Expedience versus reality

A communicable disease outbreak does not bow to the expediencies of the day.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis, heralding a three-week goalpost, foreshadowed to Parliament that Family Islands could “very soon” be declared “COVID-free”, and stated his desire to momentarily make the same declaration nationwide.

His comments point to an intention to market the country as a COVID-free destination ahead of government’s October 15 relaunch of commercial tourism.

But saying something does not make it so, and data produced by the Ministry of Health does not support the prime minister’s COVID-free prefiguring.

Moreover, denying the realities of COVID-19’s prevalence in The Bahamas — which may ultimately lead to scaling back necessary responses to that prevalence — puts both residents and the country’s visitors at risk.

We have been down this road before.

Prior to the July 1 reopening, confirmed COVID-19 cases held at 104 for an extended period, which Minnis touted as evidence that community spread had been arrested.

But confirmed cases can only be determined through testing, and the country’s level of testing had significantly decreased during that period, a period when Minnis as then-minister of health, told Parliament that widespread testing was not necessary.

Chief Medical Officer Dr. Pearl McMillan advised this week that the country has an average COVID-19 positivity rate of 25 percent — a rate that is five times the World Health Organization’s (WHO) five percent positivity threshold to determine the safety of reopening a country’s economy.

The COVID-19 positivity rate is a function of the prevalence of infection and the number of tests being performed, and a high positivity rate not only suggests a high rate of community spread, but indicates that more testing should be done to keep pace with levels of disease transmission, according to the WHO.

Our alarmingly high positivity rate points to the need for more testing, not less, and signals that our numbers of confirmed cases are only a fraction of the total number of cases nationwide.

Yet, the ministry’s data shows a marked decrease in the number of COVID-19 tests performed within the last two weeks.

If this becomes a trend, the country would once again be moving in the wrong direction with respect to detection and control of COVID-19, even as it prepares to embark on broader face-to-face schooling and a tourism relaunch in coming weeks.

Opposition members did not attend yesterday’s sitting in response to confirmation that a House of Assembly staffer, who had direct contact with MPs, tested positive for the disease.

The opposition maintained that attendance would send the wrong message to the country, and expose parliamentarians to unnecessary risk.

Minnis chided Opposition Leader Philip Brave Davis’ absence, claiming that having recently recovered from COVID-19, Davis is now immune to the virus.

As politically expedient as the prime minister may have deemed his assertion to be, the reality is that the jury is still out in the scientific community on immunity to COVID-19, and researchers are not yet certain of the extent to which reinfection can and does occur.

More importantly, Minnis’ statement implies acknowledgement of risk to the Parliament that he insists Davis should have no fear of, which, in effect, implicates the governing side in exposing the legislature to that risk.

And with no announced testing for MPs by the prime minister, the now commonplace message of expediency delivered, is that government members posses an inherent immunity to COVID-19.

Perhaps one of the most glaring examples of recent history repeating itself, and of expediency running counter to reality, is Minnis’ notice to Parliament that he intends to bring a resolution to extend his emergency rule for yet another month.

On the one hand, the prime minister expressed confidence that the country could begin to reach COVID-free status as early as the first full week in October, and on the other hand, he announced plans to bring a resolution just over a week before that time, which will declare a state of emergency still exists due to the country’s number of COVID-19 cases.

In doing so, Minnis contradicted his own presage of a COVID-free country in time to welcome new visitors, and has once again demonstrated that regardless of realities and exigencies thereto on the ground, he is weighted toward what is expedient.

Beyond COVID-19, it is an apparent propensity the country must pay very close attention to in the coming months.

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