By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas will be "screwed" if it does not use the "unique opportunity" provided by the COVID-19 pandemic to restructure itself for a sustainable 21st century future, it was argued yesterday.
Roderick Simms, a former Chamber of Commerce director who headed its Family Islands division, told Tribune Business that the crisis has "truly reset the world" and it cannot be "business as usual" in The Bahamas.
Warning Bahamians that "things will not return to the way they were" once the pandemic has passed, Mr Simms said the country will be dealing with a "totally different economic landscape" that does not include many existing businesses and where those that do survive realise they can "do more with less" and downsize.
Calling on all workers to prepare for what he views as the inevitable restructuring of the labour market and job opportunities, Mr Simms said COVID-19 had forced The Bahamas to shed its previous "reluctance" and embrace the digital technology era. And the "price of corruption" had also greatly increased.
Pointing out that branch closures and reduced opening hours were increasingly pushing Bahamians to digital and online banking, whether they liked it or not, he reiterated calls for the government to "dust-off" the National Development Plan (NDP) as it represented the only long-term planning effort presently on the table that had obtained any degree of bi-partisan political support.
"The way in which we were operating as a country has to be restructured, and needs to be modified, as it is not sustainable," Mr Simms told Tribune Business. "COVID-19 provides a unique opportunity to restructure the country, and the National Development Plan is the best opportunity we have to realign and restructure the country, and put it on the path to sustainability.
"COVID-19 has truly reset the world. It's not business as usual. Things will not return to the way they were originally designed; things will evolve differently than they presently are. The price of corruption in the country has gone up. We have to put the NDP in place and need to move the country forward to be a global player in the 21st century."
The NDP represents the first ever co-ordinated effort to plan The Bahamas' development in a systematic manner using empirical data and analyses, while also obtaining input from private sector and civil society organisations.
Labelled "Vision 2040", the plan aims to break with The Bahamas' past ad hoc approach to national growth by setting a clear path towards a more sustainable future. It also sets out a "road map", containing measurable goals and objectives for The Bahamas to attain, so that this nation's progress towards achieving its development targets can be judged according to set timelines.
Vision 2040 focused on four main policy pillars - the economy, governance, social policy and the environment, both natural and built - in its first 400-page draft, which is already publicly disclosed. But, while much work was done on it under the former Christie administration involving all political parties, its successor has been reluctant to embrace it and appears to have placed it on the shelf.
Arguing that the National Development Plan (NDP) needs to be revisited rapidly once The Bahamas and the world emerge from the pandemic, Mr Simms said: "What COVID-19 has done is show us a digital platform is very important.
"What we're learning from this is employees need not come to work every day; they need to work, but a lot of activity can be done remotely. Companies are going to use this opportunity to downsize as they've realised they can do a lot more with less.
"There's going to be a restructuring in the labour market and employee opportunities. Bahamians have to get themselves re-educated to take advantage of opportunities that arise with the new economy. It's not going to be the same. It's not going back to the way it was," he added.
"It's going to be a totally different landscape, and a digital platform is the way to go in moving the country forward. We are now doing a lot of things digitally. We knew we had to go that route, and were kind of reluctant, but COVID-19 has left us in no doubt."
Mr Simms said banking and financial transactions were a prime example of this now-forced transition, but added that a revised National Development Plan was the critical tool for binding all elements together in a properly-structured "road map" for taking The Bahamas forward post-COVID 19.
"The NDP and its four pillars should be dusted off and looked at," he added. "It's a good time for government to come together with the opposition as we really need a plan. There may be some other plan out there, but the only plan I know of is the NDP.
"Right now we have a health crisis. The health crisis is more important than the economy. The economy is devastated, let's face it. Whether we like it or not, our number one industry, tourism, just got shot. It's going to take a while for most components of the economy to return to where they were. It's going to be slow, and take time, because COVID-19 has changed the perception of travel.
"It's affected our way of life. If we don't use this opportunity, we're screwed. Although this is not the best way to get an opportunity, and it is not a pleasant opportunity, the reset button has been pressed. What are we going to do? We have a once-in-a-lifetime, generational opportunity to restructure."
Mr Simms backed the government's emergency powers nationwide lockdown as essential to preventing COVID-19's spread throughout The Bahamas, and urged it to ramp-up testing as the only true way to determine the number of cases in this nation.