Our new normal
Not unlike citizens in countries the world over, Bahamians have experienced, and still are experiencing, once unimaginable and dramatic changes to their way of life and their livelihoods, and a previously unfathomable suspension of their civil liberties.
While weeks-long restrictions are being eased as The Bahamas prepares to fully reopen its border to the international community come July 1, the uncertainty presented by the COVID-19 pandemic and its threat to our health and safety is far from over.
World Health Organization Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned on Monday: “Although the situation in Europe is improving, globally it is worsening.”
More than 100,000 cases were reported on nine of the previous 10 days. On Sunday, more than 136,000 cases were reported, the most in a single day so far.
Almost 75 percent of those cases came from 10 countries, mostly in the Americas and South Asia.
In the United States, a recent Johns Hopkins University tally showed that 22 states, including Florida, were seeing increased cases.
Yesterday, Florida reported an increase of 1,096 cases and 53 deaths over the previous 24 hours. It was the sixth day in the past week that the state confirmed more than 1,000 new cases. Florida has a total of 66,000 cases and 2,765 deaths, according to health authorities.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has expressed concern about the possible spread of the coronavirus during mass protests against racial injustice, and suggested that protestors be tested for COVID-19.
The implications of these realities are significant for The Bahamas.
We are faced with two equally undesirable options: stay locked down longer to allow an improved COVID-19 situation in North America, from which The Bahamas derives most of its visitors, or reopen the gates to get people back to work, while risking a wave of the virus that could ultimately prove much more ferocious than what has been experienced since the first confirmed case on March 15.
Early on in this country’s COVID-19 experience, one out-of-work Bahamian mother declared that she was more concerned about her family starving than she was about the coronavirus.
That concern has become real for a growing number of Bahamians.
Last week, the Ministry of Tourism along with industry stakeholders released the Tourism Readiness and Recovery Plan outlining conditions under which tourism will be restarted.
Social distancing, the wearing of masks at ports of entry, limitations on the number of people who may occupy a public transportation vehicle, and who may travel in an elevator, as well as intensified sanitization measures have all been outlined.
While committee members no doubt gave that effort their best shot, they are not unaware of the big gamble that will come with reopening.
One senior industry official noted on Monday that reopening comes with grave risks, but added, “We can’t be closed forever. People need to get back to work. The economy needs to get restarted; so, what do you do?”
As officials and everyday Bahamians continue to adjust to a new way of life, it is not too soon, we think, to analyze the lessons we have learned as a country, or ought to be learning, from this crisis.
Communicating with science
Around the world, the coronavirus placed enormous pressure on leaders to get it right. Expecting perfection from our leaders in times of crises is unrealistic, however.
Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s health emergencies program, observed in March, “Perfection is the enemy of the good when it comes to emergency management. Speed trumps perfection. And the problem we have in society today is everyone is afraid of making a mistake, everyone is afraid of the consequence of the error, but the error is not to move; the greatest error is to be paralyzed by the fear of failure.”
Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis, the competent authority, did move fast to lock down the country not long after the first case was confirmed.
While the prime minister had several press conferences and national addresses over the emergency period, and while many supported his decision to close the border and lock down the economy early after the first case, we were cheated of explanations regarding the science that necessitated such actions.
Knee-jerk decision making and a general unwillingness to explain certain decisions led to an erosion of trust in the competent authority.
The decision to keep some COVID-free islands closed to commercial activity while opening others, the decision to keep some businesses closed while allowing other non essential businesses to open, and decisions related to moving the country through the various phases of reopening of the economy lacked science-based explanations, notwithstanding Minnis’ repeated assertion that he was acting based on the advice of health care experts.
Keeping Bahamians out of The Bahamas is also a circumstance we hope is never repeated.
Rebuilding the economy
Over successive administrations, we have heard talk of transforming the current economic model.
With its natural assets and proximity to the North American market, The Bahamas has over decades been well positioned to benefit from the tourism market. It is also hugely vulnerable to global shocks.
The coronavirus shut down the tourism sector. It also shut down other sectors of the national and global economy.
The pandemic underscores an urgent need to explore more seriously avenues for food security, technology and manufacturing.
The prime minister has appointed an economic recovery committee to make recommendations to the Cabinet on the long-term economic recovery of The Bahamas’ economy, including job creation and stimulating small business recovery and development in response to COVID-19.
“The committee should be bold and creative in its recommendations,” said Minnis in announcing its appointment.
The current administration, if it is mature enough, might also see value in the National Development Plan completed under the Christie administration by a multi-sectoral committee that made an extensive report on the development of areas of our national life, including future economic development.
Minnis noted in opposition that the plan is something that should be owned by the Bahamian people.
Administrations do not always need to reinvent the wheel.
Coming out of the coronavirus crisis, the Minnis administration will need to focus on attracting investors who are ready to take advantage of where the world is. This must include a focused approach on the development of Bahamian businesses as job creation must be an urgent priority.
Rainy days will come
The lessons are also personal.
We have all heard over the years from financial planning experts and from ordinary people speaking from common sense and personal experience about the importance of having a rainy day fund.
There has been no other event in recent history that has demonstrated the need for personal savings on such a wide scale as the COVID-19 pandemic.
In March, the Central Bank urged Bahamians to exercise prudence in their financial affairs and keep a “tight control” on discretionary spending.
Bahamians are traditionally not people who save.
Although many have access to savings accounts, most are not using them to accumulate funds; rather, they are just serving the basic purpose of storing money that would be spent almost immediately, Central Bank Governor John Rolle previously observed.
The Bahamas Financial Literacy Survey 2018 found that only 48 percent of respondents had the equivalent of at least six months of income saved for emergencies. Alternatively, about 13 percent of respondents could not manage for more than one month.
With a high cost of living creating an insurmountable burden for many Bahamian families, many do not see saving as a realistic proposition.
Up to last week, 55,000 Bahamians had applied for unemployment benefits. Many who have collected those benefits so far say they have made a minimal impact on making ends meet.
The National Insurance Board to date has paid out $49.8 million to 34,000 people.
Digital access must be
The coronavirus has revolutionized the way we work and the way we educate our children.
The HR Director, an online publication that addresses human resources issues, points out that, “The COVID-19 pandemic has caused truly extraordinary challenges, but perhaps some silver linings can come from the extended period of changing the way we work.
“Organizations should keep a close eye on how productivity and their customer services are impacted. We could learn to adopt remote working as standard rather than as a temporary measure. When we return to something close to normal and the global health crisis has diminished, the context of home working will be far brighter.”
While challenges exist in the digital workplace, some benefits to this new work culture, if properly managed, could include improved traffic flows on New Providence and reduced costs for office space and overhead expenses, including energy costs.
Jessica Howington, in an online article published by FlexJobs — created in 2007 to provide a better, more effective way to help job seekers interested in professional remote and flexible jobs to connect with employers — observed that, “Through flexible policies, employees were able to reduce their psychological distress, work-life conflict and emotional exhaustion.”
An April 13, 2020 World Economic Forum article stated “digital access must be seen as a utility, like electricity and plumbing”. It said “…digital access is now like oxygen”.
This would not just facilitate more flexible employment, but very importantly, online learning.
Schools in The Bahamas have been closed since March 16, the day after the first coronavirus case was confirmed.
Education Minister Jeffrey Lloyd reported in April that only 26,000 of the 75,000 students enrolled in primary and secondary schools were registered for virtual classes.
Lloyd said it was anecdotally suggested that we may have as many as 20,000 students registered in our schools, who do not have internet connectivity, devices or both.
This is a critical challenge that needs attention.
More to come
The experts have advised that no COVID-19 vaccine is likely within the next year to 18 months.
The Bahamas, like other countries, must learn to adapt, even after a vaccine finally becomes commercially available.
Scientists have warned that the next pandemic is not a matter of “if” but “when”.
In a recent article in The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the authors noted that, “Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species, have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people.”
For countries like The Bahamas already grappling with the impacts of climate change, the implications are even more grave.
It is clear we will not be going back to the pre-pandemic way of living anytime soon, if ever.