Challenges ahead

As of today, the country will have its first new and large-scale test of COVID-19 mitigation strategies when hundreds of Bahamians traveling from the pandemic epicenter of the United States return home.

Government recently changed its containment policy for returning Bahamians, allowing them the choice of self-isolation at home instead of mandatory submission to a military-guarded quarantine site.

As a condition of their return, Bahamians are required to test negative for COVID-19, but the process of determining who can self-isolate could prove to be a less-than-smooth one.

Delon Brennen, deputy chief medical officer in the Ministry of Health, said yesterday that either the Ministry of Health or the Department of Social Services will physically assess the homes of each person wanting to self-isolate, to determine whether their home is suitable.

How this will be co-ordinated, the timeframe involved and what constitutes such suitability was not explained, and it is unclear if Bahamians desirous of self-isolation are aware of this pre-condition.

Though returning Bahamians will have tested negative prior to approval for re-entry, it is impossible to know whether they may have become exposed to COVID-19 in the U.S. after their test would have been taken, and no indication was given on how this possibility factors in to determining suitability for self-isolation.

The process of monitoring those in self-isolation has not been without its share of difficulties for health officials, and the troubling revelation by consultant Dr. Merceline Dahl-Regis that officials have lost contact with 12 people ordered to isolate at home, drove home this point.

It also triggered concerns about the monitoring capacity of returning Bahamians and residents, particularly since a digital tracking mechanism is not yet in place.

Details were not provided on when contact was lost with the 12 individuals; whether they are COVID-19-positive cases or contacts of cases; or on what islands they reside, but it can be deduced that their re-entry into the community may have increased the public’s risk.

It has been 54 days since The Bahamas reported its first COVID-19 case.

In the Caribbean, the disease has claimed over 670 lives, with current active cases at around 10,000, led by the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Jamaica respectively.

As the COVID-19 battle wages on in the Caribbean, the eyes of international health bodies are focusing on Haiti, where an “impending humanitarian crisis” is feared as growing numbers of Haitians travel home from the Dominican Republic – the country with the region’s highest number of COVID-19 cases.

Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Director Carissa Etienne warned this week of a “perfect storm” approaching in Haiti, noting that most Haitians do not have access to clean water and sanitation, and “many live in overcrowded households where quarantine and isolation are challenging”.

Etienne stressed, “There is a real risk that growing food insecurity will result in famine. Civil unrest, a difficult political situation and precarious security may further complicate the situation.”

The migration challenge this could pose to The Bahamas cannot be overstated; a challenge that would be acutely compounded by the public health risk of COVID-19 transmission, and the importation of the disease to our shores and into migrant communities.

Though a partial re-opening of economies is happening throughout the world, including The Bahamas, experts advise that spikes and surges of cases are inevitable — particularly if new cases are imported — and governments must therefore formulate strategies that anticipate a need to quickly revert to lockdowns in order to prevent unmanageable outbreaks.

This is where leadership in the COVID-19 fight has been and continues to be most critical.

The nation expected to see the new temporary minister of health, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis, take the podium yesterday at his ministry’s weekly press conference so as to demonstrate to the nation that he is leading from the front in the public health battle, and that he, as the minister before him, has a firm grasp of what is needed to achieve success.

But the health minister was a publicly unexplained no-show.

Health officials have consistently risen to the occasion to meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, and have competently faced and weathered public scrutiny so as to bolster the essential confidence of the Bahamian people.

In the country’s interest, it is imperative that the prime minister in his new role, does the same.

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