In his national address this past Sunday, Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis warned the country:
“The COVID-19 pandemic is still raging around the world and is getting much worse in some countries. The world is still in a global health emergency, with some health officials warning that things may get even worse, and worse and worse.”
Like a number of other nations, The Bahamas did exceptionally well in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, though the government’s most disingenuous and militant critics are loath to admit any of these accomplishments, including various commentators who remain in full propaganda mode.
Countries ranging from Australia to Israel also did generally well at the outset of the pandemic but have experienced a subsequent surge in cases. The resurgence is due to a combination of the continued circulation of the virus, worsened by the irresponsible behaviour by some citizens during the reopening of domestic economies and societies and other factors.
There are now violent protests in Israel because the Israeli Government has placed new restrictive measures on the populace in order to contain a new outbreak. Many countries will have to continue to balance the health and economic needs of citizens.
The general success of China in containing the virus was due in part to extraordinary and authoritarian measures few democracies are able to impose on their populations. Despite this success, China has continued to have swift and aggressive localized lockdowns and curfews.
South Korea, with a population of 51 million, enjoyed notable and early success in containing COVID-19. This was following a severe outbreak in Daegu, the fourth largest city in the country.
In March, the city reported 13,879 cases and 297 deaths. South Korea continues to battle “small but persistent clusters of infections with 63 new cases reported on Tuesday, July 21. But no country is out of the woods as the virus can easily rebound in any country.
The general success of South Korea and Singapore in arresting the spread of the virus was due in large part to the terrifying experience the countries had during the 2002-2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak, which experts believe originated in a wet market in southern Guangdong Province in China.
The UK Guardian reported:
“Many of the countries that have had the greatest success in containing the disease are ones that were affected by SARS in 2002-03. The memory of that crisis may have led to better preparedness, in government and among the population, and to a greater willingness among people to comply with restrictions on movement and daily life to prevent the spread of infection.”
Because most countries in the world, including The Bahamas, did not experience SARS, many citizens did not take the outbreak as seriously at the outset.
The SARS outbreak began after a businessman became ill in Foshan, China. He presented with pneumonia-like symptoms. The people who treated him also became sick. Over the course of nine months, from late 2002 to July 2003, the virus spread from China to 29 other countries, infecting just over 8,000 people and killing 774 people, mostly in Asia.
While HIV/AIDS took approximately 20 years to cover the globe, SARS was described as a “swift and terrifying pandemic”, its symptoms included coughing, fever, body aches, difficulty breathing and fatigue. The virus could easily be transmitted through superspreaders who could pass it on through the air, by sneezing or coughing.
The World Health Organization reported:
“Other countries/areas in which chains of human-to-human transmission occurred after early importation of cases were Toronto in Canada, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China, Chinese Taipei, Singapore and Hanoi in Vietnam.”
Because of fears about its economy and other factors, China did not notify the WHO about the SARS virus until February, 2003, several months after the discovery of the virus.
China downplayed the number of SARS patients in the country. By some estimates the real number of patients in Beijing was 10 times higher than previously reported by Chinese officials.
Because of the experience of the SARS outbreak, including the dangerous secrecy of the Chinese Government, many governments in Asia were alarmed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Because of their fairly recent experience with SARS, Vietnam quickly closed its borders with China at the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak. Vietnam was unsure of the validity of the information coming out of China and whether officials there were accurately reporting the nature and scope of the disease.
For its part, South Korea quickly ramped up some of the most intrusive health surveillance and contact tracing of any democracy. While there were complaints, most South Koreans complied because they appreciated the potential nature of the health threat given how virulent and deadly SARS proved over a decade ago.
Most South Koreans and Singaporeans also complied because they are more communitarian cultures, with many used to wearing face masks. Culture and sociology matter. Many of these countries are more disciplined, better organized and more disposed to following public health guidelines.
Pandemics, especially in democracies, require governments to both encourage citizens and to strictly enforce health measures. It is highly disingenuous to argue that citizens will comply mostly through persuasion.
While many have complied with health guidelines, the slackness, indiscipline and indifference to the well-being of others have characterized the behaviour of many Bahamians who are responsible for the current resurgence of COVID-19, including those who unnecessarily and irresponsibly travelled to Florida for non-essential reasons, including to shop.
The Minnis Administration, like other governments, is trying to strike the right balance between protecting health and reopening our heavily tourism dependent economy.
As the Prime Minister has repeatedly noted: “At least 50 percent of our GDP is derived from tourism, which employs directly and indirectly up to 60 percent of our working population.”
In a democracy, policy measures demand a certain level of responsibility and compliance by citizens. Authoritarian states can enforce measures of which citizens in a democracy will balk.
When a government relaxes measures in a democracy like The Bahamas, some will disagree with the decision, arguing for stronger measures. If a government puts in place certain restrictions, others will whine and complain, especially in countries where whining and winging are favourite pastimes. It is the task of democratic governance to do what is prudent in order to save and to protect life.
The Bahamas Government has begged, pleaded and encouraged Bahamians and residents to act responsibly. But there are those who will only respond to greater enforcement and restrictions.
As Florida rages with the virus, some Bahamians put their country at great risk by cavalierly travelling into one of the worst areas of the contagion and then returning home. By some estimates, the United States may have five to ten times more cases than reported.
In a Letter to the Editor, Athena Damianos, one of the better journalists of her time who can teach current journalists much about the craft, summed up why we are experiencing a resurgence of the virus:
“It is the selfish and irresponsible behaviour of some people that has brought us back to square one in the fight against COVID-19. We were urged not to travel abroad unless it was essential. I guess going to Walmart in hotspot- Miami is essential.
“We were told to limit the size of groups on the beach to five to help prevent spread, but many people ignored the warning and partied, packed together like sardines, like it was the last day on earth.
“Others rented Airbnbs to host parties; everyone ‘mash up together’. People ‘mash up together’ at Fish Fry, masks on their chins instead of covering mouth and nose.
“We were doing so well under the policies set to flatten the curve, we stood proud as a model to some of the most developed countries in the world.
“Now, the incredibly selfish and short-sighted behaviour of some people means Freeport’s economic recovery has been set back again and the vendors at Fish Fry and Potter’s Cay here in Nassau have had their income stream cut.
“It means scores of law-abiding citizens and residents can’t even go to the beach in the heat of summer.
“For crying out loud, don’t these people watch the international news and see what’s happening elsewhere as a result of this type of behaviour? If we are unable to follow COVID-19 protocols, ourselves. How can we ask visitors to?
“Instead of chastising the government for this unfortunate turn of events, any impartial person would welcome the swift response and place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the thoughtless people who have returned us to this sad place.”