National Review

An emergency state

On September 23 when Parliament passed a resolution extending the state of emergency to October 31, there was an expectation among some that this will be the final extension and the competent authority’s sweeping powers would finally be brought to an end.

But with the COVID-19 crisis deepening and the public healthcare system operating beyond capacity, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis might be poised to continue his one-man rule beyond the end of the month.

Come October 31, we would have been under a state of emergency for 227 days. The horror show will not end after Halloween, though. 

Pandemic fatigue has long set in, but things are not getting better.

Over the last two weekends, in the face of sharp rises in cases on New Providence, Minnis ordered lockdowns and also shortened the nightly curfew from a 10 p.m. start to a 7 p.m. start.

When Parliament passed the extension last month, The Bahamas had 3,618 confirmed COVID-19 cases; 1,594 of those were active; there were 89 hospitalizations; 80 confirmed COVID-19 deaths and another 19 deaths under investigation.

Just under a month later, there are 5,923 confirmed cases; 2,236 active; 119 hospitalizations; 124 confirmed deaths and 14 deaths under investigation.

So, should the state of emergency be extended?

The Bahamas constitution envisions states of emergency of no more than a six-month period. 

Had the government brought a resolution in time to extend the first emergency period beyond June 29, the first proclamation, issued March 18, would have expired last month.

When the governor general issued a new proclamation on June 29, the clock restarted on a six-month period.

This means the competent authority could seek extensions up to the end of December. Some viewed this as an abuse of power and a move that went against the spirit of the constitution and the intent of the framers.

Views are mixed on whether we should drag out this state of emergency any longer.

St. Anne’s MP Brent Symonette, a former member of Minnis’ Cabinet, who has at times been critical of the government’s pandemic response, told National Review he does not see how the state of emergency is not extended further.

“I think he (the competent authority) has no choice but to extend it because, at the moment as I understand the law, he hasn’t got another vehicle or law or whatever you want to call it that he can impose what he needs to do as quickly as he needs to do it,” Symonette said.

“In other words, we don’t like the fact that we have been on lockdown. The Emergency Powers Act gives him the authority to do a multiple of things that he wouldn’t have if he didn’t have that act in place.

“I can appreciate everyone feeling that they don’t want this damn thing around their neck anymore and they may think that he hasn’t acted properly, but there’s no other law that I know where he can get what he wants to do as quickly as he wants to do.

“Let’s say he wants to lock down Lyford Cay; this would give him the power to do it. I don’t know of any other act that gives him that kind of power.”

But Co-Chair of the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) COVID-19 Taskforce Dr. Michael Darville said the government should have already brought necessary legislation to put in place ongoing measures to fight the pandemic.

“We cannot become an emergency state,” Darville said.

“This has been going on too long. How long can we function like this where one man has now taken full control of the country for [almost] an entire year? It’s almost dictatorship, and so the government has been very lazy in [not] bringing forth appropriate legislation that would allow [it] to function effectively with COVID without all these sweeping powers.”

At the expiration of a state of emergency, the emergency powers will fall away. The Parliament could still pass legislation putting certain measures in place to fight the pandemic.

It seems Minnis prefers to have the power to act on a whim, without any checks and balances, effectively creating a dictatorship over the last seven months.

The government has targeted November 1 for a so-called “reopening” of tourism, with an accompanying elimination of the quarantine requirement.

How this reopening would be accommodated with strict emergency measures still in place would need to be explained.

That question is no doubt on the minds of those in government, those who work directly in the tourism industry and many others anxious to see some life returned to the national economy.

Symonette, a former tourism minister, thinks tourists could be accommodated even in an environment with strict measures to fight COVID-19.

“I think there are 10 countries in the Caribbean that have already opened up with certain restrictions in place, so I’m sure we can do that,” he said.

“It’s not without precedent around the world. We might not like it, but I don’t think we have much choice.”

In Jamaica, for instance, the government has developed what are called resilient corridors for tourism.

A 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew is in place until November 1.

Health screening procedures are also in place at airports and other ports of entry.

Restrictive measures are, however, not the same thing as the one-man rule made possible by the current state of emergency The Bahamas remains under.

Darville said while the opposition supported the initial state of emergency and the lockdowns that were ordered, it has concerns about the way the competent authority has managed the pandemic and the fact that he is ruling without accountability.

“We were very concerned by the fact that the competent authority is vested in one man,” he said.

“I think that’s a major error because what it does is, I don’t care how bright you are, you need to tap into the right resources. You cannot rely exclusively on your own instinct. That’s a very dangerous situation because there is no room for error in this, so you need to have a well-structured team.” 

Darville added, “The second thing is…the whole purpose of the lockdowns, we did support them initially because it was essential for the government to ensure that the COVID-19 emergency orders were put in place and that things were being done in the healthcare system not only to beef up the manpower resources, but necessary changes in really strong protocols at the hospital [were needed] to show that we are serious about it.”

He said it is clear the government did not do enough to address the need for improved capacity in the healthcare system.

Accountability

Darville, a recovered COVID-19 patient, said there is also a need for the competent authority to be more transparent.

“If the government is going to request an additional 30 days for the emergency order, they must present to the Parliament what they have been doing all along, be very transparent, not only with issues that they want to talk about; let’s talk about all the issues, find a way to bring them to the table, find a way to get the opposition directly involved,” he said.

Former Attorney General Alfred Sears, who also recovered from COVID-19, said in the absence of appropriate data, it is difficult to say outright whether the state of emergency should be extended beyond October 31.

“The powers of emergency have to be guided, not by whims or fancy or emotions,” Sears told National Review.

“It really ought to be guided by rational decision-making based on reliable data, which we do not have. And that is the reason why I recommend we have to engage in mass testing of the entire population, and I know it is difficult, but this country has the unusual resources by virtue of the industrialist friends, second homeowners and allies.

“There needs to be, in my view, more effective mobilization of the resources and contacts and more ingenuity put in securing the requisite amount of tests, especially now with the rapid testing, so that we have a reading on the entire population and to develop COVID-trusted zones where we apply the latest technology as is being done in a number of countries.”

The Bahamas had completed 31, 801 tests as of Monday. The bulk of testing has been done by private labs, meaning most people who have gotten tested have had to pay for those tests. It is not clear how many people have been tested as some people have been tested multiple times.

While Sears advocated more testing and the production of more quality data, businessman Rupert Roberts, who owns the Super Value grocery store chain, said it is time to bring the state of emergency to an end.

As also noted by Darville, Roberts said he has a serious problem with our developing dictatorship.

“We elected our representatives and our representatives have to keep a duty to us,” Roberts said.

“They keep transferring that to, you can almost say, one man and I think that’s what we’re going to have to object to.

“We’re going to have to have our own say in our future or our own say in our demise. Frankly, I don’t think lockdowns are helping. I think lockdowns are spreading the virus because they are compressing the shopping into shorter hours.”

The current weekend lockdowns start at 7 p.m. on Fridays. After 5 p.m. last Friday, there were long lines outside some food stores and bumper-to-bumper traffic in many areas of New Providence. 

It was complete madness.

“I think it should end. That shouldn’t be continued,” Roberts added.

“It should be back to our constitutional government where our representatives have the say in what goes on. Then I can call my representative and say, ‘Look, this lockdown is not working. This shopping is not working. This is not working. We need to do something else,’ then I can suggest what we do and we can all come out with better results.

“I think at the end of this lockdown we are going to have more cases than if we hadn’t locked down because it’s…causing clusters in the supermarkets.”

He said Super Value is having a difficult time ensuring that customers adhere to the social distancing requirement.

Dr. Marcus Cooper, president of the Medical Association of The Bahamas, highlighted a similar concern when he spoke with us.

“It’s going to take a week or two to see if these weekend lockdowns are actually effective in serving their purpose,” Cooper noted.

“It makes no sense to lock down just to lock down and you’re not seeing a real flattening of the curve. And then to what end? So, if we’re still seeing 60, 70 cases every day and so you lock down until the end of the month, November 1, then we’re back to square one.”

Asked directly if he thinks the state of emergency should continue, Cooper responded, “I don’t think we can. We have to get used to the new normal. You cannot inconvenience businesses and you can’t restrict the movement of citizens indefinitely every weekend. There’s no end in sight.

“I feel like when people come to me and they ask me about colonics, they say, ‘I want to get a colonic.’ A colonic only lasts you as long as you don’t eat. As soon as you start eating garbage again, you put all this garbage back into your system. There’s no lasting benefit of a colonic.

“There’s no lasting benefit when you have community spread, of locking down for the weekend. On Monday morning, people are out and about. So, either you’re going to have a two-week-long lockdown, which is a bridge to some other drastic measure to keep your community spread low, or you just have to deal with it.

“I don’t think it has a lasting benefit. I don’t think we’re going to see a significant drop in the numbers just by locking people down over the weekend. I don’t believe we’re making a dent in the whole thing. I do believe that this is how it’s going to be for some time.” 

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Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of The Nassau Guardian.

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