WE are at war, declared Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis, as he announced new regulations that give him sweeping new powers to tackle the spread of the coronavirus.
So what now? At the end of his speech, it was fairly clear what Dr Minnis could do under the new powers – but rather less clear what he would do.
As he announced two more cases of coronavirus in The Bahamas, bringing the total to three, he went on to unveil a series of powers but added “some of these provisions may be invoked, some may not”.
Indeed, that word “may” cropped up a lot. He said drastic measures “may stop the spread of this virus and may assist us in winning this war”. Across The Bahamas, there would probably be a little more reassurance if instead of focusing on what may be done, Dr Minnis had detailed what will be done.
Essentially, what changed yesterday morning was the ability of the government to take action. No extra isolation measures right away, no further immediate restriction on citizens or employers. This was a declaration of emergency then going home to wait to see what to do next. Bahamians were probably prepared, and even wanting, more of an instant response.
One of the concerns as we look around the world has been those governments who have not acted fast enough. The World Health Organisation went as far as criticising the lack of response in some nations, a move that seems to have stung the UK and the US into action.
While in some ways The Bahamas has been ahead in its response – the UK for example is only now closing schools and the US response appears to have been anything but co-ordinated across the nation – this move to emergency powers here yesterday doesn’t seem to have moved us practically any further forward.
Meantime, Dr Minnis’ deputy, Peter Turnquest, was far from convincing in his depiction of the effects of coronavirus on the Bahamian economy. He projected an economic fallout of as much as $1bn, but really that’s only until the summer. Then we’re into what is traditionally a low season for tourism anyway and then into hurricane season. Come July 1, there’s not going to be magically six fully loaded cruise ships pulling into port to cure all our economic ills. The figure for losses overall is looking much more likely to be closer to the $3bn figure projected by the International Development Bank. We hope Mr Turnquest isn’t sugar coating this bitterest of pills – this is a time for hard truths.
There’s nothing so sweet on offer to the people who will be receiving food assistance – with $100 vouchers available every other week from the Ministry of Social Services for those people facing reduced work days for eight weeks. Trying to survive on $50 worth of food a week is more than a challenge, it’s a catastrophe.
In positive news, the government instructing WSC to reconnect recently disconnected services – a sign of the unity Dr Minnis called for after PLP leader Philip Davis urged this measure – and asking WSC and BPL to defer payment of bills by those diagnosed with the virus, in quarantine or laid off gives people some wiggle room they didn’t have yesterday.
We understand dealing with this is a long-term problem, and further solutions will be put forward as time goes by – but for the short-term, we haven’t advanced very far. There’s little extra comfort for those in distress, and little direct action that wasn’t already being taken before the announcement.
We ask again, so what now? When will these special measures start to be deployed? We hope some of the more extreme measures will never be needed – but nor must we be too slow to act. That would be, very literally, a fatal mistake.
Fake news and freedom of speech
One of the measures introduced by Dr Minnis yesterday caused significant concern, particularly on social media.
Emergency regulations make it an offence to spread misinformation if one knows or can be reasonably expected to know the information is false.
The potential for misuse of this is obvious. We can quite understand the apprehension during this time of national crisis at false reports being circulated that undermine the emergency measures themselves. Immediately after the first patient in The Bahamas was diagnosed, social media filled up with all manner of speculation about who she was, most of it wildly inaccurate. At a time when officials are trying to work out how someone caught the virus, and where it might have spread to, that’s not only unhelpful, it’s damaging to the work. An investigator can hear one of those fake claims and it becomes something they have to follow up, see if there’s any merit to the report, most likely ending up with wasted time on a wild goose chase leaving them with less time to follow genuine information.
But while we can understand that concern, how far does that go? Who decides on whether information is false? Who decides if someone can be reasonably expected to know? What happens if government sources spread misinformation?
There are genuine concerns for freedom of speech in this move – and a real danger if this is used in any but the most extreme of circumstances, the equivalent of yelling “Fire” in a crowded theatre and not wanting to be held to account for starting a stampede.
We are as concerned as anyone by the spread of fake news – getting to the truth is our business after all – but there is danger in handing this ability to silence others to the government. It must not be used to silence critics. That way leads to the undermining of one of the very pillars of our democracy. This is a controversial measure precisely because Bahamians care about our society – we must not put that at risk.