By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Bahamian businessmen yesterday warned that the two-week national lockdown could be “more devastating than COVID-19 itself”, and urged: “Don’t use a sledgehammer to kill a fly.”
Ben Albury, Bahamas Bus and Truck’s general manager, told Tribune Business that the prime minister and the government needed “to get more creative” in balancing commerce and efforts to stamp out so-called virus “hot spots”.
Arguing that the private sector and employees had been given too little notice by Dr Hubert Minnis of the lockdown, which begins today, Mr Albury argued that the government had to keep some industries and sectors moving “or else we’re going to starve”.
“Just like every other industry it’s going to be devastating,” he told this newspaper of the latest restrictions. “The prime minister just said in the House of Assembly that we cannot keep locking down, opening up, locking down and opening up.
“Then Dionisio D’Aguilar gave everyone a false hope last week by saying they weren’t thinking of a two-week lockdown, and then days later.... There’s just too much inconsistency and too much instability for employers and employees alike. To impose a two-week lockdown with 24 hours’ notice, it doesn’t give people time to pivot and prepare. Everywhere is being overrun.”
Dr Minnis, in his national address on Sunday night, unveiled a two-week national lockdown with restrictions even more severe than the initial version implemented in late March/early April as the Government desperately bids to choke-off the surge in COVID-19 cases.
With 36 fresh infections unveiled yesterday, taking the number of active cases to 608, the Prime Minister argued he was left with little choice but to act “aggressively” to protect lives, exhausted healthcare workers and an overburdened public health system where more than 50 percent of its COVID-19 beds are now occupied.
However, Mr Albury and others now fear the cure is becoming worse than the problem, with the latest lockdown likely to force more business closures, create a longer unemployment line and further delay any prospect of an economic recovery. They argue that, with no vaccine in sight, The Bahamas must develop better methods for mitigating the risk presented by COVID-19 other than lockdowns.
“It’s just that the economy cannot continue to bear this,” the Bahamas Bus and Truck general manager told Tribune Business. “I understand the hospitals are overwhelmed, but they should have been better prepared for this. We all understand that the 72-hour window for Bahamians to travel abroad and come back without testing was a critical mistake.
“The Prime Minister has got to figure out how to get certain things moving or else we’re going to starve. During the first lockdown we continued to pay our staff and did not furlough anyone, and today I instructed the payroll department to pay staff for the next two weeks, but how long can businesses bear the brunt of it?
“I’ve had business people calling me from last night [Sunday] saying they’re giving serious consideration to closing their business. Some already have. I had four to five friends call me between last night and today. Many assisted their staff in the first lockdown and kept them on. This time they’re not able to do that. It’s just unsustainable, trying to be a good corporate citizen,” Mr Albury continued.
“How far can this go? I believe there are more surprises ahead. What happens a month after we re-open and cases go up again? This virus is not going anywhere. There’s no vaccine on the horizon. I think he [Dr Minnis] just needs to get more creative.”
Pointing to evidence from the National Food Distribution Task Force that one in four Bahamians, or 25 percent of the population, is receiving food assistance due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr Albury said increases in drug and alcohol abuse, child and sexual abuse, were among the likely consequences of the Government’s renewed lockdowns.
“Poverty has been shown to reduce a life by 10 years,” he added. “I think the effects of this lockdown will be more devastating than the virus. Ninety percent of people get it and don’t know they have it. He [Dr Minnis] makes knee jerk reactions, depending on lockdowns to solve the problem.
“The Prime Minister and Cabinet are still collecting pay cheques every month but there are thousands of Bahamians who aren’t that lucky. If something is not done soon crime will be out of control. I’m already nervous getting out of the car at home and work because there are a lot of desperate people out there. I’m scared what Christmas is going to look like.”
Mr Albury also pointed to an interview given by Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, who helps lead the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) pandemic response, where she said ‘localised’ measures should be used to stem Covid-19 - rather than national lockdowns - due to the health, social and economic repercussions.
All non-essential businesses and services, including those that are retail and office-based, have been ordered to close again with effect from today. However, Robert Myers, the Organisation for Responsible Governance’s (ORG) principal, yesterday renewed his concerns over why COVID-19 free islands such as Andros and Eleuthera were being required to halt commerce and lockdown.
“This could go on for a long time,” he warned. “Are we going to shut down The Bahamas every time or are we going to come up with an alternative; a more strategic alternative that targets the areas most affected.
“It’s not just the private sector, it’s also the Government itself. Every time you restrict commerce and people’s movement you also impact the country’s income because all those taxes are related to all those things that don’t occur. It hurts both the Government and GDP, families and businesses. Everybody.
“That’s a real killer on top of the hurricane, and now another hurricane, and another hurricane season. I just don’t know where we’re going if we cannot be more creative in our approach, living with this virus and hurricanes.”
Mr Myers called on the Government to adopt a similar strategy to COVID-19 as it did with hurricanes, where the only islands required to batten down were those in the storm’s forecast path. “We’ve got to be more strategic. That’s just my suggestion,” he added. “I don’t have the information he [the Prime Minister] and the Government have, so I may be making a completely naive statement,” he added.
“But my observation is: Don’t kill a fly with a sledgehammer because you destroy the whole house. Every time you whack the economy back it takes longer, and is slower, to recover. Every time you knock it many more people become unemployed and many more businesses are forced to close.
“I get it. I understand the fear. We all live with a definite degree of risk, and we cannot eliminate that risk. Everyone out there understands the risk of COVID-19, some more than others, but we have to take a strategic approach. We may be saving life, but are destroying livelihoods. The destruction of livelihoods has grave long-term implications.”