Unready for battle

No commander desirous of victory wages battle with his or her frontline soldiers who are critically exposed.

Pandemic lockdowns buy time for authorities to increase healthcare and systemic capacities, by controlling surges that can overrun response capabilities.

But complaints of personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages in public health, yesterday’s temporary withdrawal of services by doctors and nurses at the Princess Margaret Hospital (PMH) citing safety and overcrowding concerns and Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis’ declaration that bed capacity is near maxed with 22 COVID-19 hospitalizations, are a clear indication that the country’s integral regiment in its pandemic fight has been left open to widespread assault.

Finance Minister Peter Turnquest recently advised that $21 million has been allocated to the Ministry of Health to address a second wave of COVID-19 and to fund testing, mitigation treatment and equipment needs.

In the previous fiscal year, he announced millions in immediate budgetary allocations when the outbreak first began.

Since the onset of the country’s pandemic response nearly six months ago, no indication was given to addressing the longstanding issue of limited bed capacity within the public healthcare system, though building that capacity is precisely what previous lockdown and curfew orders ought to have facilitated.

Since that time, the Ministry of Health opted not to re-engage a number of junior physicians, citing budgetary constraints, just as the competent authority and health minister at the time, was reopening the country’s borders to travelers from COVID-19 hotspots.

The nurses union’s president, who has called for testing for nurses in the public healthcare system, recently complained that nurses were not being supplied with essential N95 protective masks and medical gowns.

We understand that medical gowns within the public healthcare system are among other PPEs in dangerously short supply including hazmat suits, shoe covers and visors.

Building RT-PCR testing capacity within public health was also a matter raised by former Health Minister Dr. Duane Sands, who stressed that the same was critical to providing an adequate level of care.

The question, then, is what have tens of millions of dollars in budgetary allocations for the country’s pandemic response between the previous and current budgetary periods been spent on thus far, considering that such key shortages and inefficiencies in public health exist?

Inasmuch as lax adherence to safety protocols by some residents is condemned as a threat to public safety, so too is a failure by government to put focus and funding toward building healthcare capacity as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on.

From almost the onset of the monitoring process for those in home isolation, health officials cited manpower and protocol challenges as well as breaches of home quarantine orders, yet only this week — nearly six months into the pandemic response — did the prime minister announce that a COVID-19 Enforcement Unit charged with monitoring home quarantines, was now operational.

It was not disclosed how much focus this unit will give to monitoring visitors who are to quarantine at “a government-identified facility”, and who Minnis previously said could be permitted to quarantine at homes they may have in-country.

The prime minister also did not indicate how this unit will function on islands outside of New Providence.

Meantime, Immigration Minister Elsworth Johnson told reporters yesterday that “no less than 30” immigration officers have tested positive for COVID-19, and stressed the dangers of the public being irresponsible with respect to the virus.

But what was not stated by Johnson was how these officers may have become infected, and whether immigration officers have the necessary PPEs and requisite safety protocols in place to ensure a maximum level of protection while on the job.

The same question holds for over 100 Royal Bahamas Police Force officers who are either COVID-19-positive or in quarantine for exposure to the virus, and for whom their suspected or confirmed chain of infection has not been disclosed to the public.

Law enforcement, like healthcare workers, are frontline soldiers in the COVID-19 fight.

Government appears to have developed too comfortable a posture of placing blame for the current outbreak solely on the public, without giving account for its areas of negligence in ensuring its frontline workers are provided with adequate protective equipment, and are given the systemic resources necessary to work safely.

As with its botched reopening of the country’s borders, the government must move hastily to rectify inadequacies on the frontline that have left the country unready for battle in its second surge of COVID-19.

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