By MALCOLM STRACHAN
This weekend brought us a sight of what could have been us in the continuing fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
We did not need to go through the looking glass to find this example of how our fate could have been very different – we only needed to look to New Zealand.
On Saturday, the electorate of that nation cast their votes for who they wanted to lead the country. In the depths of a pandemic, any such vote is going to be steered by how well the electorate feels the leadership has handled the outbreak. Indeed, when Bahamians next go to the polls in our own election, the handling of the pandemic by Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis will weigh heavily on the minds of voters.
As it is, New Zealand voters chose to return their leader – Jacinda Ardern – to office, and not just by a fine margin, but by a landslide. The opposition National Party won around half the votes of Ardern’s Labour Party.
The social media dissenters were soon out in force. New Zealand is different, they said, it’s a small country, with a small population and surrounded by water so it’s easier to control entry to the country by air and water.
Does that sound familiar, Bahamas?
We too are a small country – with a population of around 400,000 compared with New Zealand’s 4.8 million. We too are surrounded by water.
However, we have had, at the time of writing, 5,703 confirmed cases compared with just 1,886 in New Zealand, and 128 deaths compared with just 25 over there.
Around the world, New Zealand has been held up as a good example of how to deal with COVID-19. Truly, there is an element of unfairness in comparing it with land-locked nations with people travelling across borders that are impossible to lock down completely, but there is more to it than that. Indeed, if one looks at the number of deaths per million people, 48 nations have lower figures than New Zealand – including China and Vietnam, but also including island nations such as the Seychelles, St Lucia or St Vincent and the Grenadines.
It all begs the question – if they can do it, why can’t we?
According to the statistics espoused by our government, the majority of cases we have had to deal with have not been the result of tourists coming in. That barely notched the figures at all, if we are to believe what we have been told.
No, rather the responsibility lies squarely on our own shoulders.
Some of that falls on the government’s shoulders, absolutely. Earlier this month, infectious disease expert Dr Nikkiah Forbes acknowledged that testing capacity earlier this year “was not what it is today” and that in March, when The Bahamas had just four confirmed cases of the virus, it could have been more than 100 cases at that time.
But as we acknowledge missteps by our government, we must also acknowledge missteps by ourselves.
The suggestion that a junkanoo rushout held after a funeral earlier this month may have become a superspreader event for the virus is deeply saddening – but what did we think was going to happen from such an activity?
When we see videos being circulated of parties and get-togethers from people clearly not observing the simple steps we need to take to prevent the spread of the virus, is it any wonder that we cannot seem to stop it from taking hold?
We’ve all heard the anecdotes on social media of people who are supposed to be in quarantine but who are found to be going out and about – or even trying to go to work only to be turned around and sent home by their bosses. Those are the ones we hear about – we worry about those we don’t and who sit there quietly spreading the virus to colleagues and customers alike.
How many times have we seen someone wearing a mask below their chin instead of covering their nose and mouth, leaving it completely useless. You might as well not be wearing a mask at all rather than wearing it there. And if we are our brother’s keeper, how many of us have spoken up to encourage that person to pull the mask up properly?
According to officials, a significant portion of the cases that sprang up here in The Bahamas came about because of Bahamians flying to visit Florida and other hotspots when we opened the borders the first time, and bringing the virus back home.
In short, we did this to ourselves.
There are lessons we can still learn from the likes of New Zealand. It went strong on lockdowns early on and encouraged the population to go home and stay there for the best part of six weeks. Communication was crucial, which seeing our occasional press conferences and limited number of permitted questions from reporters shows a different approach from ours. It was important to win people’s hearts and minds, not just have them think officials were saying do as you’re told.
Even so, Bahamians know by now what we are supposed to do – we have been told often enough what the simple steps are to prevent spreading the virus. We know about washing hands, wearing masks and keeping our distance. We just don’t do it enough – as occasions such as that junkanoo rushout show.
There is one more lesson our own government can surely observe from New Zealand, which is that if people think you have done a good job there will be a political reward. A landslide victory is a fitting reward for anyone who deals with this virus successfully. There is still time for Dr Minnis to turn this around – but he’s going to need us all to be united if he is going to reap his personal rewards.