By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The deputy prime minster yesterday revealed the government is “contingency planning” for the potential negative impact that the coronavirus may have on economic growth and fiscal projections.
K Peter Turnquest, deputy prime minister, told Tribune Business that the virus’s continued spread was a “concern” that could not have arisen at a worse time with The Bahamas still trying to rebound from Hurricane Dorian’s devastating impact.
Declining to give any estimates for how much Bahamian GDP growth and the government’s finances may be impacted, Mr Turnquest said the Ministry of Finance had been analysing risk mitigation strategies for the past week.
The coronavirus outbreak is creeping closer to The Bahamas, although no confirmed cases had been reported here as Tribune Business went to press last night. Florida yesterday reported its first two cases, while the Dominican Republic revealed its first on Sunday.
“Obviously it’s a concern, and we’ll continue to watch it,” Mr Turnquest told this newspaper. “We are contingency planning, and have been for about a week or so. We’ll make whatever contingency plans we can to avoid any fall-out, but we continue to hope for the best and that any effects will be minimal and short-lived.
“It’s unfortunate timing but again this is something we have no control over so we have to deal with it. We can only stand by and see what happens. We are taking some steps in the interim and firming up other contingencies in case something happens.”
Mr Turnquest agreed that the coronavirus outbreak highlighted the need for The Bahamas to extend its disaster risk management and planning framework beyond hurricanes, adding: “We’re also looking at that as an element in the new budget.”
The Central Bank of The Bahamas, in its monthly economic report for January 2020, confirmed that the virus’s impact on the global economy could also impact forecasts for flat Bahamian gross domestic product (GDP) growth in 2020 depending on the extent of the outbreak and how long it lasts.
“Expectations are that the domestic economy could post a flat outturn in 2020, with a recovery in 2021, as pre-Hurricane Dorian capacity is restored,” the Central Bank said. “Albeit new risks are present given the evolving conditions around the impact of the coronavirus global economic activity and travel.”
The Bahamas as a small, open economy that is heavily reliant on tourism is especially vulnerable to the coronavirus outbreak given that it welcomed 7.2 foreign visitors to its shores in 2019. It also imports virtually everything it consumes, making this nation especially susceptible to supply chain disruptions in developed nations.
Rupert Roberts, Super Value’s president, told this newspaper that had been “no hint” to-date of the coronavirus creating any issues for Bahamian food security and voiced optimism this will not become an issue.
“There’s been no hint of that, and we don’t have any fear that will happen. There’s nothing to be concerned about,” he told Tribune Business. “I called our major supplier and they don’t see any problem coming down the pipeline. There’s nothing that they see.”
Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, said The Bahamas had been fortunate in that its two major tourism source markets - the US and Canada - had not been heavily hit by the coronavirus outbreak to-date, although deaths in the former nation started to rise yesterday.
He added that The Bahamas might even receive a boost as the Ministry of Tourism was receiving feedback that there was “keen interest” in this nation from meeting planners and event/conference organisers who had been forced to cancel, or look for alternative locations, due to the virus’s impact in other parts of the world.
“Thankfully a lot of the worldwide drama has been centred in parts of the world from which we derive less than 10 percent of our foreign visitors,” Mr D’Aguilar said. “Ninety-two percent of our foreign visitors come from the US and Canada.
“While there are some areas of concern, by and large in those two countries the extent of the virus has been relatively small and contained. That is the positive take away from what has transpired to-date.
“Now, is there the belief that it will spread further to those major sources of foreign visitors? Yes. We’re worried but we remain hopeful that the extent of the spread in those major source markets remains contained. There’s no doubt the coronavirus is having a substantial effect on travel in parts of the world where it’s emerged.”
Turning to the positive, Mr D’Aguilar added: “If The Bahamas and the Caribbean remain largely unaffected, people looking for alternative places to go - if they’re not going to hold a conference in Asia, and are not going to proceed - the Caribbean looks more attractive at this time.
“We’re getting feedback from the outreach by our Ministry of Tourism offices that there’s keen interest in The Bahamas because we have, by and large, not been impacted.”
Mr D’Aguilar implored Bahamians to be responsible with social media posts relating to the coronavirus, warning that incorrect information - as had occurred during and after Hurricane Dorian - “affects the livelihoods of every Bahamian” given the country’s reliance on tourism.