Focusing on the coronavirus

Given the World Health Organization’s (WHO) indication that the coronavirus (COVID-19) may likely become a pandemic, and given the current and potential impacts of the disease, we ought to see the prime minister and his cabinet demonstrate a greater degree of collective focus on this public health emergency.

The Ministry of Health, guided by the response recommendations of regional and international health agencies, has been doing a notable job thus far in managing the country’s response to the threat of the disease.

Health Minister Dr. Duane Sands advised reporters this week that costs associated with the country’s response could top $1 million.

We understand that the ministry has reserved four million surgical masks for The Bahamas as a precautionary measure that takes into account the psychological impact of a pandemic threat, though medical experts consider the use of surgical masks mostly ineffective in preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

But there has been no situation report from government to-date on its assessments of potential impacts to tourism, trade, the economy, transport and national security, and its level of preparedness to manage how the daily lives of Bahamians could be altered should the disease reach our shores.

U.S. President Donald Trump sought to allay market and national concerns during a press conference this week, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) advised that community spread of the coronavirus, though not yet observed, is expected.

As of yesterday, the U.S. had 60 confirmed cases of the disease.

Widespread transmission of the disease in the U.S., according to the CDC’s most recent situation report, would translate into schools, childcare centers, workplaces and other places for mass gatherings experiencing more absenteeism, with “other critical infrastructure such as law enforcement, emergency medical services and [the] transportation industry” potentially being affected.

The same could have a negative impact on our tourism industry as most of our visitors travel from the United States.

In a joint statement on tourism and COVID-19 by the WHO and the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the agencies stressed the need for international cooperation, noting that, “Tourism’s response needs to be measured and consistent, proportionate to the public health threat and based on local risk assessment, involving every part of the tourism value chain – public bodies, private companies and tourists, in line with WHO’s overall guidance and recommendations.”

Thus far, travel restrictions by The Bahamas have been established for those visiting China and might be subject to change due to the spread of the coronavirus in countries including Italy, South Korea and Singapore.

Jamaica has extended its travel restrictions to include these countries as well as Iran, and is reviewing the situation in Japan to determine whether it ought to be added to its list.

The tourism impact of fears surrounding the coronavirus fell center stage in the region this week when Jamaica denied entry of the MSC Meraviglia to its port at Ocho Rios because “a crew member had a cough, fever and associated muscle pains with a travel history to a country of interest relating to the COVID-19”, according to Jamaica’s Ministry of Health and Wellness.

Grand Cayman followed suit, with Mexico ultimately granting entry to the ship whose crew member tested positive for Influenza A.

Sands later advised that the ship will also be granted entry into The Bahamas, and that MSC has been asked to have the crew member tested for COVID-19 and to confirm that the test is negative.

It is a decision that did not sit well with some Bahamians as fears throughout the country, just as fears worldwide, are growing amidst ongoing uncertainties about the deadly disease.

The Bahamas thankfully has no confirmed or suspected cases of the coronavirus at this time, but government must not rest on this present day situation, and must recognize that fear of the unknown can be more infectious than a pathogenic disease and can be counterproductive to mitigation efforts.

It is why leadership at the prime ministerial level — not to be confused with one-upmanship — is critical in the face of all variables related to the coronavirus, so that Bahamians can know the extent of the government’s multi-ministerial analysis and level of readiness.

If coronavirus reaches The Bahamas, we must know that government has fully assessed all the potential impacts, and is prepared to mitigate the eventualities.

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