EDITOR, The Tribune
The Prime Minister took to the floor of Parliament and gave us a tortured insight onto a contentious issue that has bedeviled governments all over the world this year.
Who wins when individual freedoms clash head-on with collective rights? In this case the PM had to balance civil liberties with public health. It’s a delicate balance. But it’s an equation that can only be synchronized when individuals rise to the high bar of self-sacrifice. We failed that test.
Covid-19 has presented the world with a case-study that heretofore has not been taught in any government class, any constitutional law textbook or any public policy forum.
The PM, with the advice of his Cabinet colleagues and health officials, had to make decisions on the fly and it is encouraging to get confirmation that the opinions of civil society have a bearing on public policy decisions.
Deciphering what the PM told the House, we are left with the conclusion that the Cabinet ruminated on how best to open the economy to American tourists while at the same time restoring to Bahamians the right to come and go as they wished.
Obviously, politics played a role in the process, as it usually does, but it was eye-opening to see the extent to which the opposition PLP got inside the government’s craw. Dr. No (aka PLP leader Brave Davis) has turned public health into a political bat with which he threatens to bludgeon the government.
Apparently, the PM thought that enough people would see a denial of a flight to Miami as an infringement of some imaginary constitutional right and so he ceded the argument to the PLP.
One can just imagine the hypocritical grin pasted onto PLP Chairman Fred Mitchell’s face when he realized that Minnis had succumbed to their bluster.
The PLP would have criticised a decision to demand Covid-19 tests for all returning Bahamians just as heartily as they are now condemning the decision to send Bahamians into the arms of Florida merchants who had so terribly missed our dollars.
To be sure, some of our countrymen were incredibly naive. Witness the woman who told reporters that she takes her family on a fun excursion to Miami every summer and she was determined to not let a pesky virus put her off her escapade.
The medical advice given to the politicians was that it was possible to contain the virus if Bahamians went to Miami for no more than three days and upon their return went into isolation for 14 days.
Infection picked up in the world’s Covid hotspot could then be contained to the home isolation chamber.
But when the Bahamian caged birds landed in Miami, they went on a spree spending scarce foreign exchange, some posting to their social media accounts pictures of themselves with no mask, no social distancing and not a care in the world.
Returning home they waved their 72-hours no Covid required airport or harbour pass and some plunged head-first into normality in places like Grand Bahama.
Our stabilized infection rate soared and it’s as if the infected Miami shoppers came back and hugged everyone they knew. Those guinea pigs then interacted with more people and instantly tripled the number of confirmed Covid cases.
Dr. Minnis must never err on the side of caution during this pandemic. If we define the collective public health in terms of the lives of our citizens, then he has a moral duty to restrict the choices we have as individuals.
He must accept that there will always be a tension between the collective good and individual rights.
The government must never dilly-dally over whether its actions offend any individual citizen, especially when such offence is juxtaposed against saving lives.
The late Livingstone Coakley understood Bahamians and as Minister of Health he famously said that all good public health policy involves a certain degree of trade-off.
Some politicians act as if all Bahamians are capable of making rational decisions. Many of us will never put the common good above our selfish desires while simultaneously expecting the government to do it for us.
The protection of the public’s welfare must always be paramount and it is not an abuse of constitutional power to curtail individual rights in a national emergency.
Those who never fancied the PM will see his every move as being ultra vires to the Constitution. There is even a minority who mistrust everything the government does.
Much of this libertarian ideology is imported straight from Fox News in the US and it would shock the moral conscience to know how many Bahamians take that medium as gospel.
Rugged individualism and lack of leadership have caused fissures and chaos in a country that should be leading the world in this crisis. A fight rages over whether to wear a mask and social distance over there and sure enough we have imported those tensions into our public health debate.
The PM must not allow himself to get entrapped into this phony wrangling about public health and individual rights. The preamble to the Constitution makes reference to “We, the inheritors of and successors to this Family of Islands …”
We ignore our collective survival at our own individual peril.
July 26, 2020.