“Where there is no wisdom, the people perish.” — Proverbs 29:18
The year 2020 will long be remembered as a pivotal historical moment for the most lethal pandemic since the Spanish flu (1918 – 1920), which claimed millions of lives.
Even more astounding will be the historical commentary regarding our response to this pandemic.
Unlike the Spanish flu antecedent of this virus, the record will reflect that, in many countries, the pandemic was well managed by their national and medical leaders.
Other nations will pale in comparison because of their denial of and nonchalance toward the devastating effects of this pandemic, the unwarranted utterances that it was a hoax and leaders who failed to provide inspiring guidance and adequate resources during this crisis.
In light of this, this week we would like to consider this — when history is written regarding the COVID-19 crisis in The Bahamas, on which side of the ledger will the competent authority fall: will he be lauded for his inspiring initiatives or will he be maligned for his failed leadership during this crisis?
A good start that rapidly receded
In the early days of the pandemic, the Ministry of Health created a positive environment, foreshadowing that our health professionals were poised to ably guide us through this crisis. The timely, interactive and informative exchanges between then Health Minister Dr. Duane Sands, public health officers and the media cultivated an atmosphere that inspired confidence.
However, as time passed, the government lost its way, and the confidence of Bahamians eroded.
Mistakes were made regarding the repatriation of foreigners and Bahamians who had already endured unanticipated months abroad because of the national lockdown.
The preferential treatment regarding the repatriation of foreign nationals infuriated Bahamian residents and their families who were forced to stay abroad for many months.
A monumental mistake
At the end of the first emergency orders on June 29, The Bahamas government made a monumental mistake in the handling of the crisis by relaxing some of the austere measures that were imposed during the period March 15 to June 29, 2020.
A fatal decision was set in motion after July 1, 2020, when the government decided to open our borders to international travel.
While allowing travelers to enter The Bahamas, provided they abided by specific reasonably-imposed protocols, this decision resulted in the cessation of screening for Bahamians who traveled abroad for no more than 72 hours, allowing them to return home without proof that they were not infected while away from The Bahamas.
There was also a monumental failure to require people returning home to quarantine for 14 days, the average incubation period to determine whether they were infected.
Since July 1, the positive cases escalated at a dizzying pace, moving from 104 positive cases and 11 deaths from March 15 to June 30, to over 2,000 cases and 43 deaths as of August 29, and another 10 deaths under investigation.
A rapid, record-breaking reversal
On Monday, August 17, 2020, the prime minister, in his capacity as the competent authority under the emergency orders, without warning, made a surprise announcement that he was going to close New Providence completely, effective immediately, for seven days.
That meant that no one would be able to go to the food store or purchase water or urgently-needed medicine for an entire week. He said this was necessary because of the enormous surge in positive cases after the country’s borders opened.
That August 17 declaration prompted unprecedented panic. It came without consultations with the prime minister’s Cabinet ministers and government members of Parliament.
It quickly became crystal clear to the prime minister that his impetuous and ill-informed decision for a week-long shutdown, without warning, would result in civil unrest because of residents’ inability to access food, water and medicines.
In less than 24 hours, using the pretense of a previously unmentioned, unnamed tropical depression that was forming hundreds of miles to the south of The Bahamas, the prime minister executed a record-breaking Olympian Mark Spitz-style backstroke. Instead of closing them down, he extended opening hours for food and hardware stores and water depots, allowing them to operate from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
And, finally, as outlined in his August 24 national address, in an example of what can only be called his total surrender of any attempt at leadership, we are now embarking on another opening of our society, still with a modified curfew and some continued restrictions, but with access to many more retail businesses – even as the number of COVID-19 cases continues its steep rise, especially on New Providence.
These reversals are not the first examples of failed leadership by the competent authority.
In his last appearance in Parliament, the prime minister admitted that his government did not make the right decision regarding imposing strict protocols on travelers to the United States after opening our borders because it was afraid to make the tough decision.
In his own words: “…We would have been a destroyed grouping.”
He was afraid of the damage that such a decision would have on the continued existence of the Free National Movement.
By “destroyed grouping”, he came perilously close to saying it would have destroyed his party! He admitted that he put politics over people’s lives.
Although it was the competent authority who decided to allow Bahamians to travel abroad, without presenting a negative COVID-19 test on their return home, he and his minister of tourism blamed the surge since July 1 on Bahamians traveling abroad and returning home from foreign hotspots.
They said Bahamians exhibited “a lack of discipline once the borders were open”.
We all saw the unprecedented surge of positive cases in Florida in June and July, yet the government failed to impose tough regulations on people traveling to that state.
It is alarming to think that the prime minister, a person who is elected to make difficult decisions and do the right thing in the face of a crisis, could have saved us all this pain and suffering if only he had not been afraid to make the right decision.
It is evident that the prime minister, as the competent authority, must be getting vacuous counsel from his advisors. He was not relying on his Cabinet colleagues or his parliamentary caucus for advice, since they were also taken aback by his rapid reversals discussed above.
So, the question that many Bahamians are asking is: where is he getting his advice? Are his advisors providing sound counsel for the collective common good? It seems not. It stands to reason that, given the mistakes and missteps during the pandemic, the prime minister should fire his advisors who are not helping him and are hurting us.
Another example of failed leadership was demonstrated by the competent authority’s unwillingness to answer questions from the press during most of his abbreviated tenure as the minister of health.
Yet another example of failed leadership is the partisanship that has surrounded this pandemic.
If we are in a war against this virus, as the prime minister is fond of saying, enlightened leadership would have adopted the Winston Churchill template of a bi-partisan “war Cabinet” from the beginning. That would have ensured that all major political parties were intimately engaged in the discussions and deliberations from the very start, not just late in the day because the battle is being lost.
Finally, and most critically, Bahamians, like their government, seem to be aimlessly moving from pillar to post, unable to ascertain what the short, intermediate and long-term plans are to restore the economy and recover from this pandemic and its adverse effects.
Other than this surprise quasi-opening in the midst of an alarmingly increasing number of COVID-19 positive cases and deaths, what is the plan?
What milestones must be achieved to really open our economy, partially and ultimately completely? A master plan is entirely lacking and, until one is proffered, we will be ensconced in the miasma of mediocrity and the quagmire of failed leadership.
As we observed in an earlier column, Bahamians have endured much to ensure that we successfully emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.
With few exceptions, they have submitted to and complied with the regulations and orders promulgated by Parliament and the competent authority.
They have acquiesced to the shutdown of our parks, beaches and other establishments. They have accepted the restrictions that have been imposed on their free movement. They have relinquished beloved holidays and celebrations. They have changed their lives profoundly, all on the orders of the government.
Bahamians and residents want informed, enlightened leadership, not uncertain, ill-advised, failed leadership and bewildering mismanagement of the people’s business, which seems to meander from pillar to post.
When the government makes mistakes, as it has during this crisis, the people suffer. And, should this sudden semi-opening of the society drive the curve to an even higher level, even more of the people will suffer.
The government should not take advantage of the people’s patience and their trust, because that patience is not without its limits and that trust is rapidly disappearing.
• Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Galanis and Co., Chartered Accountants, Forensic & Litigation Support Services. He served 15 years in Parliament. Please send your comments to email@example.com.