By Malcolm Strachan
As we stand on the doorstep of the day of reckoning, anxiety is in the air. On one hand, many Bahamians are ready to get back to a place that can be considered normal. On the other, those taking a considered approach to the government’s decision to reopen the country are deeply uneasy. As we think about our loved ones and other citizens – those with compromised immune systems in particular - it is frightening to witness the coronavirus uptick continue with record-shattering force in the US.
And while America continues to get battered daily with rising COVID-19 cases, their leadership remains tone-deaf and ignorant to the facts.
With another single-day record being smashed as this was written - the US had more than 47,000 new cases on Friday, following two consecutive days of hitting new highs. Just as disconcerting, Florida is one of 13 states that have set their own records in COVID-19 cases over the past week and a half.
Nonetheless, with options looking as clear as mud, we press on.
With Tourism Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar noting pre-pandemic levels will likely not return for another 18-24 months, what other choice we have? On top of that, our good friends at Moody’s made the decision to downgrade the country to junk status. And if any of that was not bad enough, another 1,200 Bahamians are about to become unemployed on the heels of Baha Mar’s announcement of a 20 percent staff cut.
People, we are in dire straits.
And the reality is we literally cannot afford to keep the country closed another moment. But the scary thing about COVID-19 is although you can’t see its effects outside of the physical toll it exacts on a person’s health, what it can do to an economy is much more devastating because you don’t need to catch the virus to be severely injured by it. Unfortunately, reopening the country will not save us in the long haul, as all it does is provide a buffer.
If what is happening right next door to us is any indication of what to expect once travel resumes, this will likely be a short-lived experience.
Can you imagine what a coronavirus spread would look like in our local hospitality industry? We’re talking about the majority of the private sector labour force whom, in most cases, live in densely populated communities, being sent home to quarantine for the mere threat of the virus.
Let us not forget how 200 healthcare workers were asked to self-isolate at home for two weeks following a scare at the Princess Margaret Hospital. At least, in that instance, our tourism product was largely unhampered. We can’t be too certain, though, that we would be able to say the same if, God forbid, a Bahamian employee becomes infected and we are unable to figure out who “Patient Zero” is. Such a scenario could very well portray the image to the world that people travelling to The Bahamas are at risk – the absolute last kind of press we need.
International headlines would surely push a stake through the heart of our economy.
But at least we would have reopened the country, right?
Seriously, what sense does it make to reopen without the proper safeguards in place? Even with accepting we have few alternatives, given we are so incredibly tourism dependent, much more should be taken into consideration.
We may not be able to take as bold a stance as the UK did by putting an outright ban on US inbound travel. However, we should be considering such measures for COVID-19 hotspots. And to the extent that neuters our tourism marketing, perhaps this calls for innovation and incentivising people from other regions minimally impacted by the virus to visit the country.
What we shouldn’t do is walk into what is right in front of us – doomsday.
I caution you – do not write off such warnings as gloom and doom, pessimism, mischief making and the like. If done haphazardly, we are guaranteed to set ourselves back eons in the fight against this pandemic and all our sacrifice would have been for naught.
Nothing has significantly changed with regard to our capacity to withstand our healthcare system being over-run with COVID-19 cases. Further, our ability to keep cases down prior to reopening was done in a controlled environment and should not be looked upon as an indicator of future success.
Additionally, two weeks was not nearly enough time to simulate what the Bahamas COVID-19 service model should look like, as it has been seemingly taking place in a vacuum. Allowing operators to come up with their own coronavirus modifications in silos makes it apparent that we are not harnessing the opportunity to become a destination known for its tourism experience in a COVID-19 world.
Baha Mar not being on board with opening on Wednesday is the proof that we simply aren’t ready.
This move is being done out of desperation. And while that is certainly understandable, given the circumstances, the risks - unless we are pleasantly surprised - will likely far outweigh the reward.
All said, I sincerely hope that I am made a fool.