Those experienced in crisis management caution that there is a fine line between providing assurances to the public that everything is under control and perpetuating a false sense of security.
While weather-related public warnings are well-known to Bahamians, protocols on the issuance of health-related emergencies concerning epidemics or pandemics are not usual and hence less well-known.
In The Bahamas, like elsewhere around the world, one of the most difficult decisions that emergency managers are required to make is when to sound an alarm and how much information to disseminate to the public.
The number of individuals with the virus is climbing daily (87,000 in over 50 countries) as of Sunday.
And now, it has been detected in Florida and New York. Closer to The Bahamas.
The minister of health has warned that “it’s not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’ the new coronavirus will reach The Bahamas. The minister is not being an alarmist.
We believe that the minister and his health team are making the right decisions on informing the public of the status of the contagion internationally and in taking proactive steps to respond to the likely impact of the coronavirus on the health and economic well-being of The Bahamas.
We were encouraged to learn that the Ministry of Health is already working with the departments of immigration and of customs to train officers to identify potential ill-travelers, so that they may be tested and quarantined as appropriate.
Health officials have kept the public informed of steps taken to quarantine returning residents who visited countries or locations where the virus is known to exist – primarily mainland China and Canada. And, they have also advised the public of when quarantined individuals have been released, once they remained asymptomatic for the recommended 14-day period of isolation.
This is critically important, given the international nature of our economy and the large number of travelers – Bahamian and international — entering the country daily, all potentially having been exposed to the virus or to others who have been exposed.
Also useful is the diagram released by the Ministry of Health setting out the facts on coronavirus, which is circulating on social media.
The diagram provides the public with useful information on worldwide infections and numbers of deaths.
It also gives simple steps that ought to be adopted to reduce chances of infection.
These include simple tasks like frequent hand washing, covering mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, disinfecting frequently touched surfaces and objects and avoiding contact with anyone showing symptoms of a cold or flu.
We hope that this information is regularly updated by the ministry, so as not to leave the public at the mercy of sensationalized reports that are also making their way onto social media sites.
It is going to be increasingly important for the minister to satisfy the public that the government is prepared to handle the number of infections that may arise in our country.
The minister has suggested that remote field hospitals will be expected to treat such patients while the chief medical officer was not certain that such treatment hospitals would in fact be remote. A single position needs to be agreed and put to the public, so that all know what to expect.
Fear is an important consideration in the response to a crisis. Fear can be worse than the crisis itself, promoting extreme, and sometimes irrational, behavior to avoid a threat, perceived or real.
This makes regular, reliable communication essential, so as to engender trust and reduce uncertainty, and hence fear.
Fear of the disease recently played a part in cruise ships being turned away from a number of Caribbean ports, including St. Lucia, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. The fears have so far proved unfounded.
The enemy of good order is panic and thoughtless reaction.
It is essential, therefore, that our leaders continue to act responsibly in facing the challenges that this virus presents to us.