By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Senior Reporter
PRIME Minister Dr Hubert Minnis said normal commercial activity on islands like Exuma and Eleuthera has not been restarted because officials have to assume that people may have visited those islands and potentially brought COVID-19 to them.
He gave the explanation the same day Free National Movement Chairman Carl Culmer said he was “disappointed” after Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Delon Brennen told this newspaper he did not know why some Family Islands without COVID-19 cases remain shut, saying it was a decision made above the level of Ministry of Health officials.
Dr Minnis’ comments came during an exclusive interview with state broadcaster ZNS last night. The last time he held a press conference on April 19.
The nation’s leader said: “We must assume that there is a possibility that individuals could have entered the island and an island can possibly go viral on you. So if an island goes viral, one has to recognise how many individuals you can transport from that island to New Providence, bearing in mind that if there is any illness you have to transport them via air ambulance and you must use what you call an incubation tent (and) that incubation tent has one use and is $10,000. So if a particular island goes viral or goes left on you could manage that.
“If you open up all and two go bad on you, you have a catastrophe, your health system may possibly melt down, so whatever we do we must take into consideration our capacity to manage, our capacity to transport, yes they are sterile at this time but we must assume that if anything goes wrong we must be on top of it, never catching up."
Dr Minnis said officials were selective in which islands they chose to reopen and they chose Andros over Eleuthera or Exuma because of the importance of crab season to the people of Andros.
“This is the economic time for Andros’ economy,” he said. "Many Androsians depend on crab, they export crab to New Providence and wherever else. That’s like Christmas for them, that’s their economic engine. So we had to make a determination, do we open San Salvador and Eleuthera because it was only one additional island we were going to open. We do San Salvador, do we do Eleuthera, or do we allow the Androsians to take advantage of this particular time and their economic engine is roaring? That’s an entire population we had to take into consideration and I could not allow them not to take advantage of a situation like this when their economy is booming at a time when the Androsians themselves depend on their livelihood. The amount of money they generate at this particular time takes them through the entire year so that was a deciding factor that I could not lose such an opportunity so as a result the decision was made to release Andros and hold back the remainder at this time.”
During a national address on Sunday, Dr Minnis announced that Cat Island, Long Island, Abaco and Andros would be able to resume normal commercial activity, though weekday curfews and weekend lockdown measures remain in place for all islands. Ragged Island, Rum Cay, Mayaguana, Inagua, Crooked Islands, Acklins and Long Cay resumed commercial activity on May 4.
Eleuthera, Exuma, San Salvador and the Berry Islands have not yet been added to the list and Dr Minnis faced criticism for not explaining why.
To date, only New Providence, Grand Bahama, Bimini and Cay Cay have had confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Asked by The Tribune on Tuesday why some Family Islands without COVID-19 cases have not been allowed to resume normal commercial activity, Dr Brennen said: “I honestly do not know. I think that’s a Cabinet and Office of the Prime Minister level decision. That is not a Ministry of Health level decision.”
When reminded that Dr Minnis has often said he relies on the country’s COVID-19’s task force for advice on these matters, Dr Brennen said: “This decision is not on us. Well, from a health perspective I am not sure what those reasons are, but there are so many things that come into those decisions that are not health related so I think it would be better to ask those who make the decisions as to what went into the decision making as opposed to just health.”
In an interview with Our News yesterday, Mr Culmer criticised his comment.
“I’m disappointed that the good doctor would come out and say something like that when his other colleague gave out a reason why the delay in opening up the other islands,” Mr Culmer said, referring to a recent interview involving infectious disease expert Dr Nikkiah Forbes.
Dr Forbes, while appearing as a guest on Guardian Radio show “Morning Blend,” suggested that direct flights from Europe to certain islands or frequent visitors traveling by boat to those islands are among the reasons those islands are closed.
However, she too said “other factors” outside of health determine why some Family Islands with no confirmed COVID-19 cases have been not been allowed to resume normal commercial activity and she did not suggest health officials support the decision to keep those islands closed.
Regarding the rationale for keeping Family Islands free of COVID-19 closed, she said: “So, I couldn’t say I totally agree, but remember, my realm is health, which does (play) a large role in considering how policymakers will handle such things, and I’m glad that our policymakers are receptive to our input."
Progressive Liberal Party Senator Dr Michael Darville, who co-chairs the PLP’s COVID-19 response, countered Dr Minnis’ explanation yesterday, saying that decisions to reopen islands should be based on science, not assumptions.
"We cannot open up the Family Islands particularly the islands that are COVID free based on assumptions," he said. "It has to be scientific. We have to work along with our healthcare team with the taskforce. We need to look and see what’s happening on the ground and that the personnel are in place and we need to have a very strong plan in the event that we do open up and we do have a case or cluster of cases. We need to have things in place in order to know what step of the way and how we’re going to go about it.”
The country also recorded one additional case of COVID-19 yesterday: a 50-year-old New Providence man currently isolated at home, bringing the total number of cases to 97.