A pandemic of panic

Wall to wall media coverage of COVID-19, coupled with the uncharted territory and economic tremors of the disease now designated a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), have triggered widespread panic that governments must grapple with even as they work to respond to the spread of the deadly virus.

Though no suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases have been reported in The Bahamas, Bahamians are worried about its potential emergence and how the same might impact their way of life.

Putting the pandemic in perspective, WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus advised yesterday that of the 118,000 cases reported globally in 114 countries, more than 90 percent of cases are in just four countries.

“And two of those – China and the Republic of Korea — have significantly declining epidemics,” he emphasized.

Dr. Tedros further noted that 81 countries have not reported any cases, and 57 countries have reported 10 cases or fewer.

Stressing that all countries can still change the course of this pandemic, Tedros insisted that, “If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace and mobilize their people in the response, those with a handful of cases can prevent those cases becoming clusters, and those clusters becoming community transmission.”

Jamaica, which reported its first confirmed COVID-19 case this week, announced $51.9 million (US) in contingency funding to address its threat, with over $14 million earmarked in its 2020/2021 budget for immediate preventative and preparatory spending.

The Bahamas has earmarked $4 million in contingency response spending.

The UK meantime, which as of yesterday had 460 confirmed COVID-19 cases, announced a £12 billion ($15.4 billion US) spending allocation to directly address the outbreak, as part of a £30 billion economic stimulus package which adjusts the government’s financial plans in response to the outbreak’s impact.

Adjustments include an emergency and record interest rate cut by the Bank of England, the suspension of property taxes for many firms, extending sick pay to businesses and boosting National Health Service funding, according to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

A £500 million “hardship fund” is to be given to local authorities in England to help vulnerable people in their areas, and a “temporary coronavirus business interruption loan scheme” for banks is being introduced to offer loans of up to £1.2 million to support small and medium-sized businesses.

Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis has urged Bahamians not to panic, and foreshadowed “concessions…to ensure that the poor are always protected as much as possible and the marginalized are protected as much as possible”.

Minnis did not address whether concessions are being considered for businesses, since COVID-19’s negative impact is economic in tandem with its health threat.

Panic levels will be impacted, in part, by the citizenry’s level of confidence in our border screening protocols for returning residents and visitors.

The rigor and application of these protocols came into question when an 18-year-old Bahamian student returning home from the COVID-19 hotspot of Italy last month, told this newspaper she “did not get asked one question” by immigration upon her return through Lynden Pindling International Airport (LPIA).

Though Italy was not added to the country’s current travel restriction list until after her return home, the student’s reported experience raises questions about how the country’s COVID-19 screening protocols are being executed at New Providence’s main gateway which services over three million passengers from over 50 destinations each year.

The government must ensure that our border control officers are consistently and stringently carrying out COVID-19 screening protocols for all residents and guests, and should ensure that protocols are reviewed and enhanced as necessary.

As an economic mitigation strategy, Minnis encouraged Bahamians to boost domestic tourism, which we presume means Bahamians should increase their travel and spend within and between the islands — an expensive undertaking even in the best of economic circumstances.

His admonition is noteworthy, save for the fact that the Central Bank of The Bahamas and the nation’s acting financial secretary have already urged Bahamians to curb discretionary spending and exercise financial prudence due to the economic uncertainties posed by COVID-19’s impact.

Though the spread of COVID-19 and of panic associated with it is inevitable until it is no longer a pandemic, sound political leadership is essential and indispensable in the fight against both giants.

The WHO’s daily call is for countries to take “urgent and aggressive action”.

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