Transparency and COVID-19

We have recognized the efforts by the government and particularly the Ministry of Health to keep the Bahamian people informed on the advance of the novel coronavirus.

Entry restrictions for travelers from hard-hit China were put in place in mid-February and as the virus spread, restrictions were expanded to include South Korea, Iran and Italy.

The Ministry of Health’s COVID-19 Bahamas Dashboard and daily advertisements in the media advising residents how best to protect themselves and reduce the risks of infection and community spread have been reassuring.

On March 12, the 2020 High School National Track and Field Championships were suspended by the minister of youth, sports and culture on the first day of competition.

A week ago, Sunday, March 15, the acting minister of health informed a mid-day press conference that the first COVID-19 patient had been identified in The Bahamas, the apparent result of community spread.

On the strength of the single infection, the prime minister, who previously advised the public not to panic, announced that evening the closure of all schools the following day, Monday, March 16, 2020 and expanded travel restrictions to include all of the European Union, the United Kingdom and Ireland.

These were radical actions in response to a single infection. However, timely measures to limit the movement of people, put in place with absolute clarity and then enforced, have proven to be most effective elsewhere.

Almost immediately, stories purporting to provide details on the source of the first infection began circulating on social media. These claimed that relatives of the patient had travelled to Trinidad for carnival and/or to Dubai as tourists, where they had contracted the virus.

The government neither confirmed nor denied these stories.

On Wednesday, March 17, the prime minister and the minister of health advised that the number of individuals testing positive for the virus had increased by two and that one or both had traveled to Canada, Dubai and Trinidad in recent times.

This gave credence to earlier social media “fake news” reports.

On Thursday, without the release of additional information on new threats or infections, the prime minister announced the closing of all businesses to the general public with listed exceptions and imposed a 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew effective the next day and continuing to March 31, 2020 under the authority of an emergency power order.

On Friday, we learned that the number of COVID-19 patients had increased to four.

That same day, the attorney general, on a Guardian Radio talk show, credited or blamed senior medical advisors for setting the parameters for the order shutting down bus but not taxi or airplane transport; and closing restaurants but permitting banks and food stores to remain open without specific recommendations as to social distancing.

Notably, by Saturday morning major food store retailers had instituted careful monitoring of the numbers of shoppers granted entry at the same time.

Bahamians have accepted the actions by the government, alarmed as so many are by the rapid spread of COVID-19, the horror stories coming out of Italy and elsewhere of overwhelmed hospitals and devastating and rising death rates.

Still, the government has been less than forthcoming with information on the disease in The Bahamas.

Unlike in many other countries, there were no daily press briefings on the disease.

We welcomed the presence at last Thursday’s press conference of the substantive minster of health, Dr. Duane Sands and of the retired chief medical officer, Dr. Marceline Dahl-Regis, recalled to service as a consultant. We hoped that their presence might improve the government’s communication with the public.

We were very satisfied therefore when the minister and consultant led Sunday afternoon’s press briefing to update the nation on the status of COVID-19 in the country.

They and the team of doctors, who have been formulating The Bahamas’ preparedness and response to the threat of coronavirus, are to be commended for the clear, concise and informative responses to questions posed by journalists in attendance, as well as to questions coming in from Grand Bahama and several family island communities.

We were especially encouraged by an indication that such health briefings are to continue. We hope daily.

Such briefings will certainly encourage and strengthen the Bahamian public’s resolve and support for stringent measures put in place to counter the spread of the disease.

They will also discredit the unhelpful false stories circulating on social media.

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