HAVING written only two weeks ago about coronavirus, I hesitate to return to the subject. But it is top of the news agenda once more as the situation has changed dramatically with a total curfew over the holiday weekend in New Providence and Abaco followed by other new restrictions this week. I also hasten to draw attention to a potentially significant development in the shape of the Great Barrington Declaration published last week in the US which addresses the world’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It makes alternative proposals that are contrary to the received wisdom that lockdowns are needed to stop the spread of the virus.
There is general acceptance that, in the early stages of coronavirus, lockdowns were the immediate answer in order to keep people apart and limit the spread. Equally, it has now become clear they do not work in the longer term and are destroying national economies so they can only be a temporary measure.
As the virus has taken hold, medical experts gradually know more about it and how to treat its effects while preventive measures like social distancing and the wearing of masks have become almost the norm. Hopes that it would disappear during the warmer summer months have been dashed. Thus, as has been said so many times, COVID-19 cannot be eradicated - at least until a vaccine becomes available - so it is essential to devise a way of living with it.
Health systems are said to be near collapse but without business activity they could be ruined entirely because, if the lockdowns continue, there will be insufficient money in the form of tax revenues to sustain them. In such circumstances, increasing numbers of people believe lockdowns are no longer the answer – and, in the words of PLP leader Philip “Brave” Davis, who must know a lot about the virus after having himself been struck down by it, they have been a “useless tool”.
In Britain, people are now referring to the “lunacy of lockdown” as the existing restrictions are killing jobs and businesses without stopping the spread of the virus. Nonetheless, in response to a rising level of infections Prime Minister Boris Johnson yesterday announced details of a new three-tier lockdown system of COVID alert levels in the north of the country. Many already question this on the grounds that coronavirus is not the deadly plague in our midst that the authorities claim it is because only the elderly and those with underlying health problems are in real danger while the vast majority of younger people are at little risk and some 80 percent of those testing positive show no symptoms at all.
Meanwhile, the terrible price of lockdowns remains – neglected healthcare (other than for the virus), increased poverty, joblessness, insecurity, loneliness, social dislocation, hopelessness and a soaring public debt; and, what is worse, there is no prospect of a return to normality in the foreseeable future.
Against this background, it is interesting that one of the World Health Organisation’s special envoys, Dr David Nabarro who is also a scientist at London’s Imperial College, has said the WHO does not now advocate using lockdowns as a primary means to control the virus, and that they can only be justified “to buy you time to reorganise, regroup and rebalance your resources”. So the conclusion must be that, since lockdowns have enormous social and economic consequences, they should only be used as a short-term and localised measure.
Here at home, the danger to the economy is even greater given its relatively small size and, while the arguments against lockdown are the same as for other countries, the logic of some of the detailed restrictions – like limiting liquor stores to curb side business when they could simply limit the numbers of customers allowed in and closing down gyms indiscriminately when many have introduced good social distancing measures – is hard to fathom.
The Great Barrington Declaration - named after the town in Massachusetts where it was drawn up and, reportedly, was signed on October 4 - is an open letter written by three epidemiologists from Oxford, Harvard and Stanford universities and co-signed, so far, by nearly 3,000 scientists and some 4,500 medical practitioners. It is a short treatise calling for an end to forced lockdowns because of the ‘damaging physical and mental health impacts’ and devastating effects on short and long-term public health.
The writers argue that countries across the globe should reopen immediately and completely because most of the population are not at risk of dying if they catch COVID-19 and efforts should be concentrated on protecting the vulnerable while allowing everyone else to get on with their lives unimpeded. They say the vulnerability to death from the virus among the old and infirm is a thousand-fold greater than young people and children. So, the Declaration recommends ‘focused protection’ in relation to those most likely to be affected.
Since the virus is now widely regarded as not deadly for the majority, polls in the UK show many people are asking why measures to contain it should take precedence over everything else and be allowed to ruin normal everyday life. It remains to be seen whether those in charge will be influenced by the proposals in the Great Barrington Declaration, though some will dismiss them as conflicting with the prevailing view that there is a massive collective responsibility to try to stop the spread of the virus. But it surely makes sense to find a way of increasing so-called mitigation efforts to minimise coronavirus deaths among the most vulnerable while reducing the suffering inflicted upon those for whom the risk is negligible. That will mean doing substantially more testing and tracing and forcing those infected to isolate – and the government cannot claim lack of resources when it seems the private sector in the shape of the Live with COVID Coalition has developed a screening and testing regime for relatively cheap mass testing.
The moment has arrived - are we up to it?
In August, former Attorney General Alfred Sears spoke about COVID-19 providing what he described as a “once-in-50 years opportunity” for The Bahamas to overhaul its economic “architecture” for the “new global realities it will face in a post-pandemic world”.
I wrote at the time about his calling it “a Sir Stafford Sands moment” reflecting the nation’s transformation in the 1950s from seasonal tourism, fishing and subsistence farming to year-round tourism and financial services – and I mentioned that, while fully embracing the need for digitalisation, he had suggested, inter alia, expansion of various niche industries, creation of an aviation hub, farming, seafood harvesting and light manufacturing.
With this in mind, it was particularly interesting to read in the press the Prime Minister’s recent comments about the report presented by the Economic Recovery Committee which he created last April. Reportedly, Dr Minnis gave only broad outlines of the committee’s recommendations as the Cabinet is still studying the full report, but he undertook to make it public once the government had taken decisions on the proposals.
It struck me as strange, however, that Freeport had to form its own separate committee. The Prime Minister is reported to have said that after consulting a range of companies and receiving some 300 submissions from Bahamians around the country, the committee had made 163 recommendations which would “guide discussions of policy development in the country for many years to come”.
He went on to mention creation of a “national digital marketplace” and “small business incubators” to help entrepreneurs as well as “independently managed national funds” to enable pooling of private and public capital for sustainable development (although not mentioned, perhaps a sovereign wealth fund to save and invest surplus funds from future oil production) together with development of the agricultural and fisheries sectors.
But what seemed to me particularly significant was his reference to a “full revamp” of the investment regime to eliminate government bureaucracy and to enable projects and business expansion to proceed more rapidly. The challenges of doing business, including red tape and delays in obtaining approvals – together with the unreliability and high cost of utilities – are all well known so it will be interesting to see what such a revamp might amount to in practice.
There has been talk for years about economic diversification away from over-reliance on tourism and financial services, even though the emphasis on these was originally a deliberate strategy. The present is surely the time to exploit the country’s natural and abundant land and ocean assets by pursuing the Prime Minister’s Blue Economy initiative in order to generate wealth from its vast marine resources, and that means developing the underpopulated Family Islands. Perhaps this is the time for real action for another reason as well; namely, that in an uncertain world increasing numbers of wealthy people are seeking boltholes in more remote places, including The Bahamas though away from New Providence. But, in order to tap into that, adaptation of immigration rules for investment and development purposes might be required.
Overall, Mr Sears spoke of the need for a strategic vision and a bi-partisan approach to such an important issue. So I imagine many will hope the bigger picture will always be at the forefront when the Economic Recovery Committee’s detailed recommendations are considered and decisions reached.
A toast to the diplomat’s friend
A new biography of Graham Greene, one of Britain’s greatest and most celebrated writers of the last century, is a timely reminder of the achievements and colourful life of this prolific author. Such was his fame and reputation, he was awarded the Order of Merit, made a Companion of Honour by The Queen and was given a requiem mass at Westminster Cathedral in London.
Graham Greene was, however, known for his love of drink and the opposite sex and had an unconventional personal life, with some saying that it was also a life of decadence led by a man without honour who was “torn between religion and lust”. That is pretty stern stuff, but through it all he was revered as a master storyteller who wove intricate plots and created interesting characters who were often flawed and troubled heroes. The theme of some of his books was the eternal moral struggle between good and evil.
Born in 1904 and educated at boarding school in England, where he was said to be unhappy and prone to depression, before going on to Oxford, he has been described as a brilliant man who produced a vast array of novels and short stories. During the Second World War, he worked for MI6 in the West African country of Sierra Leone and he travelled widely through his long life. He died at his home in Switzerland in 1991.
Among his prolific output of novels, titles that have always stood out for me are The Third Man, which was turned into a film starring Orson Welles, Our Man in Havana and The Honorary Consul together with The Comedians which was a compelling tale of life in Haiti under Papa Doc Duvalier and his secret police, the Tontons Macoutes. It was also made into a film starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. But his book entitled The Heart of the Matter, first published in 1966, is a favourite. It became a must-read for British diplomats serving in countries in West Africa because it depicted so vividly life in the region - and with brutal honesty, not least the disillusion among certain Europeans, often working in isolated and difficult conditions in the bush, who could not handle the depressing conditions of what seemed interminable rainy seasons. For some, the whisky bottle was their only solace!