By Malcolm Strachan
WITH the country being engulfed in the raging second wave of COVID-19 infections, our knee-jerk response for flattening the curve - lockdown - is once again being implemented in full force. During the first stay at home orders, the natural response of fear to this invisible threat allowed the majority of Bahamians to be more understanding of the directive. As we witnessed from afar China’s effectiveness in using lockdown measures, the general feeling was we would experience short-term pain in exchange for long-term gain. And in the end, it would have been worth it.
However, when there is no end in sight, a frightening reality sets in.
After the decision to reopen our borders, allowing citizens and visitors to travel in and out of the country to and from areas where cases were still surging, The Bahamas’ rate of infection has increased by nearly 900 percent. And here we are again – the country locked down and many afraid that if the virus doesn’t kill them, the effects of these lockdown measures will.
Experts researching the efficacy of lockdowns, while noting how well they can work in the right scenario, also point to the risks for countries with major income inequality to create deleterious conditions for their people when trying to crush the curve.
University of Oslo researchers studying the economic and social implications of lockdowns during Italy’s bout with COVID-19 made some discoveries that will likely resonate with many Bahamian people.
The researchers determined: “We find that the impact of lockdown is stronger in municipalities with higher fiscal capacity. Second, we find evidence of a segregation effect, since mobility contraction is stronger in municipalities in which inequality is higher and for those where individuals have lower income per capita. Our results highlight both the social costs of lockdown and a challenge of unprecedented intensity: On the one hand, the crisis is inducing a sharp reduction of fiscal revenues for both national and local governments; on the other hand, a significant fiscal effort is needed to sustain the most fragile individuals and to mitigate the increase in poverty and inequality induced by the lockdown.”
This pretty much encapsulates the darker side of the COVID-19 lockdowns in The Bahamas. Certainly, the government has sought to assist many families with the food assistance programme. But many issues still exist and there is no shortage of criticism levelled at the government for its response.
The government recently touted the moves it has made in response to a scathing critique from Opposition Leader Philip Davis – approval of $18m in tax credits through its tax credit and tax deferral employee retention programme for medium and large sized businesses; disbursing over $38m in grants and loans for small businesses; and a projected $200m being spent on unemployment benefits by mid-September.
Without a doubt, the government isn’t just resting on its laurels. However, whether they’re inflating their response for public perception or the Bahamian people are just failing to see it, we are still in a lot of danger that goes beyond the disease.
The two-pronged reality is very clear – neither the government nor the citizenry will be able to continue along this path for much longer if nothing changes. Particularly as it relates to the Public Service Minister Brensil Rolle’s most recent pronouncements that the National Insurance Board will not be able to sustain the amount it is paying out beyond September. This is, indeed, tragic for a populace that has been paying NIB contributions, in many cases, for decades. Some individuals have yet to even receive assistance - in some instances, for months – and without a definitive timeline for when they will be able to collect unemployment benefits, the roads behind and ahead of us are extremely difficult.
Our hope is the Ministry of Finance is able to work a miracle to ensure we can continue to provide support to our people – especially the lesser fortunate among us. Our brothers and sisters whose livelihoods are being strangled by these lockdowns need a strategic and scientific focus from the competent authority and its medical advisors about how we should progress forward.
To lockdown or to ease restrictions – that, my friends, will be the question. The reality is these measures, too, are slowly killing us. Undeniably, the stress that is being felt by Bahamians is palpable.
Have the Bahamian people been as disciplined as they should be during this time? Perhaps not. Nonetheless, just as the government wants grace from us, we, too, are human and desire the same. None of us have ever endured such a crisis. The difference is, though, we elected our leaders to be fair and exemplify good governance
That must be consistently reflected in the execution of their duties throughout this pandemic.
Citizens being fined or jailed for breaching the order is also very punitive at a time when many are simply desperate. Have we not considered community service instead of fines or imprisonment in such difficult times?
Further, we must consider how effective these lockdowns are if once the public is freed to move about, we cluster together to restock on necessities and tend to essential business. We are shooting ourselves in the foot with this approach time and time again.
Irrational policies, will no doubt, continue to lead to irrational decisions all around.
That said, there has to be a more methodical way of ensuring people can adequately get what they need for these measures to make sense.
It has been suggested previously in this column for the government to create a goods delivery portal connected to qualifying stores based on a set of criteria on islands where this makes sense like New Providence and Grand Bahama. The services of local couriers can be employed to lead this initiative, and where operations need to be expanded, the government can use this as an opportunity to inject funds into the economy through contracting and training unemployed Bahamians to provide additional support.
Service providers can be outfitted in PPE and trained in contactless delivery methods to keep them and our fellow citizens safe. The private sector cannot do this alone. And business owners are sure to be reticent to invest further into their businesses in such uncertain conditions if the government doesn’t have any skin in the game.
Indeed, this can be a very effective way to ensure citizens are receiving the goods they need safely. Thus, we cannot any longer be slow to innovate and become creative with how we’re approaching this virus. Likewise, we have to be considering how we can empower our people throughout this pandemic because assumptions that this will be gone in the near future may shock us.
Government of The Bahamas, I implore you to keep working for the good of the Bahamian people. And while we may want to aggressively blunt this second curve, we must also consider the hardship the populace has to experience as this continues to become an elongated battle.
Our fear must not supersede our love for fellow brothers and sisters.