Politics trumps the pandemic

COVID-19 is now infecting hundreds of new individuals in The Bahamas — on average, 72 new cases per day, according to the Reuters COVID-19 world tracker.

There is only one certainty, no one is accepting responsibility for the turn of events.

The government gave up all pretense of leading the fight against the spread of COVID-19 months ago when the economy reopened.

Business restrictions were relaxed, in-person instruction for most schools resumed, and internal and international borders were reopened, with shifting and, hence, confusing health protocols.

Illogically, travel within The Bahamas, on the one hand, requires either proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 or evidence of a negative PCR test within the last five days. On the other hand, visitors arriving from outside of the country, traveling on cruise ships that depart from Florida ports – the principal point of departure for a large segment of our visitors — are only required to meet Florida COVID-19 standards, which prohibit cruise lines from requiring passengers to be vaccinated against the pandemic.

And all this notwithstanding the government’s failure first to get a handle on adequate numbers of test kits to detect the disease and then later, its failure to purchase adequate supplies of vaccines, or approve and authorize its importation by the private sector, to permit the inoculation of enough of the population to slow the spread of the disease.

The most optimistic guesstimates place the number of fully vaccinated Bahamians at between 10 and 15 percent of the population; a far cry from “herd immunity”, which requires the vaccination of at least 75 percent of the population. We know, too, that even if there were enough vaccine doses for every adult Bahamian, the issue of vaccine hesitancy would likely persist.

The best means of countering vaccine hesitancy would be a continuous, sustained public education campaign encouraging the population to become vaccinate, and the rollout of incentives for the vaccinated and restrictions for the non-vaccinated, encouraging all to stay at home except for essential workers. Such campaigns are being successfully run in countries like Belize, a fellow CARICOM state, and France, a wealthy member of the G7/OECD group of countries.

Instead, facing a general election within the next 10 months, the government has determined that it is in its interests to launch its re-election campaign rather than focus on governing and meeting its current mandate, most particularly that of controlling or limiting the spread of COVID-19.

Paying lip service in its response to rising rates of COVID-19 infections, especially in New Providence, and the related increased numbers of confirmed COVID-19-related deaths, the government announced stricter regulations on social and economic activity on Friday, increasing the overnight curfew by one hour, permitting indoor dining only in hotels and reducing the number of residents permitted to attend weddings, funerals and private gatherings in New Providence, Grand Bahama and Eleuthera.

No one believes that these band-aid steps will help move us beyond the current crisis. Indeed, signs point to an already overwhelmed health system collapsing, and health officials have stopped reporting on contact tracing efforts.

Most telling is the government’s mandate that private gatherings of vaccinated individuals are to be limited to just five people while simultaneously political campaign teams consisting of up to five vaccinated individuals are authorized to visit homes irrespective of the vaccination status of the residents.

One is hard-pressed to accept that the government places the same value on the lives of Bahamians as it does on meeting the demands of visitors and satisfying its own interest of re-election.

As with previous waves, the uneven and confusing application of restrictions and mixed messages being sent are likely to prove unhelpful in the effort to save lives.

On Monday, the prime minister declared the pandemic is over for the vaccinated. On Friday, Minister of Health Renward Wells announced that only five vaccinated individuals could attend a private gathering on any island of The Bahamas, although there are islands that have gone weeks without any confirmed cases. 

Meanwhile, planeloads of fully vaccinated individuals are allowed to travel to The Bahamas untested, although Wells acknowledged on Friday that fully vaccinated individuals could still catch and spread the coronavirus.

Allowing indoor weddings while prohibiting indoor funerals also seems without justification, as does allowing hair salons to operate while prohibiting spas.

With a clear focus on preparing for an election, the government has taken too long to act to address what has been a steadily worsening crisis over weeks. The latest restrictions again appear to be a hurried response in the face of mounting criticisms, as opposed to a well-thought-out strategy to bring the current surge under control.

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