Striking a balance

Regarding the controversy over government’s decision to permit permanent residents to re-enter The Bahamas in spite of its emergency border closure order still in effect, there are several points of concern.

As revealed by this newspaper, the permanent residents were granted entry, bringing with them medical supplies which Health Minister Dr. Duane Sands advised were a “donation” of 2,500 double swabs for COVID-19 testing.

That Sands would be desirous of accessing these supplies which are essential to COVID-19 testing but are in short supply worldwide is understandable, as is his determination that such a donation was valuable due to its limited availability.

But when weighed in the balance of COVID-19 emergency orders, the decision to authorize entry for the permanent residents traveling from the United States, even as Bahamians abroad have been prohibited from returning home and will be denied re-entry without receipt of a negative COVID-19 test, is problematic.

In the fight to prevent new surges of COVID-19 cases, countries whose borders are open to returning citizens and residents require that they all submit to the same screening and containment protocols.

The evidence-based rationale of this is obvious; COVID-19 does not discriminate, and a traveller can pose the same category of risk for transmission of the disease regardless of his or her nationality or immigration status — particularly if traveling from or through a disease epicenter.

The returning permanent residents were not required to prove their COVID-19 status, and according to Sands, were “not displaying symptoms”, were evaluated by a nurse and were instructed to self-quarantine.

Their COVID-19 test was administered a day after their return.

Local officials have yet to establish an effective monitoring program for those in self-quarantine, and countries that are reporting new surges of COVID-19 cases are attributing the same to infections in citizens and residents returning from hotspots.

It is inconceivable that this donation and the flight to facilitate it were arranged via a last-minute request to the competent authority, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis, for approval, and it is reasonable to expect that permanent residents on a flight home would wish to go to their home upon arrival.

Therefore, out of an abundance of caution and consistent with what is being required of returning Bahamians, the returning permanent residents ought to have been required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test as a condition of re-entry, and they ought to have been placed into mandatory quarantine for the established 14-day period.

Failing to do this sends the untenable message that one’s valuable gift to The Bahamas inherently reduces the risk of an individual importing COVID-19 to our shores — the same risk that formed the basis of Bahamians abroad being barred from returning home.

It also raises public suspicion about the government’s decision-making that is unhelpful during this period.

Once Bahamians are cleared to return, they will be placed into a mandatory government quarantine under military guard, with a maximum penalty of $20,000 or five years in prison for violating their containment.

Since Bahamians must test negative before being permitted to return home, it is questionable what level of risk they might potentially pose that warrants such a punitive penalty.

Moreover, it remains to be seen how easy it will be for Bahamians in the United States to get a COVID-19 test on demand, since states set various priorities for testing eligibility and availability.

The current controversy also heightens the call to grant consideration for inter-island passenger travel to those with exigent circumstances who have been unable to return to their island due to the emergency order in effect.

On balance, is the value of their need to return to their homes and families less substantial than the desire of our permanent resident donors to return to their home, albeit from a COVID-19 epicenter?

Granted, the numbers of those wishing to travel inter-island would pose a much greater containment and mitigation challenge, but government has had a far longer time frame to think about and plan for such a consideration than was needed to give the approvals at the center of the current controversy.

It should make haste now to remove all encumbrances so that Bahamians can return home.

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