The number of reported COVID-19 cases has been going up since the borders opened on July 1, so it is not a surprise that new restrictions were announced by the Prime Minister in the national address on Sunday. Everyone braced themselves for the worst. Some expected a full lockdown while others thought the borders would completely close without notice.
We have come to expect drastic changes with no time to prepare. This time, we were advised commercial flights and sea vessels would only be allowed from Canada, the UK and EU countries starting today. Beaches and parks in New Providence closed as of Monday at 5am. For Grand Bahama, where most of the new COVID-19 cases are, sweeping changes were announced which include a 7pm curfew and discontinuation of indoor dining.
The change that has drawn the most attention — including support and criticism — is the closure of the border to commercial flights from the US. Some were quick to point out it was “a bad PR move”. People have raised concerns about the US response to the decision which other countries have already made. There is no denying the US federal government has failed to effectively respond to the pandemic, leaving states to implement their own policies and regulations. Given its open and porous interstate borders, this means no state can fully manage the spread of COVID-19. The virus will continue to spread until a vaccine is introduced and widely administered unless there is comprehensive federal response. For these reasons, the number of infections in the US is likely to continue to rise quickly.
It was foolish to open our borders indiscriminately. We should never have accepted people from the US without more stringent precautions. As is often the case, the economy was prioritised. Public health was compromised in order to get more US dollars into the country. Anyone could have predicted the increase in COVID-19 cases here. Some argue that Bahamians are the cause of the increase as people have travelled since July 1. There is no way to know whether residents or visitors are the cause of new cases. We do know the opening of the border made it possible for people to travel to places with known spikes happening now. We also know that we have not been testing widely. Having fewer active cases on the dashboard did not mean there were no cases at all. It meant they had not been detected.
We find it easy to blame fellow Bahamians for anything that goes wrong.
Bahamians should not have travelled. What did they have to go to Florida for? Y’all too like shop. I thought y’all was broke. Y’all always making it worse for everyone else. Now the innocent gotta suffer for the guilty.
The “competent authority” decided to open the borders. He determined it was a worthwhile risk to allow people from all over the world to enter the country with the results of 10-day old tests. He also determined that it would be fine for Bahamians to leave the country for up to 72 hours and be able to return without a COVID-19 test.
How is it that people are now confidently putting the blame on the Bahamian people who did what the authorities said would be fine?
At this point, regardless of the rightful place for blame, we should be able to agree that there needed to be more restrictions on our borders. Many countries, including more than 20 EU countries, are closed to US travellers. This has, of course, made US news. In some cases, it is being framed as a “ban” on US travellers rather than a restriction that affects other countries as well.
While some Americans have made disgusting comments about The Bahamas and the possibility of the US withholding aid as punishment, many seemed to understand our position. One Twitter user asked: “Do you blame them? They don’t have the resources to handle a huge COVID outbreak.” Another said: “There is no logic in other countries allowing Americans across their borders as long as we refuse to address this pandemic on a national level.”
For weeks, Americans have been saying no country should let them in. Many of them do not even want to go outside to be among each other. Why should they be allowed to come here without a better system in place to protect public health?
In The Bahamas, we wear masks. Places of business provide hand sanitiser at the door. Cleaning methods and schedules have intensified. We are supposed to maintain social distance. We are, in many ways, doing what we can to protect ourselves and each other. Do we not deserve to have our efforts respected and to ensure they do not go to waste?
On the other hand, some of the measures put in place by the competent authority do not make sense. Why are the beaches in New Providence closed while people from different households can sit together in a restaurant, laughing, talking and eating? Are droplets not spreading in those close quarters? It does not make sense that large groups can congregate over a meal or drinks, but people cannot access beaches or parks where there is more space and people are more likely to spread out.
Mental health has not been an area of focus, but we know that it is being impacted by the sudden changes, financial stress and isolation. For many, beaches and parks have provided an affordable way to take care of ourselves, requiring a bit of gas, bus fare or a short walk. We find moments of peace, quiet and solitude in these spaces. Children can play, adults can relax and everyone can get some exercise. Making these public spaces inaccessible can significantly impact residents and make it even more difficult to manage during this challenging time.
The closure of beaches and parks needs to be reconsidered. The appropriate authorities need to come together to develop a plan to ensure they are safe and accessible to the public. We deserve leisure and beauty as much as we deserve good health, decent work and appropriate compensation.
In addition to the closure of beaches and parks, we need an explanation for the closure of Arawak Cay and Potter’s Cay. Other restaurants and takeaways are allowed to operate, but these small businesses have, yet again, been singled out. It is as though they are being punished, but we do not know their offence. How are the restaurants on Arawak Cay or Potter’s Cay different from other restaurants? There are indoor and outdoor dining options. Takeout has always been an option. They employ people with homes to maintain and families to feed, educate and entertain.
There is a police station at Arawak Cay and officers can be seen driving along the strip in a buggy. Are they not capable of enforcing regulations for dining? Even if, for some reason, dining is not permitted and the restaurants are limited to takeout, why can’t those officers enforce that? Those vendors and their employees should be able to earn their income and should not have to depend on the relief programme through NIB. Bahamian people should be able to walk up, get their conch salad and daiquiris, then sit by the beach to enjoy a few minutes of down time.
By now we understand that “normal” is not an option (and, in many ways, was not working anyway), but the least the authorities can do is make it make sense.