Additional restrictions with respect to new confirmed COVID-19 cases on Grand Bahama were expected, such as longer curfew periods, restrictions on indoor activities such as dining and church services and possible border closures.
What was also expected, but both unwelcome and unnecessary, was divisive rhetoric regarding Grand Bahamians delivered by Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis, which derisively characterized COVID-19-infected individuals and their families as “contaminated”, and presented an inaccurate picture to the nation of the ongoing efforts of Grand Bahamians to battle COVID-19.
For those without an appreciation of history and how phobias and prejudices emerge and foment in society as a result of the feared and the unknown, it might be difficult to recognize how unacceptable such a characterization is.
With scorn on his face and apparent indignation in his tone, this scarlet-lettering of Bahamians by the nation’s leader was irresponsible, as it is precisely the kind of discourse that encourages phobias, discrimination and alienation on the basis of one’s health status, whether known or suspected.
When another communicable disease, HIV, first emerged, fear and hysteria over the uncertainties of the illness and its spread resulted in those infected being ostracized, abused, discriminated against and mistreated.
Irresponsible and ill-informed rhetoric during that time amped up misgivings about HIV-positive men and women, and brought upon them pain, the severity of which was perhaps second only to that caused by the illness itself.
Bahamians and residents who are ordered into self-isolation are alienated enough by virtue of the quarantine directive, as they are separated from family and friends.
What they do not need is for none less than the nation’s leader to warn everyone to view them and their families as pariah, because that is a dynamic that will not disappear for COVID-19-positive Bahamians and residents after health officials give them the all-clear.
Innocent and guilty
The Bahamian people, regardless of which island they live on, did not order the borders reopened to boaters and commercial airline travelers in the midst of a record-breaking surge of COVID-19 cases in the United States – the prime minister did.
The Bahamian people did not issue an emergency order exempting Bahamians and legal residents who travel for trips 72 hours or less from being tested prior to returning home, even though that travel would most likely have been to the world’s principal COVID-19 hotspot – the prime minister did.
In as much as the competent authority sought to chastise Grand Bahamians for being supposedly irresponsible, he has yet to take responsibility for the decision that rests squarely on his shoulders, and that made the emergence of new cases a statistical certainty – the reopening of the country’s borders.
If the competent authority did not want Bahamians and residents to travel outside the country at this time, he could have done what he has now chosen to do as a consequence of opening the borders to hotspots, which is to issue an order to that effect from day one.
It is unbecoming of leadership to create a scenario where the citizenry is free to act, and then condemn the citizenry for acting upon the very freedom you gave it.
This is especially so since thousands of visitors from those very same hotspots have already traveled here, and posed the same quality of risks as Bahamian travelers are thought to have presented.
It is noteworthy that when the prime minister opened the country’s borders to tourists from COVID-19 hotspots despite concerns expressed about consequential surges, we were encouraged to welcome our guests, as they would provide the much-needed tourist dollar.
We were not warned to stay away from them as they might be “contaminated”, even though they all were traveling from the world’s primary epicenter for COVID-19.
The prime minister’s messaging
suggests that Bahamians with COVID-19 have a brand of infection that is more virulent and potentially deadly than that of a visitor from the United States or elsewhere.
When an atmosphere of blame and shame is created around disease, people who are prone to acting in accordance with sentiment rather than reason, take to doing what is now occurring, which is the labelling of one another as “the guilty” and “the innocent”.
There is no such creature as “guilty” or “innocent” with respect to the pathogenesis of an infectious disease.
Now that new cases have been confirmed, all Bahamians must continue to be vigilant, but as we stated in our piece “Don’t let this virus divide us”, we cannot fight as one if we are being conditioned to seeing the enemy as people, instead of the pathogen that can readily infect them.
Travel history and questionable planning
During his national address, the prime minister said of Grand Bahama’s new cases that, “regrettably, surveillance teams have traced many of the cases to Bahamians returning to The Bahamas”.
We question where the data can be found to support this assertion, since according to the Ministry of Health’s daily reports, only three of Grand Bahama’s 31 new cases (approximately 0.1 percent) have a confirmed history of travel.
The travel history of 12 of the cases has not yet been confirmed by the ministry, so what forms the basis of the prime minister’s claim?
On the other hand, 11 of New Providence’s 18 confirmed cases (approximately 60 percent) have a confirmed history of travel.
Yet, disdainful suggestions of being indisciplined and irresponsible were not levied at New Providence residents for their decisions to travel, nor would it have been appropriate had the same occurred.
It raises the question of what was behind this unscripted diatribe about Grand Bahama.
Additionally, the prime minister’s suggestion that an island of over 50,000 people would be prevented from accessing grocery stores and other basic services in a few days’ time (the conditions of a lockdown), will have the likely effect of causing a run on stores and business establishments.
This is precisely what health professionals certainly would not wish to see, and is similar to the chaos the nation’s leader caused when he instituted an alphabetized shopping schedule, which resulted in thousands of grocery shoppers on multiple islands enduring increased risk of COVID-19 exposure.
Furthermore, we question what quality of trend analysis could possibly be gleaned between Wednesday, when the island’s borders close, and Friday, when a lockdown is threatened, that could justify the need for such a move.
If, for example, additional testing is conducted, more positive results might be confirmed.
This does not mean that Grand Bahamians are irresponsible, but rather means that officials are finding cases they would not have found had testing not been done.
If the competent authority seeks to make a decision that will invariably result in economic disaster for an island, and would also result in a food insecurity problem the size of which the state does not have the resources, manpower or level of organization to address, solid data – and not how one may personally feel about Grand Bahama – must justify it.
Unwarranted attack on Grand Bahamians
It is not for us to judge whether Bahamians and residents who opted to travel abroad ought to have done so, just as it is not for us to criticize tourists for choosing to come to The Bahamas, but there are several conditions on Grand Bahama that are instructive.
The island still does not have a fully functioning public hospital, and there are persons who must travel to obtain certain kinds of medical treatment and care.
Hundreds of homes on Grand Bahama are still in need of repair almost 11 months since the passage of Hurricane Dorian.
Furnishings and fixtures must be bought, vehicles must be replaced, as do clothing and a wide variety of personal effects, the volume of which cannot be adequately provided for the population until more and more storm-damaged businesses return to full capacity.
Regular and longstanding fast ferry and freight-bearing service between Grand Bahama and Florida makes it easy for residents and tourists to travel to and from our shores, and to transport more goods than can be brought by plane.
These modes of transport proved life-saving for the island in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, and still provide that level of convenience today particularly for small business owners.
Notwithstanding the government’s lack of testing, Grand Bahama was credited with having no new COVID-19 cases for over 50 days.
Irresponsible and indisciplined people could not have accomplished this.
It was as a result of the discipline and cooperation of residents, and the dedication of struggling but persevering businesses, that this record was achieved.
We owe it to all Bahamians, whether on Grand Bahama, New Providence or any of the family of islands, to support, pray for and encourage those who may become infected with COVID-19.
Do not alienate them. Do not look at them as “contaminated”, guilty or worthy of shame.
It is wrong to characterize people with COVID-19 as anything other than a man, woman or child who contracted a coronavirus, a novel virus from the family of pathogens responsible for the common cold.
It is wrong to use stigmatizations from positions of power that can encourage a subculturing in our country made up of the “contaminated” who should be shunned and punished, and “the innocent”, who by virtue of luck and a strong immune system, may have managed to avoid contracting a virus more and more scientists around the world believe is airborne.
The prime minister encouraged Grand Bahamians to be unified, but his commentary to the men and women of the island did not promote unity; it promoted division and fear.
And if Grand Bahamians fall victim to either of the two or a combination of both, they will not be able to fight for themselves and their island in a manner that protects their health, and their economic well-being.
It is our hope that the residents of Grand Bahama continue to work together as they have aptly demonstrated in the last year, and that they look at those with COVID-19 with love and compassion, even as they continue to practice required safety protocols.