The decision to reopen the country’s external borders is as serious a public health undertaking as was the decision to close the borders so as to limit the importation of COVID-19.
If handled imprudently, The Bahamas could risk a resurgence of cases that our healthcare system cannot manage and our already crippled economy cannot withstand.
There are approximately 2.8 million active COVID-19 cases worldwide — almost 40 percent of which are in the United States.
On Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that the virus is now rapidly spreading in low and middle-income countries.
The WHO’s statement came on the heels of the world’s largest increase in the number of new cases (106,000) within a 24 -our period; with neighboring Latin America experiencing marked increases in the rate of new infections.
The Bahamas’ ability to keep its outbreak to manageable levels is attributed to its border closures and its containment and social distancing practices.
Our relatively low number of cases and deaths in the region are what tourism stakeholders believe will make the destination attractive to would-be travelers, but we must be ever mindful that core facets of our COVID-19 mitigation strategy will fall away once the inevitable reopening of the economy occurs.
Border closures, as one core facet, made public health mitigation goals more attainable, and served as a key level of protection that government and the private sector must be fully prepared to compensate for when that barrier to potential COVID-19 importation is removed a short time from now.
Last week, the European Commission, whose member states have suffered mass casualties in the pandemic, issued guidance on the safe resumption of travel.
Among its guidelines are that sufficient health capacity exists to deal with tourists getting sick, as well as sufficient capacity for testing, surveillance, monitoring and contact tracing.
When the U.S. Coast Guard issued an advisory back in March to cruise ships, stating that they ought to first seek aid from their flag state for critically ill passengers and crew, Transport Minister Renward Wells responded, indicating that the country was not able to take sick passengers ashore.
“Our system is not designed to deal with a massive influx of new COVID-19 patients from outside our country,” Wells said at the time.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) meantime recommends that temporary biosecurity measures include the collection of more detailed passenger contact information in advance of travel; restricted terminal access; masks and personal protective equipment for all passengers and staff; touchpoint sanitization; biometric and touchless processes; faster baggage claim processes; and temperature screening at entry points.
The threat of COVID-19 is far from over, and infectious disease experts predict a second wave of cases in the fall, which coincides with when most cruise lines expect to return to service.
Given our healthcare and bureaucratic constraints, as well as a readily apparent lack of cohesion and leadership at the Cabinet level, will The Bahamas be ready to adequately protect its residents and guests when our borders reopen 40 days from now?
Visitor comfort is key to visitor satisfaction, but what will the “new normal” be for our tourism industry, and where will the balance be struck between satisfying our visitors and ensuring that protocols are strictly adhered to so that residents and guests are kept safe?
Will all visitors be required to submit proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test from a certified lab prior to entry? Under what conditions might a tourist be required to submit to quarantine and how would this be monitored?
How would entry requirements apply to cruise ship passengers who wish to disembark? Will all visitors be required to wear masks upon entry and when in transit throughout the country as all residents are required to do?
Will temperature screenings and questionnaires in the absence of a negative test result be sufficient to adequately mitigate risk? What will social distancing in tourism look like at all points of the visitor experience?
The sooner a comprehensive plan is issued to stakeholders and the nation, the greater the opportunity for necessary buy-in.
Tourism is our number one industry and our people are our number one resource.
We once again urge the government to be chiefly guided by science and the advice of the medical experts moving forward.
And we urge the government not to allow the justifiable desire to recapture the all-important tourism dollar to supersede the predominant need to protect all islands from the threat of COVID-19.