As this administration navigates uncharted territory in its COVID-19 response, we implore it to examine how the timing and execution of its containment orders could have an unintended effect of undermining efforts to flatten the curve of the country’s current outbreak.
Last Sunday, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis advised that a food shopping schedule for residents would be introduced; a schedule which took a week to materialize and was ultimately issued a day before yesterday’s start date.
The schedule came on the heels of Minnis’ abrupt announcement of last weekend’s nationwide shutdown, that ordered the closure of shops and triggered a run on food stores set to close an hour or two before lockdown.
Anxious shoppers reviewing the government’s food schedule quickly noticed that Saturdays and Sundays were not listed, signaling to them that weekend shutdowns might be the order of the day for the foreseeable future.
Having been previously prevented from carrying out weekend shopping and heading into the upcoming Easter weekend shutdown, shoppers flooded stores yesterday, creating lines that residents describe as being among the longest they have seen since the start of the country’s pandemic response.
Notably and worryingly, social distancing was not being practiced on winding lines at several establishments in New Providence.
Further complicating the scenario was the prime minister’s announcement that this week’s shutdown would begin Wednesday night, eliminating Thursday shopping from the government’s schedule leading into the long holiday weekend.
This announcement meant that residents with last names P through Z, who are only permitted to shop on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, would see their available grocery shopping period cut from two days to one ahead of the shutdown.
The decision is a baffling one, considering that this group includes much of the country’s population such as Rolles, Smiths, Pinders, Thompsons, Russells, Roberts and Williams.
It is a move that may result in even more frustration today and tomorrow for shoppers, as it could again trigger crowds which are counterproductive to stemming the tide of COVID-19 infections, particularly since most shoppers are not wearing face masks while out and about.
Super Value proprietor Rupert Roberts, in an interview with The Tribune, said last week’s abrupt lockdown sparked “chaos” at his stores, and claimed that police threatened “to shoot” persons in an attempt to force them to go home.
“Some people had not been paid, some people needed milk for their baby as they had no water at home. It was chaos at some stores,” Roberts was quoted as saying, also making mention of the amount of shutdown notice given by countries such as Barbados.
In its editorial last week entitled “The simple economics of shopping – had we listened”, Barbados Today bemoaned the impact of a 24-hour shutdown notice in the country.
“Indeed, if human behavior is what turns hazards into human disasters, then unknown thousands of Barbadians may have triggered a viral disaster in which weeks of ordinary social intercourse were concentrated in several hours of chaos, confusion and disorder,” it said.
With 82 percent of the country’s COVID-19 cases recorded in New Providence and a yet unknown number of asymptomatic carriers throughout the country, we have similar fears.
Emergency orders should be crafted with the essential understanding of how the public is likely to react, both to an order and to how that order is communicated and executed.
Given the shopping habits of residents, including those who cannot afford to buy in bulk for extended periods, panic shopping ought to have been the fully anticipated consequence of recent pronouncements by government.
And such panic may invariably result in non-compliance on the part of stores whose management might be unwilling to turn away restless and weary customers, and may in turn skirt the mandated photo identification check for all shoppers.
An after-Easter start date for the government’s shopping schedule and extended store hours ahead of this week’s five-day shutdown, may have minimized panic and the large turnouts it created at stores throughout the country.
The same would have minimized complications for those employed in the public and private sectors whose work schedules conflict with the established shopping schedule.
Long lines and crowd clusters could have the very real potential of threatening efforts to contain the country’s outbreak, which according to Health Minister Dr. Duane Sands, has not yet reached its peak.
With five deaths recorded thus far, The Bahamas cannot afford to fail.