COVID-19 may be a new virus but pandemics are not new to mankind, and the presence of the novel coronavirus in The Bahamas is no justification for the absence of responsible leadership.
In the past week, three significant and troubling developments emerged in the country’s pandemic response that gave some Bahamians pause, angered many others and were signals that the nation is not immune to being taken down a road far more perilous than its current viral outbreak.
During debate on a resolution to extend the country’s state of emergency to September 30, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis said the decision to allow Bahamians to leave their country — a constitutional right — is the reason The Bahamas is not a “successful nation” insofar as its pandemic response is concerned.
Going further into what set off reverberations within segments of the citizenry cognizant of its gravity, the prime minister added that his decision not to restrict Bahamians from traveling and the uptick in COVID-19 cases that followed, “demonstrates that governments will be placed in situations where at some point in time, they would have to make what they call discriminatory or unconstitutional decisions against their people in the interest of the advancement of their nation”.
The constitution is the supreme law of the land and the charter of our nationhood, and there is no situation in a democracy wherein a violation of the constitution by the government would advance the nation.
The prime minister’s suggestion that violating any constitutional right — in this case the right to leave one’s country — would have been for the nation’s good if he had chosen to carry it out, is dangerous.
Minnis’ statements to Parliament, as was his divisive commentary about Grand Bahama days earlier, were unscripted – a notable trend that gives the Bahamian people a peek into positions about governance and the governed that are perhaps closer to the prime minister’s actual thoughts and feelings.
It was not lost on us the prime minister’s admission that it was fear of political backlash, as opposed to fear of running afoul of the constitution, that moved him away from barring Bahamians from traveling abroad.
What was apparently lost on the competent authority, however, was that barring Bahamians from leaving their country during the current pandemic would not have been necessary to achieve the goals of mitigation.
The problem with open borders and communicable disease mitigation in the context of free societies is not that travel is allowed to occur, but rather that effective entry protocols are not instituted and enforced for all incoming travel, whether by citizens, residents or visitors.
Had the prime minister ensured that protocols of pre-testing or mandatory monitored quarantine followed by testing were enforced for all returning Bahamians and legal residents, chances of locals returning and becoming potential sources of cluster or community transmission, may have been significantly reduced.
The reality is that travel abroad by locals will be necessary, as will incoming travel by visitors, and so the contemplation for the government ought never have been whether to violate the constitution with respect to its citizens, but rather to do its job by shoring up its border policies.
All right-thinking Bahamians should be acutely concerned by our prime minister’s suggestions from the highest pillar of government (the Parliament), that breaking the constitution would have made the nation successful.
The successes of The Bahamas are inextricably tied to the freedoms we enjoy via our constitution, and to the democratic process which the constitution enables.
The threat of COVID-19 is no match for the threat of leadership equating on any level, the breaking of our supreme law with furthering the country’s best interests.
Tall Pines MP Don Saunders rose to ask Minnis to clarify his statement, and St. Anne’s MP Brent Symonette asked him to state whether there were any provisions in the prime minister’s current emergency orders that were unconstitutional with respect to treatment of Bahamians versus foreigners.
Though the reaction of some government MPs to Saunders’ point of order reeked of displeasure, his intervention was Westminster at its essence.
Meanwhile, Minnis’ response to Symonette that he would have to consult with his attorney general on the constitutionality of his emergency orders was quite telling, and triggered our longstanding question of the level of consultation occurring between the competent authority and the attorney general prior to Minnis’ decrees on restrictions and the like.
For example, the prime minister announced during his national address last week Sunday that anyone who knows or believes they have COVID-19 and causes another person to become exposed or infected, commits a criminal offense liable to a fine not exceeding $1,000.
But that pronouncement did not make it to Minnis’ most recent set of orders signed last week.
We wonder whether the AG’s office deemed such a law problematic, as it could be difficult if not impossible to successfully prosecute such a case.
The day after Minnis’ address, Eyewitness News reported that the emergency orders to capture his announced measures were still being finalized, quoting Attorney General Carl Bethel as saying, “Once we have settled the orders and they are signed, then I can address the orders.”
It would not be the last time in a single week that the question of primary consultation on the part of the prime minister would come about.
Commercial air travel
When the prime minister announced that commercial air and sea travel to The Bahamas would be restricted for most countries excluding Canada, Europe and those within the European Union, the United States and other international media response was swift, as The Bahamas was reported to be the newest and perhaps the more surprising of countries to close its borders to the US.
Following upon the announced restriction, Minnis said, “Private international flights and charters for Bahamians, residents and visitors will be permitted. Pleasure craft and yachts will also be permitted.”
It was a caveat the international media did not pick up on for the most part, and arguably with fair reason as the announcement did not make explicitly clear Minnis’ apparent desire to have Americans continue to travel to the country by way of private or chartered planes and boats.
Without a doubt, international headlines of “Americans banned” damaged the country’s tourism product which caters predominantly to US visitors, but what is in doubt is whom the prime minister consulted with prior to making an announcement with such far-reaching implications for the industry which drives the lion’s share of the country’s gross domestic product.
It was unclear whether officials of the United States Embassy on New Providence or commercial airlines servicing The Bahamas were made aware of the prime minister’s announcement beforehand.
Not until this newspaper’s editorial of July 24 entitled “New orders, new questions”, was the country made aware of what ought to have been announced by the prime minister — that his emergency order signed just days after his televised address, permits commercial air travel from all destinations, including the US.
When he formally addressed the nation later that afternoon at a Ministry of Health press conference, the prime minister did not mention his reversal of course on the matter, and only spoke to the same in response to media questions, referring them to a statement issued by Bethel earlier in the day.
In that statement, Bethel said the provision “allows for the protection of the Bahamian people from the possible dangers or travel-related contagion in a manner which is consistent with our treaty obligations, and also with the provisions of the Chicago Convention, which regulates international air transport”.
So, the obvious question that arises with respect to prior consultation, is how the prime minister could presumably be unaware of such obligations ahead of making his national address.
It appears that the handling of this protocol by the competent authority may have invariably led to the same problem of enforcement that previously resulted in a yet-unquantified level of COVID-19 importation post July 1.
A Bahamian traveler posted on Twitter that she returned home commercially via Lynden Pindling International Airport (LPIA) late last week, and was allowed to go into monitored quarantine at home, untested.
The current order states that all commercial air travelers, whether Bahamian or foreign, must be placed into quarantine at a government facility on arrival, and must submit to a COVID-19 test at the end of the 14-day quarantine period.
The traveler said, “I came in without a test. So, I’m quarantined at home and monitored [by] the app. Testing at the end of the quarantine is optional.”
Mandating travelers to a 14-day government quarantine and testing at one’s expense would theoretically result in commercial air travel into The Bahamas being significantly reduced.
But the country’s economy must survive beyond COVID-19, and the prime minister’s reversal of course has not been captured by the international media on par with coverage garnered from his initial announcement that resulted in a public relations nightmare for tourism stakeholders.
It may be that the prime minister chose to quietly issue his about-face so as to avoid blistering questions on his reasoning, but the country’s largest economic driver is more important than the competent authority’s political standing.
As he did after Hurricane Dorian when he made it a point of appearing in Ministry of Tourism campaigns to let the country’s travel markets know The Bahamas is not Grand Bahama and Abaco, the prime minister must actively work to fix the damage his pronouncements have caused to the industry.
Try as one might, there is no hiding from COVID-19 or from the consequences of actions we take in the name of the COVID-19 fight.
The people vs Grand Bahama
The French writer and philosopher Voltaire once said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
When the prime minister told the nation that the Royal Bahamas Defense Force (RBDF) had “formed a perimeter” around Grand Bahama to prevent residents from leaving the island, it was an announcement all informed Bahamians knew was an absurdity, as the RBDF does not have the kind of resources necessary to carry out such an exercise.
But this announcement of a military blockade against Bahamians — the kind not seen to protect our borders from illegal migration by the way — ratcheted up animosity against Grand Bahamians, who were previously painted by the prime minister’s rhetoric as “contaminated”, irresponsible and indisciplined.
Notwithstanding rampant conjecture about droves of Grand Bahamians returning from Walmart trips to infect the nation, the government has yet to produce data to support such assertions.
The mere word of the prime minister or a public official, is not data.
Minnis’ last-minute and unexpected change to the domestic border closure timeline for Grand Bahama resulted in a rush of government workers, Nassuvians and Grand Bahamians employed on New Providence and elsewhere, seeking to depart the island before the discontinuation of flights.
Passengers aboard flights arriving in Nassau were, without prior notice, forced into government quarantine, leaving Bahamians with small children and others with no food or water for many hours, and no answers as to why they were being detained and what would happen next.
On social media, a nasty war of words erupted between New Providence and Grand Bahama residents, with the former chiding and attacking who they thought were exclusively Grand Bahamian travelers, as those who needed to be locked up for trying to infect their island.
It was a painful display of Bahamian against Bahamian because of a virus, and as a result of the fear surrounding it that has proven useful for political leaders worldwide who have taken an unhealthy comfort with holding on to emergency powers.
The prime minister later apologized for the inconvenience suffered, inconvenience which was a direct result of his orders that are too often made without reference to their potential consequences.
The finger-pointing and blame game that has mushroomed among Bahamians was fueled by the absurdity of insistence that “selfish” Bahamian travelers and not lax government protocols or visitors, are solely responsible for the current spike of COVID-19 cases.
Such absurdity has encouraged Bahamians to engage in the atrocity of degrading their fellow man as reckless walking diseases, instead of esteeming each other as individuals worthy of respect, human decency and compassion.
The need to fight the spread of COVID-19 is no justification for dehumanizing one another, and the menacing slope of seeing human beings as viruses requiring military containment, public debasing and scorn is one of the more prominent ways The Bahamas’ COVID-19 response has gone off the rails.
Government parliamentarians are shamefully silent on this deterioration of comity in the society, and Bahamians must take responsibility for the extent to which they allow the rhetoric or unthoughtful commentary of public officials to become a spark that lights the fuse of division whether it be for COVID-19, or any other matter.
As we stated last week, there is no such creature as “guilty” or “innocent” with respect to the pathogenesis of an infectious disease.
COVID-19 does not absolve leadership of its duty to be responsible and accountable.
And COVID-19 does not absolve us of our duty as human beings to treat one another as we would want to be treated, and to regard all people as part of the same human family, regardless of which island or land mass we call home.