By MALCOM STRACHAN
FOR anyone who still resisted the idea we may be in a tough stretch for the remainder of this year, next year and potentially beyond, hopefully you heard Tourism Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar’s thoughts on when we would return to pre-COVID tourism success. His response, though indecisive, was much more measured than the last time he offered his thoughts.
Not wanting to contradict himself, D’Aguilar said he would stick with his initial prognosis of 18 to 24 months. And we certainly hope he is right. However, we can fully appreciate him stating what experts are saying to be a potential five-year window where tourism may not be dead, but a shell of what it was in the two years prior.
That said, it is all the more important we get through this pandemic, learning to live responsibly as a populace with COVID-19. We have few alternatives to making the country safer as a destination as soon as possible. With cases continuing to surge, we’re not doing ourselves any favours if the entire population is not being disciplined.
Certainly, people may be tired of the restrictions and having life dictated to them, but if it is for our own safety, we must cooperate and continue to follow the protocols outlined by health officials.
Whether it is being able to accept tourists again or getting to a place resembling what life used to feel like, this is a reality we may have to grapple with until we have a vaccine. D’Aguilar said so himself back in June prior to the country’s initial reopening, and the same is true today.
Thankfully, on that front, we were pleased to hear progress when Minister of Health Renward Wells addressed Parliament last week. He announced that the government is in the process of expressing its interest to the World Health Organisation to participate in COVAX, a global initiative formed by 172 countries working with manufacturers of vaccines to provide worldwide fair access. Currently, COVAX is working on nine candidate vaccines, with some others being evaluated with the goal to ensure that two billion doses of vaccines will be available to both developed and developing countries by the end of 2021.
This move may make the most sense for governments that do not have the resources to singlehandedly fund the development of a vaccine or manufacture it themselves. With a concern being what happens if a much larger developed country is less inclined to provide equitable access to the vaccine, the possibility of ‘vaccine nationalism’ would create incredible problems for a developing tourism dependent economy like ours.
Having opted out of the COVAX initiative last week, the US, along with Russia and China, which has yet to commit, have made it quite clear that they are prioritising their own citizens first.
And with the US being a major source market, we cannot afford to be behind the eight ball with getting our hands on a vaccination. As the Centre for Disease Control is still highlighting the risk of travelling to The Bahamas, it is possible to make the argument that once travellers are vaccinated, there is not much to be concerned about with the virus spreading to tourists. However, the financial, social, mental and other forms of injury associated with COVID-19 won’t do much to help a country’s brand if it’s still viewed as a COVID-19 hotspot, vaccine or not.
With the 80 countries financing the COVAX facility sharing the potential risks and reward, we can only hope a successful candidate is discovered as soon as possible.
In his discussion of the COVAX facility, WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus highlighted the importance of global cooperation in vaccine research.
“COVID-19 is an unprecedented global health challenge that can only be met with unprecedented cooperation between governments, researchers, manufacturers and multilateral partners,” he said.
“By pooling resources and acting in solidarity through the ACT Accelerator and the COVAX facility, we can ensure that once a vaccine is available for COVID-19, it’s available equitably to all countries.”
One thing to note is the WHO’s position is to look out for the many – essentially asking richer countries to shoulder the burden for poorer countries. And while this is something Bahamians should support; our leaders also have a responsibility here at home to look out for the Bahamians who are most vulnerable.
Absolutely, this may be a conversation for another day, but as projections of how much of a population will be able to be vaccinated currently sit at around 20 percent, consideration must be given as to how this will be rolled out.
Obviously, the immunocompromised, frontline workers in the healthcare and education systems and in law enforcement should be the first to receive vaccinations. But if you are a person who’s concerned about our nation’s most vulnerable being disenfranchised in this process in favour of the upper crust of society, I can’t say I blame you.
Of the 80,000 people that will potentially get access to vaccines, many of them will not be your everyday Bahamian who cannot afford decent healthcare. Whether this will truly serve The Bahamas as much as it may serve other countries is certainly a debate that could be had. One would hope our government has explored all of the other avenues before determining this was the best course of action.
While we can certainly agree that vaccine nationalism looks ugly on the face of it, it is difficult to blame countries that would have already made significant investments in their own vaccine development initiatives for weighing the scales accordingly. Now, what we need to hear from our government is how much participating in the COVAX initiative is going to cost us, versus, how much it would cost to also go at this alone like some other countries have opted to do.
Unless we can be assured that the vaccines can get to the people who need them most – the most vulnerable – we need our government to get back to the drawing board and then report to the Bahamian people.
And unfortunately, there’s not much time for them to do so with binding commitments needed to be made by the end of this week. As has been the course for the Minnis administration and those that came before them, no decision in governance is a small one. Hopefully, this time around, they make the right one after consultation from the Bahamian people.