Facing down the pandemic

Dear Editor,

The good

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt as though the people in charge have taken the role of statesmen seriously.

I didn’t feel it after Dorian. In fact, I was so disturbed by the government’s poor handling of that crisis, I could barely write in the aftermath.

But, I do feel it now. The two disasters are night and day.

What makes this one different?

Well, we’re fortunate that our prime minister is a doctor.

We’re also fortunate that our health minister is one of the best surgeons in the country, and surgeons are masters of making tough decisions in difficult times—making impossible choices under pressure.

This disaster speaks their language.

Add to that the fact that the health officials are familiar with dealing with, and controlling, the spread of communicable diseases.

We have very strong protocols in place already.

One of the things that we never seem to talk about, because we are not used to dealing with Bahamian successes, is the success that our nation has had in dealing with the prevalence and spread of HIV/AIDS — and our success in treating those cases that do exist.

The Bahamas has a high rate of HIV/AIDS. But, we have a relatively low mortality rate for that disease.

We had a robust contact-tracing system already in place before COVID-19; our health care workers throughout the system know what to do and how to do it.

The protocols, which we developed to handle HIV/AIDS, are helping us now.

The people in charge of the COVID-19 response, then, are not new to handling epidemics.

Indeed, those people who have criticized Dr. Merceline Dahl-Regis over the recent weeks have been schooled in her credentials in this very area.

Our PM and minister of health are the right people to be in place at this time.

Dr. Minnis possesses training that enables him not only to understand what is happening on a global scale, but also how to respond — to understand the difficulty of what has to be done if we are to have a chance of handling the pandemic with any semblance of success.

No one has to explain the mathematics of epidemiology to him.

No one has to convince him that the only way we can prevent the potential human toll of this disease is to prevent people from leaving their homes.

The lockdown is drastic, but it is also necessary.

It’s the best strategy in the attempt to control the spread and the impact of the virus.

“Health is not a commodity … some things should not be used for profit.”


The bad

But, all the above being said, we have systemic weaknesses in our nation and our government that will impact our ability to get through this crisis.

The first one is the deeply unequal nature of our society.

For a generation, we have followed the general wisdom of the world that argues that a laissez-faire economy is good for all.

In other words, after a generation in which government intervention shaped virtually every aspect of life, government policies shifted away from that stance, choosing, rather, to negotiate deals with foreign investors, which would provide benefits from all Bahamians through their very existence.

The initial runaway economic success of Atlantis was like a drug for all politicians after the 1990s; all manner of ills could be solved by turning over Bahamian land to foreign developers and letting the developers take on the task of finding jobs for Bahamians, putting in infrastructure, developing those corners of our archipelago, which are hard and expensive to reach.

At the same time, the privatization, which seemed to work so well in the tourism industry, was carried over into other sectors.

Successive governments divested themselves of public utilities with differing levels of success: our telecommunications company, together with its network (questionable), the management of our electricity (poor), the management of our water (fair), and the management of our waste (excellent).

Indeed, the only two sectors now, which have not been effectively privatized, are the health and education, which is, perhaps, fortunate at this time.

In times of crisis, we are reminded what the function of government is.

We are further reminded that health is not a commodity, and some things should not be used for profit.

The value of the laissez-faire economy has its limits.

The society and economy that have flourished in the wake of this tradition — which is, in the end, wonderful for politicians, who can sit back and divest themselves of a lot of responsibility and live off the fat of the foreign investor and measure their economic success in terms of gross revenues from tourism and foreign investment rather than the relative wealth of the ordinary Bahamian citizen — have grown more and more uneven, more and more unequal.

Today, The Bahamas is the second most unequal nation in the Caribbean.

Economic success for a few is not the same thing as economic success for all.

Indeed, as someone who was born on the cusp of the era of greatest inequality — the time when one’s skin color determined one’s ability not only to rise in our nation, but even to survive — I recognize elements of the society around me, where the wealthy minority lives in enclaves where the ordinary may not go, where more and more people struggle to feed themselves daily, and the majority (our former flourishing middle class) are living precariously on the edge of ruin every day.

Add to this the inequality on which our entire nation is founded: the overdevelopment of New Providence and the underdevelopment of the rest of the archipelago.

Those of us who live in the capital are close to all those things that have made our nation the (former) economic powerhouse of the Caribbean: the schools, the hospitals, the shops, the restaurants, the recreation, the arts, the transportation, the food stores, the security forces, the jobs.

But New Providence is only 1.5 percent of the total landmass of The Bahamas.

The 30 percent of us who live elsewhere in The Bahamas — who populate the Family Islands (odd, isn’t it, how we’re using that seminal terminology now, in the time of crisis? No specious talk of “out” and “outer” now; odd how we return to “family”) — are deeply, deeply unequal.

We have seen that already.

In Bimini, contracting COVID-19 was a death sentence because of the inadequacy of Family Island health services to handle critically ill patients, and because of the challenges posed by transporting the ill from one island to another in a time of total lockdown.

In that situation, the protocols put in place to save lives may actually have cost one.

The unfortunate truth about this is that we must expect more such deaths.

Our system — our concentration of development on one small island, the fact that we have only three hospitals in the northern part of the nation, two in New Providence and one in Grand Bahama, and no hospitals at all in the south — guarantees it.

This isn’t unique to us, by the way: the world is learning this, too, the hard way.

In Italy, they have learned it already.

“Class, [m]ake[s] all the difference. Being locked up in a house with a pretty garden or in an overcrowded housing project will not be the same. Nor is being able to keep on working from home or seeing your job disappear. That boat, in which you’ll be sailing in order to defeat the epidemic, will not look the same to everyone nor is it actually the same for everyone: it never was” — Francesca Milandri, “A letter to the UK from Italy: this is what we know about your future”, The Guardian, March 27, 2020.

So where does that leave us?

Stay tuned.

And wait and see.

Nicolette Bethel

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