Perspective

An ominous betrayal

An early election during the worst of the health crisis could exacerbate the deadly surge

The portrait of tomorrow’s future is painted on the canvas of choices we make today.

A general election was not due until May 2022, so there was no constitutional or statutory mandate pushing the prime minister to go to the polls before that time.

In spite of this, he made a choice that was his alone to make, and that choice was to go eight months early, calling the election for September 16, 2021.

The governing Free National Movement (FNM) has chosen as its campaign slogan “It’s about your future”.

We question what kind of future Prime Minister and FNM Leader Dr. Hubert Minnis envisioned for The Bahamas when he made the decision to trigger what can become a three-week nationwide super-spreader election cycle during the worst phase of the country’s COVID surge.

Vice President of the Consultant Physicians Staff Association Dr. John Dillet said last week prior to Parliament’s dissolution, “I think most individuals in health care would believe that any type of election exercise where possibly large groups of people may be called to be in close distance to one another could potentially be a super spreader event.”

There is no credible argument to be made that the prime minister – a medical doctor – does not fully recognize this reality.

Considering the untenable risk an early election at this time can cause, and what can result if substantially large numbers of people become infected with no hospital capacity to care for the sick, we view the prime minister’s timing of the early election as one worthy of punishment at the polls.

No matter who wins the next general election, the biggest losers will be the Bahamian people and the country’s economy if the current deadly surge amidst a collapsed healthcare system, moves even further away from a flattening of the curve.

Since elections are fundamental to our democracy, and safety is a fundamental human right, it is a callous betrayal of The Bahamian people to go early to the polls at a time that pits their safety against the exercising of their constitutional right to select their government.

Some might argue that this position amounts to fearmongering regarding COVID-19.

We counter that any right-thinking person should be deeply concerned about a healthcare system collapse that renders you or your loved ones unable to get a hospital bed or requisite medical care – whether for COVID or not, or whether you have insurance or not.

This is not the first time we raised this issue.

Four months ago, we warned in our April 26 piece “A snap in a surge”, that holding a general election during what at that time was a – now-surpassed – peak of the third wave, could be a dangerous choice that threatens not only public safety, but prospects for a free and fair election.

General elections in The Bahamas are mass gathering events both on long lines, in groups outside polling stations, and indoors where the votes are cast and counted.

Election campaigning in our culture is most desirably done face-to-face where the electorate can see, feel and get an in-person sense of who its options are.

Regardless of technology, Bahamians do not want to vote for a mere face on the internet or a campaign flyer, and COVID-19 in and of itself does not change that dynamic.

Critical facets of the electoral process such as Nomination Day, scheduled for Friday, feature large crowds of supporters, as prospective candidates aim to put on their best showing in order to rattle the competition, and sway voters.

Campaign events are people-centered, and it is unreasonable to expect full compliance with safety protocols, particularly when such compliance has been lax at times, most notably on the part of public officials, including the prime minister.

A fundamental characteristic of free and fair elections is that elections are safe, such that voters do not have fear of a real or perceived threat to their personal safety as they exercise their right to choose who should govern them.

Making the choice to hold an early election while there is high community transmission, a collapsed healthcare system that cannot accommodate the soaring number of COVID patients, and where large crowds of voters could prove a deterrent to high risk voters fearful of infection, compromises that fundamental characteristic.

Given the present public health crisis and all factors that would need to be fully addressed to ensure the general election will be as safe as possible, the prime minister ought to have explained to the nation last week the exact reasons he sought a dissolution of Parliament at this juncture.

The prime minister was clearly eyeing the prospects of an early election since last year, but he chose to ring the bell when the healthcare system is least able to respond to increasing cases.


What was the rush?

What was more important for the country at this time than shoring up the healthcare system, containing the surge and in so doing, protecting the economy?

The Bahamian people are entitled to an explanation regardless of how they might vote, but that explanation has not come, leaving many in a state yet again of having more questions than answers.

When a snap election was called in Jamaica last year, the country was also in the midst of a surge, though not as severe as the current state of affairs here at home.

Jamaica’s Public Defender Arlene Harrison Henry was quoted in the Jamaica Gleaner as saying, “It is observed that since the announcement of the date of election, there have been a number of motorcades, rallies, and general jollification across the island and with reckless abandon of all COVID-19 protocols in both political camps, thereby facilitating the continued exponential increase in the rate of infection.

“This is undeniably to the detriment to the health of all of us.”

Not long after the election, the country regrettably experienced a runaway variant surge that led to hundreds of deaths, hospitals being beyond capacity, and case counts in excess of 800 on some days.

Making the choice to substantially increase risk of transmission during this period betrays even the prime minister’s own claims about the work he has done during the pandemic.

It betrays exhausted and traumatized healthcare workers who are begging for breathing room from unprecedented pressure, in a system whose human and physical resources cannot meet the crushing demand in the third wave.

It betrays those who are hospitalized, some of whom healthcare professionals say are needlessly dying due to the state of the healthcare system.

It betrays the government’s campaign messaging that seeks to have Bahamians believe it is focused on saving lives.

And it is an ominous betrayal of the very future the governing party wants the electorate to consider, because a third wave that becomes even worse than what has caused a frightening level of COVID deaths thus far, is something the country cannot manage, and ought never be put on a path to experience.


No future in gimmicks

In a campaign graphic posted this weekend to its official Facebook page, the FNM said of the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), “If they were in power, COVID would spread everywhere!”

This ludicrous message in the midst of a nationwide surge characterized by sustained community spread, pointlessly insults the intelligence of Bahamians regardless of one’s political persuasion.

Obviously COVID has already spread just about everywhere in The Bahamas and has been doing so for many months on the competent authority’s watch, as recorded by the government’s COVID dashboard which healthcare workers say has underreported the state of the surge.

The virus that causes COVID disease does not spread or cease to infect because of which party is in power, and it moves as people move.

Only approximately 13 percent of the country is fully vaccinated, and though the prime minister spoke following Parliament’s dissolution about the acquisition of more vaccines, he opted to go to the polls before those who are now joining the vaccination count will have had the opportunity to reach full protection against severe disease.

On September 16, the overwhelming majority of Bahamian voters will not have the quality of protection from severe COVID disease that health officials say would be obtained through full vaccination.

If the prime minister really believes the country’s COVID vaccination program will garner marked gains between now and November as he asserted in his post-dissolution address, why undermine those objectives by thrusting the population together in an election cycle well before that goal is realized?

It is hardly sensible to make pledges regarding the acquisition of additional COVID bed space and hospital staff, if by virtue of the sustained contact of an election cycle, you create a scenario where even those gains can be quickly overrun given the highly contagious Delta variant thought to be in circulation.

What will do the most to relieve pressure on the healthcare system is to have the current surge controlled, because the COVID response requires a disproportionate level of hospital resources – thereby making it more difficult for those without COVID to get the care they need.

Controlling the surge also lessens the risks from sustained exposure for healthcare workers, who are continuing to pay with their lives, the price of an uncontrolled surge.

The country has been under a state of suspended constitutional rights for close to a year and a half, and with much fanfare, the prime minister sought an earlier-than-scheduled return to the House of Assembly this month, to table for consultation what he called a “new legislative framework” for the pandemic – the Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Management Bill.

The country’s attorney general asserted that the bill was intended to enable government to better manage the pandemic, an attractive-sounding objective considering the country’s weariness with emergency one-man rule and the way it has been executed.

There were several signs that this bill would not become law this term, but nonetheless, Minnis made quite a deal of calling on all Bahamians to lend their voice in the consultative phase, to the way they want the pandemic to be managed once out of a state of emergency.

Less than two weeks later, he effectively killed this and all other government bills on the table of the House when he had Parliament prorogued, exposing the recent campaign of consultative governance in the pandemic as a mere charade.

Certainly, the prime minister knew when he wanted to call the election, and hence would have known that the bill he presented to Bahamians as a new way forward in the fight against COVID-19, would be only days away from being virtually dead on arrival.

This is why there is no future in gimmicks, because at the end of the day the curtain must fall, the masks must come off, and what is left are intangible memories of a present day performance that cannot address the challenges ahead.

Calling an election at this time was not about our future, but the future of him who made the call.

We can only hope that political parties, candidates, supporters, poll workers and voters work individually and collectively to minimize risks to our future posed by the potential for sustained or repeated COVID exposure during the election period.

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