By Malcolm Strachan
IT was only nine months ago that COVID-19 was still a new phenomenon we were watching from afar. Prime Minister Minnis, who has long espoused his affinity for the poor and downtrodden, did so again last December. When asked for a statement on a Department of Statistics assessment which revealed the Consumer Price Index had increased in September, he did not hesitate to remind the populace of his government’s charge to protect the poor.
“We feel that the wealthy, the rich individuals, regardless of the outcome, they would be able to survive and protect themselves. And we would still need them to help generate jobs, employment…
“But we would do all we can to protect that grouping that needs protection, and that is the poor and marginalised. So, regardless of what happened, policies will be there to ensure their protection.”
Prior to COVID-19’s impact, The Bahamas’ cost of living - per Expatistan, a cost of living calculation website - has been noted as being more expensive than 95 percent of countries in the world. This came at a time when tourism was on the rise and unemployment was trending down – a stark contrast from projections of more than 40 percent of Bahamians being unemployed.
When the competent authority made the decision last Monday to put the country into an additional seven-day lockdown effective immediately, one could only imagine the despair of those desperate for a reprieve. As families huddled together around TV sets, Prime Minister Minnis’ words echoed through living rooms all around New Providence. A stunned populace witnessed the unconscionable - the feeling that policies purported to have the citizenry’s best interest at heart are instead more punitive in nature.
Despite what supporters of the Prime Minister inside and outside government say, the reality is such a decision may have been his costliest mistake during this entire term.
The Prime Minister walking back his decision looked much more like the realisation of the gravity of his mistake than concerns about the possibility of an approaching storm.
Naturally, many Bahamians that want to believe the competent authority intends to do what is best for the country have a very difficult time believing that now. Consider this series of questionable decision making: the borders were opened prematurely; we are not testing adequately; lockdowns are seemingly being implemented more ad hoc than scientifically, and without visible consideration of how they’re injurious to the poor. Further, the competent authority, rather than being viewed as one of the people, is being viewed as a dictator.
For as long as we are still being affected by the coronavirus, the Prime Minister’s ability to show he is the right person for the job is continuously being tested.
He currently faces the immense challenge of winning back the trust of the Bahamian people after doing the reprehensible. What occurred last week has been largely viewed as the proof of a complete disconnect with what poor people experience – despite his claims to have a heart for the very same people.
Fears over being unable to gather necessities like life depending medication, water and other grocery items, caused widespread pandemonium and protests from the Bahamian people.
By the time Prime Minister Minnis reversed his decision, the damage was done. Trust between the government and the Bahamian people had been significantly eroded.
Despite pushing policies to create opportunities for Bahamians living on the margins, when it comes to COVID-19, we’ve not always understood the thinking behind some decisions.
Certainly, the National Food Distribution Taskforce has been a great initiative, but it still has not been immune to issues. At the very least, the government doesn’t always seem as sensitive as it should be.
For his part, the Prime Minister has certainly had the most challenging task of governing the country amid natural disasters and a public health crisis. But at some point, that will no longer qualify as a valid excuse. We’re already at a point where most citizens have begun to tune out such sentiments.
The expectation is that this is the job he signed up for, and as citizens, we turn to the government when we are faced with times such as these. Moreover, the Prime Minister took it upon himself to assume the powers of being the competent authority. Therefore, what comes along with that – whether it is praise, criticism or condemnation – he must continue doing the job and meet the challenge head-on. Furthermore, where there are lessons to be learned, he must do so with humility and with the Bahamian people top of mind – in particular, the poor, whom he said he is committed to protecting.
We hope that with this most recent exercise the Prime Minister was reminded that the poor are in grave danger. They are unable to work. They are being pushed to the brink mentally and financially. At some point, there is a breaking point.
In the efforts to protect the poor, much better thought out policies need to be implemented and the competent authority must never again lose sight of their hardship.
These are your people Prime Minister Minnis. We all are.