Rolling the dice
With the relaxation of restrictions imposed by the competent authority to contain COVID-19, many of us have been able to breathe a little easier, get a taste of normal living — albeit far from what we had known — and look toward the future, even if it is more uncertain than it has ever been in recent decades.
We can now visit salons and spas, our favorite restaurants (outdoor seating) and move around freely again, notwithstanding the night-time curfew that remains in place and the fact that the beaches remain closed on New Providence, Paradise Island, Grand Bahama and Bimini.
Major resorts like Baha Mar and Sandals Royal Bahamian have delayed their reopening to the fall, and Atlantis, which starts its phased reopening on July 7, has not yet set a target for full reopening.
But with the borders fully reopening come July 1, many view it as a signal that the economy can finally begin rebuilding and people can start getting back to work and to the fullness and freedom of living.
The restart of an industry near obliterated by the pandemic is a major gamble for The Bahamas, however, as it is for countries around the region — which is more dependent on tourism for survival than any region.
The Bahamas has seen the rate of new cases slow to a trickle.
We have flattened the curve, health officials declared.
Our total confirmed cases stands at 104, with 21 active cases, 11 deaths and two hospitalizations.
By opening the floodgates to untested visitors, we are possibly also opening ourselves to a dangerous and frightening coronavirus wave that would exact a devastating toll, burdening our already challenged health system.
Our number one tourist market, the United States, has recorded more than two million cases with 116,000 deaths.
One of Florida’s most populous cities, Miami — a hop, skip and a jump from The Bahamas — is delaying moving into the next phase of reopening its economy due to concerns over rising COVID-19 cases.
Florida is one of 22 states in which new positive coronavirus cases have increased over the last two weeks.
The New York Times reported that Florida, Texas and Arizona hit daily records for virus cases yesterday, each identifying well over 2,000 new infections as they have moved swiftly to reopen.
So while keeping our economy and tourism closed is a scary proposition, reopening comes with incredible risks.
Speaking in the House of Assembly last week, Dr. Duane Sands, the former minister of health, sounded a warning.
“Let me say it categorically — without a robust and consistent ability to test and definitively screen, isolate and track, if we take our eye off the ball and lessen our vigilance, we can and should expect a second wave of COVID-19 in The Bahamas,” Sands said.
“If that happens, I dread even considering the potential economic peril.”
He added, “I do not support a policy of open borders to untested individuals, especially if most of these persons travel from those locales known to have a high prevalence of COVID-19.”
Former Minister of State for Finance Zhivargo Laing, who hosts a weekday talk show on Guardian Radio, fears the pressure of political noise is moving the government more than science.
“I would rather the government of The Bahamas absolutely lose the next election than to play politics with this reopening and set us back to a place we need not be at all because of pressure,” Laing declared on “Z Live” yesterday, noting that public health is economic health.
He added, “I fear we have run amok with simply staying the course so that we can get to a successful outcome because we are being impatient.”
In reopening their borders, countries risk reversing important gains made in fighting the virus.
Business Insider reported yesterday that two women who traveled to New Zealand from the United Kingdom earlier this month became the country’s first positive cases of COVID-19 over three weeks after it was eradicated from the country.
The article noted that strict border controls remain in place in the country, with people who aren’t New Zealand citizens or essential workers not allowed in unless they have exceptional circumstances.
The women in question traveled to New Zealand to visit a dying relative, the BBC reported.
During this short two-week window between the first and second phases of the tourism reopening, The Bahamas requires that everyone traveling to the country be tested — Bahamians, permanent residents and visitors.
But come July 1, there will be no testing requirement and no quarantine.
All travelers will be required to submit an electronic health declaration form.
Visitors are urged to adhere to physical distancing measures, regular hand washing and wearing face masks “when appropriate”, including when entering and transiting air and sea terminals.
In the region, Jamaica recently did an about-face on the issue of testing.
The Jamaica Gleaner reported on Friday that days after coming under pressure from medical professionals about COVID-19 protocols for visitors, the government said that all arriving tourists will be tested.
St. Lucia, meanwhile, is requiring visitors to present certified proof of a negative COVID-19 test.
Antigua and Barbuda, as part of strict health protocols, is providing rapid coronavirus tests upon entry.
The Dominican Republic, which was hard-hit by the coronavirus with more than 20,000 confirmed cases and over 500 deaths, has also announced strict protocols for visitors.
Aruba requires that visitors complete an embarkation-disembarkation card online before traveling and is encouraging them to take a COVID-19 PCR test before traveling.
In Barbados, the government plans to meet with social partners next week to discuss the issue of border closure and reopening.
So what do we do then?
This week, the Consultant Physicians Staff Association (CPSA) recommended continued COVID-19 testing prior to travel to The Bahamas and supported health and safety protocols like social distancing and the wearing of masks.
It also recommended strengthening the capacity for contact tracing and surveillance.
It noted a surge in cases in The Bahamas can potentially devastate our strained healthcare system and will further add to the economic burden that our country faces.
“We wish to continue to have COVID-free islands in The Bahamas and do not wish to see our country labeled as an unsafe destination if we are unable to contain a potential resurgence,” the CPSA said.
The Government and Public Policy Institute of the University of The Bahamas has produced a framework for the reopening of the economy.
It identified a significant list of preconditions before opening the economy. Several include establishing transportation protocols; conducting random testing at a level of population sampling that can assess virus spread within the population; establishing protocols that require testing for any person experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and establishing border screening protocols.
Up to yesterday, The Bahamas had conducted 2,299 tests, according to the Ministry of Health.
The institute said, “Because of its large numbers of travelers from around the world, tourism represents the greatest health risk during reopening. This is among the last areas for consideration for re-opening.
“Government must set travel conditions to minimize risk of COVID-19 spread during reopening, beginning its reopening with second homeowners and permanent residents who can be subject to testing or proof of testing and self-isolation for two weeks. This sector poses the most difficult call on both the air and sea sides.”
The Tourism Readiness and Recovery Committee recently presented its report, outlining protocols for the reopening of this vital industry.
An official speaking at the committee’s press conference declared it is “showtime” for Bahamas tourism.
As they prepare to reopen, industry stakeholders are no doubt mindful that there could also be a storm on the horizon with COVID-19 being imported.
Balancing economic reopening against the critically important need to protect public health is not an insignificant task.
Speaking on this recently, Barbados Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley said, “…In many respects, we die if we don’t and we also die if we do.”