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Peter Young: Walking The Tightrope Of Protecting Health Without Killing Economy

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Peter Young

The complete lockdown in The Bahamas over the last five days may have been regarded by many as excessively heavy-handed. But others have welcomed such tough action in response to the coronavirus crisis on the grounds it is better to enforce social distancing in this way than risk a spread of the virus that could devastate this country’s relatively small population. Many complain, however, the government’s decisions could have been communicated better and with more notice.

Dr Minnis’ strong action seems to have been justified since the numbers of infections and deaths here are relatively low even taking account our small population. Sadly, however, the latest developments in some other countries make sombre reading; for example, the US has already registered over 20,000 fatalities while Britain has now passed 11,000, with Spain and Italy the worst affected in Europe so far. Inevitably, this horrific figure in Britain is now prompting questions about the authorities’ alleged delay in taking COVID-19 seriously, though the government’s well publicised strategy from the start was to rely on the advice of the medical and scientific experts.

Those experts are now saying that, despite some of the latest figures, the curve of the number of new cases and of those being hospitalised is starting to flatten. Entering the fourth week of the lockdown, people read of other countries like Denmark, Austria and Italy looking at phasing out restrictions – with even Spain lifting the ban on non-essential jobs – and they are prompted to ask why their government is not considering at least some sort of slow and staged relaxation of its own.

The question remains, however, whether the flattening of the curve is a direct result of the majority of Britons acting responsibly and abiding by the tough restrictions. If that is the case, it makes no sense to lift them while the threat of infection remains. But this has to be balanced against the economic disruption of a prolonged lockdown.

This applies equally to us in The Bahamas where we can learn from the experience of other countries. Government ministers here are faced with the same issue – how to weigh the potential further loss of life to the killer disease against a lengthy period of disruptive economic and social misery for the majority. At some point there has to be some sort of trade-off.

For any responsible government, the health, wellbeing and security of its citizens must be an overarching priority. But some ask why this has to be a stark choice between the protection of health and the extreme measures of a total lockdown that is threatening thousands of businesses and jobs. There are now real fears the Bahamian economy will not just be at a standstill but could suffer irreparable damage and people wonder whether any proper calculation of the extent of this is being made. They also ask why there is no middle course of a partial lifting of restrictions in stages.

The broader picture of the indirect impact of a prolonged lockdown is grim and must surely worry policy-makers. It can affect people’s mental and physical health. As well as the increased difficulty of leaving home for personal reasons - including for general medical treatment - there is the residual fear of those with respiratory conditions like asthma of contracting the virus even though they are following the rules of self-isolation.

For vulnerable individuals, it can lead to feelings of total isolation, loneliness, despair, anxiety and suicide and, in some cases, there is the threat of increased domestic violence. The ill and disabled will also be concerned about being left without vital medication and even without food. All this ought to be taken into account in exercising the government’s responsibility to protect public welfare.

While insisting on the maintenance of rules about social distancing, there must surely be ways of extending essential services and mitigating the worst of the economic impact. For example, since the banks are still operating, why not reopen small businesses - which have few employees and where there can be social distancing - as well as liquor stores which could operate in the same way as supermarkets by limiting their number of customers at any one time? And what about small construction work projects and restaurants and private clubs providing a takeout service to help them keep afloat financially in the short term? In addition, can some way be found to manage queues at supermarkets so that people do not have to stand for hours in the sun? And what about a system of delivering basic food items to the elderly and infirm at home?

In Britain, some reassurance has been provided by the Minister of Health’s commitment to take into account the overall impact of the virus on the wellbeing of the public – not just the horror of so much loss of life but also the indirect economic effects.

While agreeing about the importance of more testing, UK government ministers are now saying there can be no real exit strategy without a vaccine or a cure. But they admit the effects of the lockdown resulting in economic chaos will cause needless extra deaths unrelated to the virus. So they must now strike a balance between controlling the epidemic and limiting the other damage caused by the lockdown. Might there not be lessons from this that will be worth studying?

Boris battles back after coming close to losing his life

In the words of the fiancée of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, there were dark times last week. She was referring, of course, to his five-night stay in hospital, three of which were in intensive care, after he contracted COVID-19 and his condition deteriorated during a period of self-isolation.

Mr Johnson has now been released from hospital, though he is clearly not yet out of the woods, and has started a period of convalescence and recuperation at the prime ministerial residence, Chequers, in the Buckinghamshire countryside.

It has now become clear publicly that for a time in hospital his life was in serious danger. In fact, in a video tribute at the weekend to National Health Service staff he thanked all concerned for the exemplary care he received and he stated plainly that they had saved his life. He singled out for special thanks and appreciation two nurses who had been monitoring his condition 24/7 and helped him to stay alive and eventually recover.

It is said Mr Johnson has always adopted a robust approach to ill health and was loath to take his infection too seriously. So he played down the gravity of his condition and continued to work for a period in isolation rather than being treated in hospital.

Like him or not, many people reacted with disbelief to the news that he had been admitted to hospital where his condition worsened so that he had to be transferred to intensive care, and even his strongest critics were swept up in a wave of sympathy for him. Perhaps it was this more than anything else that brought home to the British people the seriousness of the coronavirus crisis – on the basis that “if Boris can get it, anyone can”.

He remains a popular figure and it was interesting that, during his spell in intensive care, an NHS team at a hospital in Warwickshire made headlines by showing a lovely ‘get well’ message with the letters spelt out on panels held above their heads.

Most people, whatever their political persuasion, are now wishing the Prime Minister a speedy and full recovery - and some commentators are saying, knowingly, this whole incident will only serve to enhance his macho image and reputation as the leader who worked himself in to the ground dealing with coronavirus and nearly lost his own life in the process.

Long to take care of us

To the delight of many, Her Majesty The Queen’s special televised address last week to Britain and the Commonwealth was followed by her pre-recorded audio Easter message at the weekend.

As in the case of her TV address, this has been described as uplifting and reassuring at a time of sadness and distress for the nation. It has also been seen as an appropriate continuation of last week’s address which evoked the spirit of the British people during the Second World War with the words of Dame Vera Lynn’s famous song of the time “We’ll Meet Again”.

The Easter message contained an admonition to stick to the rules about social distancing because “by keeping apart we keep others safe” - and, by staying united, coronavirus will be defeated. It also included the inspiring words “As dark as death can be - particularly for those suffering with grief - light and life are greater”.

As always, The Queen succeeded in striking exactly the right note. Among many responses to her message, one which stood out for me called her a calm and steady beacon of hope in a time of darkness. How true that is and how fortunate the British people are that this has remained the case throughout her long reign.

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