Op-Ed

We can do this!

“You will surely forget your trouble, recalling it only as waters gone by. Life will be brighter than noonday, and the darkness will become like morning. You will be secure, because there is hope.”
Job 11:16-18

There is no denying the fact that 2020 is one for the record books.

Thus far, for many, the year is not one of harvest and potential. It is one that has demanded reflections, and at times outright disgust.

The past eight months of 2020 beg many questions, with no discerning answers. It seems, though, to make a simple point that life is uncertain; a reminder that we are just passengers on this earthly sojourn.

The COVID-19 pandemic is truly a test of one’s grit — do you have the mental fortitude to withstand lockdowns and stay-at-home orders? To face financial deprivation and unexpected economic hard times? To face job losses and a deep sense of hopelessness that one may have never experienced before?

It is a daunting time. And there is perhaps not sufficient lucid space to think through the crisis with clear thoughts.

It is an overwhelming and frightening experience.

All of what you think is important has vanished in a sprint of a second. Just like that, it vanished. Yet, we must not despair, and must continuously look at the brighter side of things and remain hopeful. Better days are truly ahead! When will they start? No one really knows. But notwithstanding, we must keep the faith.

The news on Saturday, August 8 that the number of COVID-19 cases climbed by 48, leading to a total of 878 confirmed cases in The Bahamas, was troubling and deeply depressing.

For some, it beckoned a scream of exasperation – please stop spreading the virus, stay home and follow the protocols! For others, they wonder if the national lockdown is the full answer to slow community spread.

The issue of slowing community spread must be juxtaposed to the fact that over 4,500 Bahamians decided to travel to the USA, and particularly Miami, once the borders opened in early July.

Some may argue that their decision was insane. Others underscore the fact that everyone has a choice and the right to free movement could not be curtailed.

It is safe to conclude, however, that the resurgence of the novel coronavirus is complicated and multifaceted. It seems, therefore, to be a “scapegoat” mentality to lay the entirety of the blame on the travelers.

A rough calculation of the potential height of the surge can lead to well over 1,000 Bahamians being infected with the virus. It, therefore, must follow that the government must extend the current two weeks’ lockdown or stay-at-home order and undertake additional preventative measures to curb what can be a national catastrophe.

It stands to reason, too, that in addition to the lockdown, other measures and preventative steps must be adopted by the government to create a balanced and broad COVID-19 strategy.

This must be viewed in the context of those who will not honor or respect the protocols and view them as an assault on their personal liberty. This is not simply an issue of lack of discipline or irresponsibility, it is a question of choice and freedom.

Strategy

There must be a national strategy, that is unveiled by the government, that is multifaceted and comprehensive.

It must straddle all issues, from the economy to healthcare to food security and individual safety and responsibility. And while the medical and science community must lead the national discussion, there must be room for ordinary citizens to lend critical feedback and suggestions.

This strategy must also not be politically partisan. It deserves an all-parties approach so that not a single suggestion is absent consideration.

The national strategy, too, must take special note of the fact that the holder of the office of prime minister does not have all of the answers.

The fact is undoubtedly true that this is a global issue and all world leaders are learning how to navigate this virus.

It is a classic case of on-the-job training and it allows leaders to change course and to make critical adjustments as issues unfold.

This is not the season for idle complaints. We must come together and act with a national resolve to “fight” for our survival because we are all in this together.

The national strategy, therefore, must first and foremost wrestle with and immediately address the current community spread. This strategy must have some core safeguards and qualitative processes.

First, it is imperative that every single Bahamian take personal responsibility for his/her health and the safety of their loved ones.

This translates into a widespread ban on parties and social gatherings.

We must limit our face-to-face social encounters and networks and instead use as a preference (for instance) WhatsApp or Zoom video calls.

These communication models allow us to interact with friends and enjoy the usual camaraderie as if it was a face-to-face meeting.

They, too, have advantages. There is no denying that we are living in a different time which demands a radical change to our socialization regime; and the sooner we recognize and accept this reality, the better for all of us.

There is no doubt that we must immediately develop a national testing protocol.

The key to controlling the virus and community spread is to mandate that every citizen and resident be tested as soon as possible.

Why should we wait to feel ill?

The compelling medical and scientific evidence thus far tells us that individuals can feel well and have the virus.

The strategy must, therefore, address these healthy carriers — these are the silent enemies. A national testing approach will inform us of the “true” picture of the infections.

It should be a basic human right that every single healthcare worker and generally all frontline workers should be tested and perhaps have repeat tests conducted over defined periods. These are the frontline soldiers and their health and safety must be a national priority.

The national testing strategy should commence on New Providence and Grand Bahama. The government can employ testing centers in each and every constituency, similar to polling stations on election day.

No one should be exempt from the testing protocol.

Early and swift testing can also prevent an escalation in the death rate from the virus. It now appears that early detection is critical to saving lives.

Additionally, all schools and tertiary institutions should be prevented from holding in-person classes until January or March 2021.

To support and buttress a national virtual learning approach to education, the government in partnership with the private sector should ensure that each Bahamian student in primary and junior high school has a computer, with free Wi-Fi centers in each community.

Given our geography, virtual learning can be a vital platform over the course of a student’s educational journey, allowing him to interact with other students across the country and benefitting from experienced and specialized teachers.

The honest truth is that many schoolgoers will likely struggle with the social distancing protocol and many, too, will have challenges remembering to keep the mask on during classroom settings. The early medical evidence also suggests that there are long-term health issues among young people who survive the virus. We should not expose our children to this long-term health risk.

We must also take immediate measures to develop a health platform that can serve our basic needs as a nation. The level of annual budgeted funding to the national healthcare system over the past 20 years is staggering; yet, we have no ready means to address significant health challenges. This is unacceptable. It is a national failure. 

We should use this experience to prepare for any future global pandemics. The government should commit to investing the required resources to build a state-of-the-art new hospital on New Providence.

We are fully aware that Princess Margaret Hospital (PMH) cannot meet the health demands of a growing nation alongside an expanding population base on New Providence. It is negligent to continue to ignore this national priority. The realities of today are the truest testaments of our collective failure to plan and plan responsibly.

This experience must also teach us of our national shortcomings. One glaringly obvious lesson is the paucity of individual savings by Bahamian families.

Other than the benefits under the National Insurance Board (NIB) scheme, many Bahamian families are left without any financial assistance in times of economic depression.

We ought to have addressed and remedied this from the economic crisis in the 2000s, which brought the world’s economies to their knees.

COVID-19 replicated that crisis and augmented it with a global health disaster.

Did one ever imagine that there would be a global shortage of doctors, healthcare workers, hospital beds or lifesaving equipment?

The Bahamas must develop a national plan that is focused on the health and safety of its people and their financial security. Financial security must not only include savings but food security as well.

To address the national individual savings shortfall, the government should give serious consideration to increasing NIB payments by one to five percent and using the “additional” contributions as a savings wage for all employed and self-employed persons.

This “benefit” should stand outside the normal NIB benefits regime and be exclusively used in times of economic crisis and national emergencies. It will place money in the hands of registered employees once all of the usual benefits of NIB are exhausted, such as the unemployment benefit.

Additionally, the government must commit to making all government services fully virtual by 2024.

The same goal should be set by the private sector.

We need to make valuable use of this opportunity to ensure that every facet of our life is capable of being ran virtually. To fail to seize this reality would be the most glaring example of our incompetence as a nation and a people.

We must recommit ourselves to building a community. The pervasive “culture” of social detachment that exists in the majority of our neighborhoods is unacceptable.

True community lends to sharing resources and being one’s brother in times of need and crisis. There is value in the proposition of each one helping the other, especially when a virus knows no boundaries of rich or poor or white or black.

This is also an opportunity for the Bahamian people to critically assess our national goals and reset the ship of state.

There is no justifiable reason for us to emerge from this pandemic using the same old outdated approaches to national development.

Our failures and shortcomings are directly related to our refusal to adapt to a new dynamic platform of economic diversification and broad-based prosperity.

It is a national imperative to broaden the base of Bahamian owners of every facet of the economic life of these islands. It is time to right this injustice.

There are also many positive lessons that we have learnt from this experience.

Our country is not devoid of good and there are many who continue to advocate for the best that we can be.

More of us need to join the “good fight” to dispel selfishness, greed, hypocrisy and egotism from our psyche. This will be the true beauty of our Commonwealth.

These are truly tough and uncertain times.

We all have our moments of frustration and anxiety. But we must truly believe that better days are ahead. And when they come, we must be ready to welcome them with a national resolve and commitment to transform our nation for the betterment of each citizen.

We have a collective faith built on our national pride and it is this faith along with God’s grace that will order and direct our steps.

Until we close this chapter, as a people we must commit to strictly following the protocols, be responsible in our conduct and behavior, protect our health and those of our loved ones; and pray, knowing that tomorrow will be better than our worst day.

• Raynard Rigby is a founding partner at law firm Baycourt Chambers and former chairman of the Progressive Liberal Party.

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