Today, on my drive to work, I passed a lady along the highway selling several newspapers. However, it was the front-page headline of The Tribune that caught my attention. It read, “China Travel Alert to Last Six Months: Govt Fearful Over Economic Fallout from Global Crisis.”
As the director of Asian Relations & Confucius Institute at the University of The Bahamas (CIUB), I have closely monitored the government’s response to the COVID-19, because of the potential impact on CIUB.
CIUB has already been impacted by COVI-19.
In January, the deputy director of CIUB, a Chinese, returned to China for a personal matter. However, a trip that was planned for two weeks has lasted nearly two months.
His delayed return is the result of our government’s directive, including the directive of the U.S government, which restricts travel of persons from mainland China.
In addition, many airlines, including many major airlines, have curtailed or have completely stopped flights to and from China.
Even if he managed to travel to a neighboring country that allows flights from China, entering The Bahamas would be impossible. Currently, persons from China are prohibited from entering the country. Non-Chinese nationals that have visited China in the last 14 days risk being denied entry or, in the case of Bahamians, face a 14-day quarantine.
Yesterday, I got a taste of what many Chinese nationals or Asian travelers must be experiencing or are subjected to at some country borders.
Before returning to The Bahamas in 2018, I spent more than 17 years working in China.
Therefore, my passport has numerous expired Chinese visas and immigration stamps.
Yesterday, on my way home from Vancouver, Canada, I arrived in Nassau on a United Airlines flight from Newark.
Many of the passengers appeared to be visitors since the majority queued at immigration booths.
I appeared to be the only passenger using the kiosk for Bahamian passport holders. After scanning my passport, I gave it to one of the immigration officers for verification.
After checking my biographic information, he flipped through my passport and noticed the numerous Chinese visa and stamps. Although my last trip to China was more than seven weeks ago, I became concerned because I could be given a hard time.
I was also impressed by the vigilance because this is the first time an officer manning the kiosk had looked beyond the photo page of my passport.
In addition, during my trip to Canada, the immigration officer flipped to the last page of my already full passport to find a spot for the entry stamp.
However, he asked no question about my travels to China.
After the Bahamian immigration officer saw that stamp that my last exit from China was January 11, 2020, he handed the passport to a colleague to confirm whether further screening was needed, which could result in a 14-day quarantine.
After confirming that I can enter the country, I walked away wondering why I wasn’t asked whether I had recently visited South Korea, Iran or Italy.
In my passport, I have several entry and exit stamps from both South Korea and North Korea.
Although the number of confirmed cases in China topped 80,409 with more than 3,000 deaths, the situation in South Korea, Iran and Italy are also concerning.
These are the hardest-hit countries for COVID-19 outside of China.
As of March 4, 2020, South Korea had more than 6,088 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 30 deaths.
There are 3,089 confirmed cases and 107 deaths in Italy, and 2,922 cases and 92 deaths in Iran.
The number of COVID-19 cases is also growing fast in the United States and has at least one or more cases in 70 other countries.
Many Bahamians, especially those who use Facebook and WhatsApp, have likely seen videos that have made them question eating habits and personal hygiene in China.
There are videos and pictures of persons consuming bats and other wild animals.
The most recent video making the rounds on social show some “Chinese” individuals in elevators spitting on control buttons and eating soup directly from a soup pot on a buffet line.
Although some of these videos are dated, these incidents could be videos of Asians in a few Asian countries.
Bats are also a delicacy in the Philippines. However, all Asian faces seem to imply Chinese. Yes, there is trade and consumption of some exotic animals in some parts of China. However, these are not commonplace.
COVID-19 is not a China issue. It is an international issue.
The outbreak has spread globally, with confirmed cases in all continents except Antarctica.
Therefore, a more appropriate Tribune headline could have been “Global Travel Alert to Last Six Months: Government Fearful Over Economic Fallout from Global Crisis”.
The Bahamian government should be commended for wanting to protect the Bahamian community from COVID-19.
COVID-19 is already in our region. This week, there was one confirmed case of COVID-19 in the Dominican Republic, and two confirmed cases in Florida. So, the directive protecting our borders is warranted.
However, the government should not solely focus on China.
Instead, it should encourage Bahamians to be vigilant in general, since a person of any nationality could pose a risk.
In addition, future directives should not apply to one country or nationality but should apply to visitors from any country or nationality.
Solely targeting China abets Sinophobia, which in the long run could discourage Chinese, currently a growing tourist market, from visiting The Bahamas.
— Abdul D. Knowles, PhD, director, Asian Relations and Confucius Institute, the University of The Bahamas
NOTE: Yesterday evening, after the submission of this letter, the government announced a travel ban for Iran, Italy and South Korea amid the global spread of the new coronavirus, COVID-19.