Perspective

Don’t let this virus divide us

Let us first start by disabusing ourselves of the notion that Bahamians are inherently at fault for the continued presence of COVID-19 in The Bahamas.

COVID-19 is a communicable disease, just as are diseases such as the flu, tuberculosis, measles or ebola, and as long as human beings exist and move, such diseases will, without a cure or vaccine, continue to spread.

Closed borders and limited testing created an artificial sense of security about the activity of COVID-19 in our country.

Once our borders reopened so as to restart our largest economic driver, case numbers were expected to increase just as a function of simple science.

Contrary to public assertion, meanwhile, most of the country’s new COVID-19 cases did not have a confirmed history of travel as of yesterday, according to the Ministry of Health’s published data.

That data shows that only three of the 31 new cases on Grand Bahama have a confirmed history of travel; two of which returned with a negative COVID-19 test result on a June 30 repatriation flight, and details are pending on the travel history, if any, of 12 of the remaining 16.

Eleven of the 18 cases on New Providence have a history of travel, with travel history details pending for three of the remaining seven.

Altogether, 14 of the 49 new cases on both islands are said to have recently travelled, with cluster versus community spread transmission to those without a travel history not yet disclosed.

Though the public has drawn its conclusions based on travel history, the Ministry of Health has not said which of these cases are in fact imported, and which of them, if any, are residents who arrived with a negative result, and may have contracted the disease at home as opposed to abroad.

And the public does not and perhaps may never know, how many new infections are as a result of COVID-19 importation by visitors.

The government has not provided figures on the total number of visitors by boat and plane nationwide since June 15 when the borders first opened to visitors, but Nassau Airport Development Company said that between July 1 and July 15, Lynden Pindling International Airport saw approximately 5,600 U.S. and international arrivals, and approximately 4,300 U.S. and international departures.

Opening the borders caused the surge

The virus, which continued to exist here while the borders were closed, would have invariably been brought by both visitors and Bahamians, the former of which we do not test in-country to know their status, relying primarily on negative PCR test results that can be as much as 10 days old if protocols are strictly followed.

There are Bahamians who have traveled abroad for essential purposes and those who have traveled for non-essential purposes, though the label of “essential” is based more on opinion than objective determination for the time being.

A sun, sand and sea vacation to The Bahamas may not be viewed as essential travel either, but it was what scores of tourists from COVID-19 hotspots were doing as of July 1, even though their travel to our shores is more of a statistical risk to us, than we are to them.

As long as thousands of visitors came here from COVID-19 hotspots, the virus would continue to be brought here, and would have spread even if not a single Bahamian or resident left the country.

That is the reality of open borders and communicable diseases.

What we do not need is for Bahamians to allow this or any virus to divide us, whether we allow such division to happen through our fear or failure to know the facts, or by the persuasion of politicians who would seek to use the current spike to beat their chest, or beat up on their opponent or other Bahamians.

The same is illogical, and it is unhelpful.

What our medical professionals deem best is key, assuming the competent authority heeds their advice.

But what all Bahamians must guard against is seeing ourselves as the enemy in this pandemic instead of seeing COVID-19 as the enemy, otherwise we would create an atmosphere that discourages the government from making data-driven decisions that do not unduly cause more lasting damage to the lives and viability of Bahamians than the virus can cause.

We need to recognize that this pandemic has plunged tens of thousands of Bahamians into some of their darkest days, and has tested our resolve in ways many did not plan for or think would happen.

This is not the time to forget or ignore that it has been the suffering, sacrifice and cooperation of the Bahamian people since March of this year, that enabled the government and medical professionals to declare successes during a period of closed borders.

The progress to phase five of reopening our economy was not gifted to us by the competent authority or any other authority, but was borne on the backs of losses of our jobs, income, businesses, peace of mind and fundamental freedoms.

The victories celebrated prior to July 1 were our collective victories, which cost a majority of Bahamians more than they could afford to pay, and if we disregard this reality, we would weaken our ability to chart new victories that only a unified and capable populace can achieve.

Bahamians rose to the challenge

The Bahamian people ought to be commended for the way we have adapted to unprecedented changes in our way of life due to COVID-19.

Sure, emergency orders are being issued, but issuing orders is arguably the easier part of this process, and such orders contain no magical powers in and of themselves to subdue COVID-19’s spread.

The hard work and heavy lifting for those orders is carried out by the public, and it is the generally law-abiding and compliant nature of Bahamians that made following those orders less of a shock to the consciousness than we have seen in societies where there is greater degree of social acceptance in challenging the authority of the state.

Healthcare workers are going above and beyond the call of duty as the frontline warriors in this pandemic, at great risk to themselves and their loved ones.

Businesses have had to adjust to an unplanned revamp of their service models to meet current requirements, and in most cases have demonstrated heart, soul and tremendous sacrifice to keep as many of their workers employed as possible.

Educators have had to adjust to radical shifts in their methods of teaching, and are no doubt nursing the discomfort of knowing that many of their less advantaged students, will have suffered setbacks in the past school year.

Family Islanders have endured inexplicably protracted restrictions on islands with no confirmed COVID-19 cases, while Abaconians and Grand Bahamas still weathering the destruction of Hurricane Dorian, have had their will and ability to persevere beaten all the more this year.

Yet, Bahamians are pressing on as both the battle-scarred victims and the enduring soldiers of the COVID-19 battle.

Social distance is an assault on the human psychology, as humans are social beings who desire and require connection for healthy development.

Therefore, staying true to social distancing orders brings with it levels of stress and physical and mental impacts that are not being given nearly as much public attention as ought to be accommodated.

The need for connection is powerful in humans, and losing regular physical connection with other human beings is perhaps one of the heaviest sacrifices Bahamians have made in this process.

Another sacrifice is the wearing of face coverings, which depending on the design, fabric and fit, are uncomfortable in sweltering temperatures, and create a new frontier for medical professionals worldwide who are being called upon to determine who, if anyone, should be medically exempted from wearing face masks.

Nevertheless, Bahamians have donned their masks as if wearing face coverings was always a standard activity, and have found business niches to satisfy demand.

Curfews and lockdowns will by their very nature limit movement, but Bahamians who are struggling with little to no income must nonetheless be praised for keeping the peace and giving the government reason to boast that crime has been down this year.

Hunger and lack are known precursors to crime, and in the words of the iconic musician Bob Marley, “a hungry man is an angry man”.

Yet, we have not seen that anger spill into our streets in such a way that is beyond law enforcement’s ability to routinely manage.

But we should not allow this to blind us to the anger and pain being experienced behind closed doors in our homes, the other battlefield forged by the impact of COVID-19.

Families under pressure

If you have never had a crying child look into your eyes pleading for food you are unable to provide him or her, you cannot appreciate what that level of anguish does to a mother or father.

If you have never been the victim of domestic abuse in a culture that regards such violence as a lesser brand of crime than other categories of assault, you cannot appreciate the desperation of victims trapped in homes with their abusers because curfew orders restrict their ability to get away from their unsafe environment.

If you are not a child who has been unable to participate in or effectively absorb online instruction due to conditions in his or her home, you may not fully appreciate the feeling of helplessness and frustration the child is going through, feelings that can push youngsters into activities that threaten their safety and well-being.

Make no mistake about it, COVID-19 has turned many homes in this country into war zones, pressure cookers and domiciles of worry, hopelessness and intense fear.

Because our routine use of statistics for unemployment and crime can have the effect of desensitizing us to the human suffering behind those numbers, it has become easy for some to take for granted that for every newly unemployed person, others who depend on him or her instantly become more vulnerable to exploitation and suffering.

Social Services Minister Frankie Campbell recently said requests for social assistance are increasing, even against the backdrop of millions being allocated for unemployment assistance through the National Insurance Board.

It is evidence that the mounting level of distress Bahamians and their families are encountering, must be carefully weighed against new emergency orders that can have the unintended effect of plunging Bahamians into even deeper states of poverty, financial insecurity and emotional instability.

The threat of COVID-19 would pale in comparison to the multiplier effects of such a plunge.

What is needed

Full compliance with emergency orders has not happened at any time during the state of emergency.

This has been the case both for some in the general public and for officials from the competent authority down the line, as evidenced by official and informal photographs showing authorities disregarding social distancing and mask-wearing directives, and as seen in live footage of Parliament proceedings where members sit for periods without the use of their masks.

What is needed moving forward is for those who make and enforce emergency orders to lead by example, and to cease from making their arguments about the risks of COVID-19 appear false by virtue of their actions.

What the general public must do regardless of bad examples set, is remain or become more diligent in frequent hand washing; the proper wearing of masks, which should also be frequently washed; adequate social distancing; and staying home if one feels sick.

When Dr. Frank Bartlett, head of Grand Bahama’s COVID-19 Task Force, gave a detailed breakdown of the island’s cases during last week’s Ministry of Health presser, it was the first time since the earlier days of the pandemic response that such a level and quality of information was provided to the public.

What is needed is for this quality of information sharing to become a standard moving forward, so that the public can have a better understanding of the activity of COVID-19 nationwide, and what investigations are uncovering about how new infections may be emerging.

What is also needed is increased testing, as infectious disease expert Dr. Merceline Dahl-Regis maintained during last week’s presser, her final as former coordinator of the national COVID-19 Task Force.

And above all, what is needed is for Bahamians not to lose focus of what is important at this stage.

Now, more than ever, we have got to commit to lifting one another up and looking out for one another, because the longer this pandemic drags on, the greater the degree of personal and professional loss we will suffer.

Most who become infected with COVID-19 will have mild to no symptoms and will fully recover – a fact that, if recognized, can help us not live with or promote a level of fear that in itself is unhealthy, and leads to choices that unnecessarily alienate one another.

We must live with heightened alert about COVID-19 for now, but we must always live with one another regardless of the disease’s existence.

Scientists are working to develop ways to treat and eradicate this communicable disease, and as they do so, we must not fall into an “us versus them” mentality, fighting one another with weapons of misplaced blame and politically-motivated fearmongering that do more harm than good.

Don’t let this virus divide us.

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