powers nonetheless, Bahamians should be concerned that he will insist on keeping hold of that power for as long as the Constitution permits, under the pretense that an urgent need still exists.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice, the late Robert Jackson once said emergency powers are “a loaded weapon, ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need”.
No more ignominious an example of this was seen when the prime minister, in an appeal to fear, suggested that Bahamians in this stage of the pandemic response ought to abide by his edicts because the last ones who refused to do so died in Hurricane Dorian as a result.
To establish a case of urgent need by sullying the memory of storm victims, claiming they perished because they refused to obey orders that were not in fact given to them, was a new low and wholly unnecessary if the continuation of a state of emergency could be reasonably justified by current evidence and data.
The Opposition chose to abstain from yesterday’s vote, but its reticence did the Bahamian people no favors.
Similar to its recommended amendment of government’s initial order regarding fake news, which could have been used to squelch dissent and silence the press if left unchanged, the Opposition ought to have more ardently pursued its case on behalf of the Bahamian people by bringing proposed amendments to existing orders it says are oppressive.
Inexplicable lockdowns and curfews continue with mandatory penalties despite calls for amendments, leaving vulnerable individuals at the same risks of fines or imprisonment for another 31 days.
It is becoming increasingly evident that government is developing comfort with handling its COVID-19 pandemic response based on appeals to fear rather than appeals to evidence and science.
And fear is a potent blinder that disarms citizens from recognizing when those they entrust to protect their interests are crossing beyond the boundaries of that trust.