By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Government was yesterday urged to "stop beating the whole country with the stupid stick" amid growing fears that continual COVID-19 lockdowns will create "an economic implosion by Christmas".
Robert Myers, the Organisation for Responsible Governance's (ORG) principal, told Tribune Business that the Government needed to target specific virus hot-spots and those non-compliant with established health protocols rather than punish an entire population by shutting down islands and the whole country.
Speaking after the Prime Minister yesterday reversed some of the harsher New Providence lockdown measures, Mr Myers said the timing and severity of restrictions unveiled without any warning had made many Bahamians - especially those without jobs, income or sufficient supplies - "increasingly desperate" to the extent some took to the streets in protest.
Warning that The Bahamas "cannot afford social and civil unrest on top of" COVID-19's health and economic woes, he added that the Government needed to produce an "across-the-board strategic plan" that enables the country to "live with" COVID-19 beyond the immediate threat to life and associated medical issues.
Mr Myers suggested that The Bahamas will be "in a war" with the virus for at least the next six months, which he argued made it imperative to also focus on preserving "livelihoods" and jobs - many of which are unlikely to ever come back.
Revealing that he has "never been so unsettled in my entire life in The Bahamas" as he is currently, the ORG chief voiced fears that this nation may take up to five years to recover the economic growth lost to the COVID-19 crisis, describing the present situation as akin to "a house of cards".
"How could you do anything less?" he responded to Dr Hubert Minnis' easing of lockdown restrictions. "When you force people into dismay, and put them over the edge, how do you wonder why they react the way they do when you restrict their civil liberties, and right to earn and eat. If you push people into a corner they're going to do that.
"I don't understand what they're [the Government] doing. I just don't. It goes against every morsel of democracy I can imagine. It's completely ridiculous and irresponsible. Address the culprits, address the situation but don't beat the whole country with the stupid stick. Then we all become stupid and it becomes a bigger problem."
The most severe COVID-19 restrictions seen yet, which the Prime Minister imposed on New Providence on Monday without warning, provoked short-lived street protests yesterday morning by Windsor Park on East Street, which was said to have resulted in the arrest of some 50 persons.
The protest was viewed by many as a symptom of the increasing frustration and weariness felt by many Bahamians over the latest government restrictions, which were designed to halt the recent explosion in COVID-19 cases in New Providence.
The lack of advance warning, which prevented many from stocking up on essential food and other supplies, was seen as inflicting further hardship on a distressed population where one in four persons is receiving food assistance from a government-sponsored initiative and around 50 percent of the workforce is thought to be unemployed.
The Prime Minister's lockdown reversal, which now allows food stores, water depots, gas stations, hardware stores and private pharmacies to re-open from 6am to 9pm, came after strong push back and criticism yesterday from multiple groups.
Mr Myers suggested that the lack of warning was designed to avoid a repeat of Grand Bahama's lockdown, where many people fled that island by air and sea prior to its imposition, threatening to spread the virus to other islands.
Yet Dr Minnis' statement acknowledged the perils of imposing a severe lockdown during the peak of hurricane season, as he acknowledged the approach of another potential storm had factored into his decision to ease restrictions.
However, the constant changes are eroding trust and confidence in the Prime Minister and the Competent Authority, while fuelling the impression that they are out-of-touch with the growing hardship being imposed on Bahamians in the battle to contain COVID-19.
For that very reason, Mr Myers urged the Government to "be more strategic" in targeting COVID-19 'hot spots' and those failing to comply with health protocols, rather than always falling back on the blunt instrument of locking down islands and an entire country.
Dr Minnis on Monday said the Government was moving to a risk-based COVID-19 approach, assessing the threat posed by the virus on each island and tailoring measures accordingly. However, Mr Myers argued that this was "a day late and a dollar short".
"This is a war we're fighting, and are going to be fighting, for a long time. We've got at least six months more of this," he told Tribune Business.
"Let's come up with a strategic plan that is well thought-out and provided by practical persons rather than those who provided this advice. Clearly, those people are not capable of making the right decisions.
"I say that so harshly because the safety and security of this country depends on their state management. We cannot afford social and civil unrest on top of what we're going through. That cannot happen. You're killing the whole country with the stupid stick. Don't beat the whole country with the stupid stick," Mr Myers continued.
"For God's sake start listening and come up with a strategic plan that works across the board, not only for health. You may not be killing people, but your destroying lives and livelihoods that are not going to come back. You're doing it in this draconian manner that shows no foresight and vision.
"It's very disturbing, very disturbing. I've never been so unsettled in my entire life in The Bahamas. I love this place and would hate to see it fail. I still haven't seen an economic recovery plan, and have not seen an ease of doing business plan. It's painful. We've got to do better."
The Government's priority during the COVID-19 pandemic has always been to save lives and protect the already-weakened public health system from collapsing under the weight of multiple virus-related cases.
However, from the economy's perspective, Mr Myers described the cycle of constant lockdowns, re-openings and new restrictions as "unsustainable". He told Tribune Business: "It was unsustainable in March, it's unsustainable now, it's going to be unsustainable if we keep doing it in September and October, and eventually the house of cards will collapse.
"That's what we're building here. A house of cards. It's completely unsustainable. Commerce has screeched to a grinding halt, other than construction and banking, and they're running at half-speed if that. We cannot keep going like this or there's going to be an implosion before Christmas.
"We are not going to win this war by sticking our heads in the sand. This disease is not going to go away. We've got to live with it. That means people have to survive, the economy has to survive, businesses have to survive and jobs have to survive, and we have to pull together to make sure that happens," Mr Myers added.
"It's a very precarious position that the country is in right now. We need vision and good leadership. If we put the right incentives and policies in place, and communicate the right way, and get the health and safety measures in place, we can recover, but it's going to take at least five years or more to get back the ground we've lost.
"I hate to see the country torn apart like this. We need to get some visionary leadership back and need a serious change. We're not going to win this war like this."