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Alicia Wallace: More Questions Than Answers Which Sands’ Resignation Does Not Make Go Away

Dr Duane Sands

Dr Duane Sands

No one was pleased when news broke that two permanent residents were allowed to enter Nassau early last week while the borders were closed. It was said these people brought 2500 COVID-19 testing swabs – not testing kits – which were donations. We do not know why the swabs had to be accompanied or how the situation turned into an all-or-nothing deal where the passengers on the cargo plane had to be allowed to remain in the country or the government would not get the much-needed swabs.

It also remains unclear why the Minister of Health was the person to make the decision on whether or not the country would accept the people and the swabs. Days later, the Prime Minister said it came to his attention that six people came on the flight and were allowed to remain and the Minister of Health would make a statement on the following day. What we received on Monday was notification of Sands’ resignation and, hours later, Minnis’ acceptance of that resignation. There are still questions that need to be answered, among them:

  1. How did the plane get to Nassau without the competent authority and other appointed actors knowing exactly who and what was on board?

  2. What role did the Ministries of Tourism & Aviation and Immigration play?

  3. How did Sands become the decision-maker on this issue?

  4. Who decided that Sands was responsible for making this decision?

  5. Was it assumed the swabs would not be donated if the people on the plane were not allowed to disembark, or did the passengers make the swabs a bargaining chip at best, a bribe at worst? Why was this behaviour rewarded?

  6. Why didn’t Sands know how many people were on the plane? Who had this information and why was it withheld?

It is unfortunate that it has come to this. It is undeniable Sands made a bad call. Bahamians were told for weeks they would not be allowed to enter the country. When it was finally announced that arrangements were being made for people to return to The Bahamas, there were stipulations including COVID-19 testing before being allowed to board a flight and quarantining in a government facility guarded by the Royal Bahamas Defence Force.

It is insulting – and an issue of class – that six unexpected permanent residents, under the guise of making a donation, were allowed to disembark a cargo plane, remain in The Bahamas and quarantine at home. It was later announced that returning Bahamians would have the same option. This does not solve the issue. It is not impressive that the legal restrictions can be adjusted after being broken to accommodate permanent residents. There are more questions than answers here and the resignation does not make it all go away.

We have lost an effective Minister of Health who, in his view, stood by his oath when he chose to do what needed to be done to access the swabs we needed. If he had not done that, he likely would have come under fire. There was no way for him to win and we have to wonder who set it up this way? Too many people have gotten away with their part in this. Why is Sands the only one to pay? When will we care as much about the Bahamian people as we do about partisanship and punishment?

At least Sands can afford to accept his penalty. Perhaps we can turn our attention, with the same energy, to the people who cannot afford to pay the cost of not having enough.

We’re not all in the same boat - some don’t even have a boat

Even when urged to make appropriate plans, the government has failed to effectively make provisions for vulnerable people. This has resulted in people breaking the curfew to get food. We can look down on people and pretend to be superior, saying these people should have planned better, or we could face the facts.

Many of us recently saw a video of Speaker of the House and Member of Parliament for Nassau Village Halson Moultrie demonstrating the use of a newly installed water pump in his constituency. He seemed to marvel at the idea that constituents would be able to access clean water by visiting this pump. If people are still using these pumps, do you not think some people do not have the means to store food, or even safely prepare it?

Contrary to what common slogans say, we are not all in the same boat. We are in the same storm and everyone does not even have a boat. Some have been tossed from a boat without a raft or life jacket. It is not that these lifesaving supplies do not exist, but the crew could not be bothered to furnish them and other passengers are far too concerned with their own affairs. Those who cannot swim and find nothing to cling to will drown.

Numerous people have been arrested, taken to court and punished for “breaking curfew” when they have nowhere to go. Equality Bahamas has been calling for the government to focus on the vulnerable in its COVID-19 response to ensure they would not be left out or, worse, further disadvantaged. It was good to see that Bishop Walter Hanchell of Great Commission Ministries called on the government to release unhoused people who were imprisoned for breaking the curfew.

Non-governmental organizations, Members of Parliament, religious organizations and the general public need to give this as much attention as the Sands swab saga and reopening of liquor stores. People should not be locked up or fined for not having a home or enough food.

The response of the Minister of Social Services, as always, left much to be desired. He called on unhoused people to try and reunite with their families – quite similar to his message to abusers – or to go to Social Services to request assistance. It would have made sense for him to call on law enforcement officers to contact the Department when picking up unhoused people so that appropriate arrangements could be made. It would have been sensible for him to have a conversation with the Minister of National Security and the “competent authority” about the impact the emergency order is having on vulnerable people and to, with their participation, develop a plan to ensure that people experiencing poverty or homelessness are not criminalized because of their current situation.

Equality Bahamas specifically noted this pressing issue in letters to the Prime Minister, Attorney General, Minister of Social Services and Director of Gender and Family Affairs weeks ago. It cannot be said they did not know, that no one said anything, or that they did not know what to do about it. It was plainly stated in the guidelines for feminist policy in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

The issue seems to be, as in many situations that do not directly affect government officials, they just do not care. It is on advocates, community leaders and members of the public to speak up. Please, say something.

Hard to determine who is - or isn’t - breaking the curfew

The economy is being reopened. The decision to move into Phase 1B is interesting particularly as the Ministry of Health, while showing graphs and casually stating it seems as though we have been successful in flattening the curve, has not indicated we are in a position to relax restrictions.

Recently, we had a statement from the Ministry of Health which advised us that community spread was still occurring, too many people were moving about as normal and we may need to increase restrictions. In the next address from the prime minister, he expressed disappointment at the number of cars still on the road. In the same address, he announced that home, hardware and plant stores would be allowed to open on certain days. Those who wanted to be on the road continued to find excuses to be out, among those who truly had essential tasks to do.

Now more businesses are able to operate. It remains to be seen how compliance with the emergency order will be affected. It was already apparent that people were determined to be on the road. How much more traffic will there be now? With non-essential businesses open, it is more difficult to determine who is or is not breaking the “curfew”.

We are out more frequently and in higher numbers. What does this mean for the way forward? How long will we be required to practice social distancing, wear masks and refrain from mixing households? We have not been given a timeline. We need to remember that however we move through the phases, it is always possible we will have to go back to Phase 1A. Whether or not that happens and when depends on our ability to govern ourselves as much as it depends on the government to put appropriate measures in place.

The government is obviously not capable of enforcing the emergency order at all times and in all places. We have personal and community responsibility to keep ourselves and one another safe. This means only going out when necessary, wearing a mask to cover nose and mouth (and keeping it on the entire time we are off our own property), moving as quickly as possible through grocery store aisles, getting out of the way when someone needs to pass and is waiting because there is no way to do so while maintaining the necessary six-foot distance and refraining from visiting other people’s homes. This means, whenever possible, using delivery services instead of leaving home.

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