Protecting our people

While the government moves to arrest the spread of COVID-19 in The Bahamas, it must not forget about the most vulnerable who have been holding on by the tips of their fingers.

Closing the borders to commercial craft with passengers from the United States will plunge The Bahamas deeper into economic free fall.

Eighty percent of visitors to our shores are from the United States.

Since fully reopening on July 1, roughly 600 to 700 visitors traveled through Lynden Pindling International Airport daily.

Those visitors signified a glimmer of hope for many who have been starving economically since March.

No commercial travel from the United States means no guests for the struggling hotels and other properties that are open.

The competent authority, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis, announced a two-week lockdown of Grand Bahama in an effort to slow and control the community spread of COVID-19 on that island. Since reopening the country on July 1, there have been 61 cases of COVID-19 on Grand Bahama.

Minnis noted that the government will distribute food vouchers to 14,000 residents; and allow gas stations, pharmacies, water depots and food stores to remain open for limited hours during the lockdown.

This makes sense given that many on the island still do not have electricity, are living in tents and are struggling to recover from Hurricane Dorian.

But The Bahamas appears to be back at square one.

On Monday, Minister of Tourism Dionisio D’Aguilar said that he had seen no evidence that visitors had imported the virus. He said the cases are primarily connected to traveling Bahamians bringing COVID-19 home.

Minnis had determined that Bahamians and residents traveling for less than 72 hours could return without a COVID-19 test.

Instead of reversing that policy and requiring that all who come in get tested, he has decided on an action that will have grave economic consequences.

Roughly 50 percent of the country’s GDP is derived from tourism. More so, nearly 70 percent of the employed labor force in The Bahamas is either directly or indirectly employed in the tourism sector.

Last Friday, Atlantis announced that it was extending its closure due to the explosion of COVID-19 cases in the United States. The resort did not indicate when it will reopen.

Baha Mar and Sandals Royal Bahamian on New Providence also remain closed.

Sandals Emerald Bay on Exuma is closing its doors again this week as a result of the decision to ban commercial flights from the United States.

That leaves thousands of Bahamians in the lurch. No jobs means no money.

John Bull, a major retailer, announced yesterday that it is cutting 15 percent of its staff. Up to July 3, the National Insurance Board paid out in excess of $60 million in unemployment benefits to more than 34,000 people. At the time of the budget communication in late May, some 55,000 Bahamians had applied for unemployment assistance.

With more and more Bahamians out of work, it will become increasingly difficult for them to pay their bills.

Over the weekend, officials from Bahamas Power and Light (BPL) said that 16,000 of its customers were slated to be disconnected, and that is just the first round of planned disconnections.

The rental deferral plan comes to an end soon.

In late April, the prime minister said that landlords of residential tenants in good standing up to March, who were affected by the COVID-19 crisis, must defer 40 percent of their rent for the next three months.

Minnis said the tenants will have 12 months to repay the deferred amount. Local realtors called the move a Band-Aid solution.

It is clear that The Bahamian economy will not rebound anytime soon.

America continues to set new records in COVID-19 cases and deaths. Until they are able to wrestle the virus and bring down the numbers or present a vaccine, The Bahamas will likely not see a rebound.

In the interim, the government must step in the gap and protect those who are suffering, those who are without. There are many Bahamians unable to afford the basic necessities.

Tightening the curfew, lockdown and closing the borders will make matters worse for them.

Particular attention must be paid to those on Grand Bahama during the lockdown, those who do not have the first sheet of plywood, sheetrock or cinder block to rebuild their homes.

We must not leave our people out in the cold to fend off this perilous storm.

There must be clear, decisive action to save those who are slipping into poverty.

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