Last week, the Prime Minister announced a seven-day lockdown to start immediately due to the rise in COVID-19 cases. The next day, he reversed the decision because, as should have been obvious, people were not prepared for it. He said various business could operate “until further notice”, but never gave any indication of plans to announce another lockdown.
Many of us spent the week doing the best we could to prepare for a lockdown of seven to 14 days, unsure of what would come next and not wanting a repeat of last Monday week. This Monday evening, he announced the reopening of the economy and referenced tourism as the only industry that could carry us.
With the number of COVID-19 cases still rising, we never got an explanation of the sudden change in tune and members of the public generally fall into one of two groups. We are either thrilled to be able to be out and about as we please as of next week Monday or very wary of what is happening and trying to figure out why this is the chosen course. There are, as has been the case for a long time, more questions than answers.
At the press conference on Monday, Ministry of Health officials and the Prime Minister consistently referenced “the data”. It was the data that said we needed a lockdown last week Monday and it was the data that said we could reopen this coming Monday. The number of cases is still going up every day, even when accounting for the supposed duplication that caused an inflation in total number of cases, hospital beds are all in use, and there is no vaccine, but the data indicates that we can reopen.
What data? Which numbers and what kind of analysis is sending us down this path? If these decisions are data-driven, we need to have access to it and be able to make calculations for ourselves, especially since we generally receive information at the last minute.
Regrets and responsibility
Even as plans are made to reopen, the blame game continues. A reporter, for whatever reason, asked the Prime Minister whether or not he regretted his decision to announce a lockdown without notice last week. (This is an example of the throw-away questions frequently asked at the press conferences that really only serve to drive sensational headlines and laughable or infuriating soundbites rather than provide the public with better information, but for now, let’s focus on the response to this question.) The Prime Minister chose to participate in the scapegoating of the Bahamian people.
It is, apparently, our fault that we are experiencing the second wave of COVID-19 cases. It is our fault that people travelled to a hotspot when the Prime Minister, the competent authority, decided to open the borders—in the middle of Florida’s spike in COVID-19 cases—which allowed Bahamians to travel and visitors to enter with 10-day-old negative test results.
For making decisions based on the policies the Prime Minister put in place, the Bahamian people are blamed. He and this government have taken no responsibility for their part in our current state of affairs, yet we are to take collective responsibility when it is convenient.
In his speech, the Prime Minister said we need to shift from what “they” need to do to what “we” need to do, but failed to acknowledge the difference in decision-making power. Was there a “we” last week, when he decided to shut everything down, either without thought or without care for the people who did not have a sufficient supply of food and water?
People have surmised that the Prime Minister is “tired of us”. Some say he has chosen the herd immunity option. Some say he is going to let us seal our own fates. Most say this with the belief that he is right to do so because the people are hard-headed. For some reason, it is easy to put the blame on individuals who are given options and exercise them rather than the body responsible for implementing and enforcing appropriate measures. The person who campaigned for the job, won it and is paid to do it is allowed to get away with washing his hands of the situation and leaving us to fend for ourselves. If this is true, why is this okay with so many people?
Do we really believe that we deserve grave illness and the death of innocent people like the grandparents we insist on visiting after having an outdoor dining experience with four people, talking and laughing with masks off, letting the droplets fly? Are we not going to demand a detailed plan for businesses and the management of public spaces?
How will we reopen?
Do we believe the data shows it is safe to reopen? I am of the opinion that we are in a similar position as we were in March when the first measures to deal with COVID-10 were announced. The announcement last week showed how many “middle class” people are actually living hand-to-mouth. It showed that any new restrictions, particularly at this stage, requires the government to offer more support to the people.
The government is not prepared to do what it takes to implement what may be necessary measures. It does not want to expand the food assistance programme to provide more nutritious food nor make it available to more people. It does not want to continue to pay benefits to those who have been laid off. It does not want to take care of people during lockdowns or while the economy stagnates. It wants to return to the individualist system, everyone fending for themselves. It wants to increase its chances of re-election, and the fast food drive-thru seems like an easy path. Maybe it is in the government’s best interest to reopen, regardless of what it means for us beyond the simple and fleeting pleasures like brunch with friends.
Is it wrong to take this approach? Is the government shirking its duties? Yes. Is there a way to do it that is safer and more suitable to our circumstance? Of course.
Businesses are going to reopen which means staff will spend time together in the same space and they will interact with members of the public. There needs to be a set of standards and procedures for all businesses to follow. The simplest regulations are already not being followed. We have seen people at work with their masks under their chins. We stand in lines at the appropriate distance only to get into stores where people do not adhere to social distancing at all and staff do not monitor or respond to it. Individuals have been fined for breaking curfew. How will businesses be fined for failing to adhere to and enforce regulations?
If we are reopening, we can at least do it in a responsible way. Approaches we can consider include:
Starting with (retail) businesses that have functioning online stores and approved curbside and/or delivery systems. To be approved for curbside service, businesses must have adequate parking to prevent cars from blocking street traffic or an appointment system to control the flow of traffic to the physical location.
Encourage online initiation for businesses offering services that require face-to-face interaction with customers. Use technology to get basic information and set appointment times as needed and use a number system that allows customers to wait in their vehicles until they are called. Require designated seating in a shaded area with appropriate spacing for those traveling by foot or public transportation.
Incentivising the use of technology and delivery services to reduce traffic and the amount of time spent in-store.
To assist those who are currently unemployed, the government can:
Assist them in developing mobile apps in order to offer third-party pickup and delivery services. This can reduce the number of people in stores and create jobs.
Provide online training and certification for people in areas of crowd management, safety protocol, and other useful and specialised areas required to enforce regulations such as social distancing in lines, proper wearing of masks, and use of public space.
Contract artists, public relations professionals and social media experts to develop effective messaging on regulations and available resources for various audiences including young people, children, senior citizens, unemployed people, and in-house people.
Whether or not we are excited about the reopening, it is very likely to affect our lives. As we learned in July, just because it is allowed does not mean it is advised. The government does not always act in the best interest of the people. It is often more focused on systems. Pay attention. Hear what is being said and listen for what is not being said. Do the best you can to keep yourself and the people around you safe. The next few weeks will tell us a lot about the government and ourselves. The Prime Minister says it’s “we” now, so be prepared for that shared responsibility.