Moving on

Getting the economy roaring again will not be a cure-all for societal damage caused by the pandemic response

A suspension of some constitutional rights, and a departure from ordinary parliamentary oversight brought about through the country’s 20-month-long state of emergency are now over.

What has become the mantra in the lead-up to a very necessary transition from emergency rule is that it is “time to move on” to get our economy going again.

As we pointed out in previous articles, the country’s Health Services Act now being utilized to respond to the COVID pandemic, offers adequate provisions to have enabled a transition from emergency rule long before now.

As such, it certainly is time to move on from suppressed civil liberties, and the threat of losing one’s freedom to imprisonment for any action the competent authority deemed inappropriate.

But it is essential for government and the Bahamian people to recognize that the damage caused by months of lockdowns, curfews and arbitrary emergency orders does not primarily boil down to record losses in gross domestic product (GDP), though such economic losses have distinctly far-reaching effects.

To avoid the folly of the inattentive and indulgent king in Ecclesiastes 10:19 who believed “money answereth all things”, The Bahamas must take precise stock of what has been lost to the pandemic response beyond jobs and business viability.

Worldwide and here at home, sweeping responses by governments to COVID-19 have resulted in damage to vulnerable groups in society, education, mental health, families and relationships, outcomes for chronic disease sufferers, outcomes for pregnant women and their babies, and to steps to narrow social inequality gaps.

Deficiencies in these categories existed even when the economy was on a stronger footing – such as the country’s disgracefully high infant and maternal mortality rates – and many social deficiencies have been exacerbated in yet-to-be officially quantified ways.

As a society, we should therefore not be lulled into thinking that we are getting safely back to normal because tourism numbers are increasing and quarterly revenue targets are being met or exceeded.

If considered and deliberate steps are not taken to tackle the societal damage of COVID-19, we will have a nation of people too sick to work or work well, too undereducated to be sufficiently efficient in the workforce or society, too psychologically wounded to best serve as heads of households, schools, churches and civic organizations, and too marginalized and undercounted to have a viable steak in the country’s progress.

Challenges beyond economics

In a report by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs on the social impact of COVID-19, the UN department said of the setbacks to various groups in society, “If not properly addressed through policy, the social crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic may also increase inequality, exclusion, discrimination and global unemployment in the medium and long term.”

Among the vulnerable groups in Bahamian society are the nation’s elderly.

Many within our older population live on a small fixed income, suffer from multiple comorbidities or physical limitations, and in many cases have to fend for themselves due to lack of support and assistance from family members.

The pandemic response led to those in elderly care facilities being cut off from their loved ones due to restrictions on in-person visitations; to increased mobility challenges when public transportation was halted; and to increased social isolation due to fears that being in close contact with the elderly could heighten their COVID-19 risks of severe illness or death.

Additionally, soaring food costs as a result of the pandemic made it that much more difficult for many elderly individuals to survive, particularly when one considers that many elderly households have only their pension check as their source of income.

These dynamics, including reduced access to regular health screenings due to an overburdened health system, became a perfect storm for a deterioration in the living conditions of the country’s older population.

Getting the economy roaring again will not in and of itself, address these issues.

The suspension of elective medical procedures and routine clinics have no doubt had a negative effect on the health and quality of life of those with restrictive ailments and injuries, degenerative conditions, and chronic illnesses including diabetes, hypertension, cancer and heart disease.

What ought also be factored in is the effect of stress in both the development or worsening of these and other conditions, and considering the trauma of both Hurricane Dorian and COVID-19, it might be safe to assume that chronic stress is at an all-time high in The Bahamas.

Getting the economy roaring again will provide additional sums of revenue for government’s use, but without specific and workable plans and policies geared toward addressing the non-COVID health crises arising from the pandemic, extra revenue will not be utilized in an efficacious manner. 

Prior to Dorian, young women were the largest representative group of the unemployed in The Bahamas, despite having better educational attainment on average than their male counterparts.

Returning the country’s economy to pre-Dorian levels, therefore, does not address the country’s problem of high female unemployment.

Worldwide, pandemic job losses among women markedly outstripped that of men due to drastic cut backs in service-based industries, and many women being forced to leave the workplace or their businesses to enable their children to participate in virtual schooling.

Analysts have warned that the effects of the pandemic on female employment and entrepreneurship might set gender equality strides back a generation, and the Davis administration will have to develop clear strategies to address this issue which also threatens the thousands of households headed by women in The Bahamas.

Mental health is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and ignored aspects of the human condition in The Bahamas, and studies point to deteriorations in mental health due to the pandemic, with documented increases in rates of major depression and suicide.

Where pandemic pressures and restrictions led to decreased access to mental health services, those with diagnosed psychological conditions also fell at risk of worsening outcomes.

Lockdowns forced adults and children to be trapped at home with their abusers, and children cut off from their friends, families and the stability of a school environment faced greater threats to development and mental health.

Those who began to suffer from depression or anxiety disorders as a result of Dorian and the pandemic might not understand their condition, and in many cases are trying to manage their struggles on their own or through church when professional help is needed.

These effects invariably show up in the workplace with reduced levels of productivity, and can ultimately weaken society as those with unmanaged mental health challenges withdraw from taking on meaningful roles in their community.

Getting back to work and creating new job opportunities must be done and are imperative for The Bahamas, and so is focusing on policies that adequately address these and other pandemic-induced factors.

Enforcement and leading by example

Rules under the Health Services Act are now in effect to govern the pandemic response moving forward, but just as the emergency orders before them, the rules have no ability on their own to manage an infectious disease outbreak.

While the prolonged state of emergency maintained by the Minnis administration was in itself problematic, what ultimately led to deadly outbreaks, mass confusion and hysteria, and protracted business interruption were improper management and inadequate enforcement.

It has not been made clear what the precise mechanisms of enforcement will be for the new COVID rules in place, apart from what we assume would be the police force’s general role of maintaining law and order.

Judging by large social events seen this weekend, the question is even moreso pertinent of how the new health rules will be adequately enforced.

Under the previous administration, COVID ambassadors were utilized to enforce the competent authority’s emergency orders, but Minister of Health and Wellness Dr. Michael Darville has not advised the public on whether this enforcement mechanism will be maintained, and to what extent.

Under the state of emergency, the problem of fake COVID tests was reportedly rampant before several arrests were ultimately made, but the question remained on how so many fake COVID tests were allegedly able to get past COVID ambassadors at airports before the problem was publicly identified.

Both the previous emergency orders and the new rules contain a restriction on indoor and outdoor social gatherings both for number of participants and vaccination status, but this restriction was then, and continues to be, one that will be difficult to enforce nationwide.

And we question to what extent government is holding itself to the standard of full compliance with these provisions, or whether it considers its large events to be those that do not fall under the category of a social gathering.

Considering published photos from events either held by government or with government officials in attendance — some with large group portraits or with barely a mask in sight — the public regardless of one’s vaccination status can very easily get the impression that all bets are off, and that we can now do as we wish.

Members of the previous administration were repeatedly and justifiably criticized for the same during the state of emergency, and now the Davis administration must ensure that notwithstanding the vaccination status of its Cabinet ministers and other parliamentarians, they lead by good example on rules regarding mask wearing, social distancing and the size of gatherings.

Adequate contact tracing and containment were a challenge throughout the state of emergency, and while in opposition, the governing Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) pledged to ensure that it would bolster the country’s number of contact tracers and ensure the contact tracing mechanism was adequately resourced.

Darville recently assured that contact tracers who are owed salary payments would be paid and an update is required on how many additional contact tracers will be hired and where they will be placed nation-wide. 

Perspective contacted Darville Saturday to get details on these matters, but our promised interview yesterday did not materialize up to news time.

While there is a lull in confirmed COVID cases and an incremental decrease in COVID hospitalizations, building capacity to be ready for the potential of a fourth wave can occur without the pressure of a surge in cases and a resulting need for bed space.

Moving on from a state of emergency without ensuring that adequate enforcement and surveillance are in place for the rules now in effect, could be the recipe for a setback of a fourth wave that no one wants to experience.

It is fine to recognize the mistakes of the previous administration’s pandemic management.

Steering clear of repeating those mistakes and improving upon what was left in place, are the definition of moving on in a way that can best protect and advance the country’s interests.

Meantime, the public must remember that whether under emergency orders or health rules, SARS-CoV-2 is not gone and our need to remain vigilant continues.

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