As The Bahamas prepares for its re-entry into the tourism market several weeks from now, there appears to be a regression from the emphasis on broader testing for COVID-19, which public health officials initially stressed was critical in the country’s pandemic response.
When Health Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis recently suggested that widespread COVID-19 testing is not needed in the country due to its “more than adequate” contact tracing, his comment not only represented an about-face in the pandemic response, but was a puzzling assertion given that contact tracing is based on testing for the disease.
World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus recently stressed that, “Without knowing, without testing, it’s like moving blindfolded.”
It is reasonable to expect that with the reopening of our external borders will come the importation of new COVID-19 cases which will make testing, contact tracing and quarantine protocols as important come July 1 as they were when our pandemic response first began.
The Bahamas has one of the lowest testing per-capita rates in the region, where testing rates are led by the Cayman Islands, Grenada, Aruba and Barbados respectively.
Sixteen of the country’s 102 confirmed cases were reported in the month of May — all but one with no history of travel — and 802 tests were performed between May 1 and June 1; an average of approximately 27 tests a day.
Health officials previously announced a target of 100 tests performed per day, which if met, would have put the number of COVID-19 tests conducted during that period at 3,100.
Less than half of one percent of the population has been tested for COVID-19 to date, and in recent weeks press conferences have failed to provide information on the population groups being tested, how many testing kits exist in country, and what sporadic positive cases with no history of travel mean for the current rate of community spread on New Providence.
The emergent messaging from government as it carries out its critical reopening of the economy is that we must learn to live with COVID-19, and indeed we must.
However, an ever-increasing departure from science and the advice of medical health professionals in COVID-19 orders; an unexplained case fatality rate (CFR) in The Bahamas which more than doubles that of CDEMA countries; and manpower and resource challenges particularly on the Family Islands, begs the question of how living with COVID-19 will take shape when the risk of case importation increases.
Regardless of how robust announced re-entry protocols may be, the ability to manage incoming visitors and the adherence of guests and stakeholders to those protocols will ultimately determine success, such as it can be defined.
Countries in the region including Jamaica, Aruba, St. Lucia and Antigua and Barbuda begin reopening their borders to tourists this month amidst varying levels of entry and social distancing protocols, with Antigua and Barbuda requiring visitors to submit to rapid COVID-19 testing upon entry.
Key indicators from yesterday’s press conference to introduce the Ministry of Tourism’s Readiness and Recovery Plan were that visitors will not be required to take a COVID-19 test prior to arrival; Bahamians and residents must still submit to those tests for now; and Family Island airports could experience less robust safety protocol management than New Providence.
Tourism Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar intimated that a pre-testing requirement for tourists would be tantamount to inconveniencing them and lessening the destination’s attractiveness.
The obvious question then, is why returning Bahamians and residents are being reduced to pleading with their government to reconsider pre-testing protocols that are creating roadblocks to their desire to return home.
If the government considers entry protocols for visitors put forward by the Ministry of Tourism as sufficient to mitigate the risk of increased COVID-19 infection, certainly Bahamians and residents should be permitted to submit to these same protocols instead of being treated as though they pose a different quality of risk by sheer virtue of being a Bahamian citizen or legal resident.
Much pain has been suffered to get to the point of the country’s presumed COVID-19 containment, a containment that would be better qualified and quantified with widespread testing.
As we move full steam ahead with getting Bahamians back to work, now is not the time to regress from a focus on the evidence in the global fight against COVID-19, which is that widespread testing together with effective contact tracing, remain the bedrock of controlling the disease.