COVID-19 — considering the poor, an effective strategy

Dear Editor,

“Blessed is he that considereth the poor: the Lord will deliver him in time of trouble.”
– Psalm 41v1

“There was an increase in the incidence of poverty in the country during the period 2001‐2013: the poverty rate for 2001 was 9.3 percent, and in 2013, the poverty rate was 12.5 percent.” – Bahamas Household Expenditure Report 2013, p.17

Since 2013, we have experienced Hurricane Dorian, which, as we know, led to an increase in The Bahamas’ poverty level.

The poverty level, and other accompanying inequities, were at unacceptable levels prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

We know that there has probably been a dramatic increase in poverty since the COVID-19 pandemic.

The way that we react to the pandemic indicates our preparedness to make the necessary systemic changes to enable a recovery that meets the needs of the world, changed by the pandemic.

People are key to recovery.

Are we satisfied that the decisions being made to “save lives” fully consider the poor?

For example, we accept that hand washing and social distancing are key to combating COVID-19.

The curfew and the complete lockdown address social distancing.

For the many Bahamians who must go to the corner pump to get water, the complete lockdown prevents or significantly limits hand washing.

Government says it is responding to the advice of scientists.

Would the scientists who are advising the government please advise how a five-day lockdown over Easter with little or no water in the house, promote the anti COVID-19 fight?

We know the neighborhoods where people have to go to the corner pump to get water.

There are experts who were previously involved in Urban Renewal community policing in these neighborhoods. I suggest that these experts should be called in to advise government how to make provisions for each household to get water necessary for hand washing and life.

Also, we know that hundreds of people go to the grocery store several times a week because they can buy groceries only when they have money. The poor are disproportionately affected.

How can government enable all people to obtain groceries as needed, get rid of extra-long lines (some people stood in line for more than six hours to get into the grocery store) and assure physical distancing?

Here are five suggestions:

1. The experts involved in the RISE conditional cash transfer program (Renewing. Inspiring. Sustaining. Empowering.) can advise how immediately to reimplement the program that enables persons receiving social services benefits to receive a government-issued Visa prepaid card that is loaded every month.

People with a loaded Visa prepaid card, without leaving home, can obtain goods and services using their cell phones and the Visa prepaid card.

2. Government can mandate the National Insurance Board (NIB) to transfer NIB benefits to these government-issued Visa prepaid cards. For those who don’t have a card, NIB can enable the cards to be issued to those who qualify through online applications. Everyone with the card can get money transferred to the card.

3. Encourage and support small businesses who deliver groceries and expedite their licenses rather than force people to line up for hours to get groceries.

Banks must play their part. If a bank account in London or the U.S. can be opened in one day, these potential businesspeople in The Bahamas should be able to open a bank account in one day, rather than being turned around for three to six months.

4. Government can mandate that BTC and Aliv facilitate connection to digital wallets for all who have cell phones. Many Bahamian businesses now operate using only a digital platform for goods and services. Banks must remove bureaucracy, so that businesses can get up and running using a digital platform.

5. BTC and Aliv can be added to the entities prohibited from disconnecting people during the crisis.

The ability to pay bills using debit or credit cards (including the RISE Visa prepaid card) will eliminate long lines everywhere.

Also, it will facilitate the systemic change, to a digital platform, necessary for life in the 21st century. In this transition, only people who cannot get online results would need to attend any government agency or line up for any goods or services.

We know that we live in a digital world.

Working together, government and the private sector can rapidly make these changes.

Remote areas in Kenya and India, for many years, have been using cell phones to conduct business. If they can do it, so can we.

Let’s use the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to alleviate the hardship experienced by the poor and change the way we do business.

I thank everyone on the frontline of the battle against COVID-19 for the sacrifices that they and their families are making to keep us safe.

Yes, we can!

— Allyson Maynard-Gibson

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