By Malcolm Strachan
THERE is no doubt politics makes for strange bedfellows, particularly in the case of former Minister of Health Dr Duane Sands and the now acting Health Minister and Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis. It is not too long ago both men were on opposing sides of a battle for the leadership of the Free National Movement. Although, at the time, Sands was positioning himself to be Loretta Butler-Turner’s deputy, his aspirations to become prime minister were widely known.
Confidence in Sands’ ability to be a steady-handed leader only grew in the wake of the COVID-19 global health crisis.
Thus, the controversy surrounding the entry of permanent residents from the US caused quite an uproar. But what has transpired may have, in effect, led to the political torpedoing of Sands’ chances to become prime minister in the future – though that may be dependent on his successor’s performance. And while we might gain some comfort from another medical expert taking over the portfolio, the circumstances have made many people uncomfortable as it would seem there is much more to this situation than meets the eye.
With Sands, you got an authoritative personality steering the ship - one who had little issue availing himself to the press to answer questions. Always seeming calm, collected and controlled, it is no surprise he made the judgment call that allowed permanent residents to enter the country in exchange for the 2,500 swabs to boost our testing capacity. And, as we have since learned, this was not the first instance of permanent residents being allowed back into the country. Yet, Sands is the one to fall on his sword.
Certainly, the Bahamian people did not like the optics surrounding foreigners being allowed to enter here while hundreds of citizens were still stuck abroad – students and, in some cases, the elderly. However, it is quite obvious this got out of hand far too quickly. And what’s worse is that Sands’ departure may have been more attributable to political bad blood than an egregious breach of protocol that the prime minister has yet to fully specify.
No doubt, we continue to experience troubling times and the prime minister taking over this portfolio has done little to subdue concerns. To date, more than 200 healthcare workers have been quarantined as a result of the virus and with jurisdictions easing their way back to opening, threats of a second wave are legitimate. The promised ramp-up in testing has yet to take place. Anyone considering if now was the best time to have someone new at the helm is justified to have concerns.
In the middle of a war, you wouldn’t just replace the general once combat has begun – not unless there is a good enough reason to and if you have a viable replacement. Surely, many will say Sands should not have resigned. While that may be true, the conversation likely would have continued to be a distraction. Not that it is any less now, but much of this could have been avoided during the prime minister’s national address that preceded Sands’ resignation.
This is where leadership comes into play. Instead of apologising to the Bahamian people as a government for the mishap that took place, the prime minister deferred to Dr Sands to make a statement the following day. This only increased speculation. The prime minister should have expressed his sincere apology for the confusion and reassured citizens they would be imminently flying our people home.
Perhaps this would have all blown over and we wouldn’t be where we are now – stuck with a spectre of unstable leadership in the middle of a global health crisis. And even though Prime Minister Minnis sat in the Cabinet of the last Ingraham administration as Minister of Health, he seemingly does not engender the same level of confidence the country had in Dr Sands.
Furthermore, neither his statement announcing his interim leadership of the nation’s health portfolio, nor his absence at the ministry of health update following Sands’ resignation do much to embolden the spirit of the Bahamian people. Let me be clear, the Prime Minister seems more comfortable having oversight from a 10,000ft view which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, per se. However, the question of whether that is what the Bahamian people need in overseeing the ministry of health is another question to ponder.
The reality is this will likely change the communication regime of these status updates we’ve become accustomed to under Sands’ management.
We should not be surprised to see less interaction between policy makers and the media, despite it being what is needed. To this end, Sands’ departure essentially may make life harder in the short-term for the Prime Minister and the people.
There is no question Prime Minister Minnis has backed himself into a corner by calling the bluff of Dr Sands. As for the former minister, he still has a great deal of support within his constituency and from the electorate for the work he has done during the last three years. As for the Prime Minister, while he has certainly upgraded his communication with the media amid this health crisis, the desire for accessibility may become taxing very quickly.
Thus, it would be surprising if he chooses to remain in the health post, even though it would seem options to fill the position are few.
The reality is there isn’t anyone in the senate or the House of Assembly that the Bahamian people trust more than Sands to lead us through this – and that includes the Prime Minister. Certainly, PLP and FNM supporters would agree.
And for the Prime Minister’s part, good leadership ought to know when to be forgiving to its star players and give grace for mistakes to occur. While it was poor optics for foreigners to be allowed entry when Bahamians were stuck abroad, not returning citizens home falls at the feet of the competent authority which the Prime Minister oversees.
For the bleeding hearts sympathising for Sands, rest assured his work has already positioned him to fulfil bigger dreams.
And as the Prime Minister may have to again dig deep and pull out his best performance yet, in time, we’ll soon learn who is the better chess player of the two.