• Hotels chief urges: ‘Get ahead of the curve’
• Ex-minister suggests PCR entry test return
• ‘We can do tourism and safety at same time’
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The emergence of a new COVID-19 strain threatens to put “a real dampener” on Bahamian tourism’s rebound and that of the wider economy in the Christmas run-up, it was feared yesterday.
Robert Sands, the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association’s (BHTA) president, told Tribune Business the country needed to “get ahead of the curve” now to protect public health and preserve its fledgling economic recovery by implementing “proactive” measures that reduce the chances of COVID’s Omicron variant reaching these shores.
And the Government, seemingly hearing his appeal to “act sooner rather than later”, subsequently did just that by imposing travel bans on citizens from the African countries where Omicron was first detected - South Africa; Botswana; Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) Lesotho; Malawi; Mozambique; Namibia; and Zimbabwe.
“Individuals not ordinarily resident in The Bahamas who have travelled to, through or from these countries within the last 14 days will not be allowed entry into The Bahamas at this time,” the Government said.
Besides banning these nationalities from entering The Bahamas, the Ministry of Health and Wellness said in a statement that Bahamians and legal residents who are returning from having visited these countries will have to undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine at their own expense and undergo screening. This applies to both vaccinated and unvaccinated persons.
However, with the COVID Omicron strain said to have been identified in both the US and UK, two of The Bahamas’ major source markets for tourism, it is unclear how effective such measures will be since it may only be a matter of time before the mutation arrives in this nation.
“It is certainly a concerning issue,” Mr Sands told this newspaper. “However, as long as we continue to employ the safety protocols we have in The Bahamas and the Government initiates certain bans on these restricted countries sooner than later..... It would be my recommendation to act sooner than later.”
The Davis administration has done precisely that, bringing The Bahamas into line with the global Omicron response, which has seen the US, UK and others impose similar restrictions on the affected southern African nations. The UK has gone back to mandatory mask wearing in shops and public transport, and requiring PCR tests for all arriving travellers on the second day in-country.
Mr Sands said that, for The Bahamas, the loss of tourism business from the African nations impacted will be “minimal” given that “the lion’s share” comes from North America. But he added: “Whatever we can do to insulate The Bahamas from this particular strain will be in our best interests.
“If we are proactive in eliminating the opportunity we will better serve ourselves by doing so. If we get ahead of the curve there won’t be the necessity to implement restrictions.” The reimposition of restrictive COVID-19 measures could be potentially disastrous for a tourism-dependent Bahamian economy, reversing much of the post-lockdown progress.
And an Omicron-driven fourth wave would further strain an already-weakened public healthcare system, which was overwhelmed - and came perilously close to collapsing - during the most COVID infection surge which, at its peak, resulted in close to 200 persons being hospitalised.
As part of The Bahamas’ defences, Mr Sands said this nation must “continue to push the need for vaccinations. That’s absolutely critical”. With the vaccination pace having slowed, despite inoculations being made available at sites such as Super Value and the Fusion SuperPlex, he welcomed efforts to roll-out booster shots and vaccinations for younger children.
“I think we’re hitting close to the 38-40 percent fully vaccinated mark. We’re half-way to where we need to be,” the BHTA chief said in reference to the need to fully vaccinate 80 percent of the population to achieve so-called ‘herd immunity’.
“I think a vaccinated destination, certainly when the economy begins to pick up, and with business and tourism increasing, it’s critical more Bahamians avail themselves of the opportunity and become vaccinated.”
Dr Duane Sands, Mr Sands’ brother and former minister of health, told Tribune Business that The Bahamas cannot afford to close its borders as the likes of Israel have done in response to the Omicron strain. However, he suggested that enhanced border screening/testing via a PCR test for all incoming travellers - Bahamian and non-Bahamian, vaccinated or unvaccinated - may be needed.
“People are not going to like it, but I think we can do tourism and health safety at the same time,” he said. “It cannot be business as usual. If we do not adjust it is equivalent to rolling the public health dice.”
Dr Sands said The Bahamas was “in the pregnant phase” where it was unsure how serious an impact the new COVID mutation will have, although initial evidence suggests it is more transmissible than previous variants and comes with milder, less obvious symptoms upfront.
“We don’t know is this is going to be a game changer like the Delta variant was,” he added. “Any public health official will hope for the best but prepare for the worst. That’s what we should be doing.”
Revealing that he supported returning to an enhanced COVID testing regime, rather than border closures, Dr Sands said: “I think we find ourselves in a situation where things could go terribly wrong fairly quickly.
“The emergence of this new variant speaks to us that we ought to be doubling down in terms of adhering to the public health measures... I don’t think it’s a big shock to me that we will get to the point where vaccination is required for entry to The Bahamas. There’s people that will cry bloody murder and they’ll get over it.”
The Bahamian private sector reacted with weary concern to the COVID Omicron strain’s emergence and potential threat. “It’s a matter of great concern,” Sir Franklyn Wilson, the Arawak Homes and Sunshine Holdings chairman, told Tribune Business. “It’s a time for prayer, a time for prayer. We have to hope and pray this doesn’t emerge as the next serious issue.
“What else can you do? So much is trending in the right direction that this is a real dampener. It’s a real dampener. Everything was trending so favourably; Christmas prospects. I hope this will inspire people who have not done so to consider whether they take the vaccine or not. We must do everything we can to contain this thing as best we can.”
Ben Albury, the Bahamas Motor Dealers Association’s (BMDA) president, said: “I guess right now I’ve sort of become accustomed to this stuff. I don’t think there’s going to be a lull. We’re going to have to deal with this for quite some time. We just have to try and remain positive and hope everything works out just fine. There’s not a lot we can do at this point.
“We’re rebounding well, and have rebounded well throughout this ordeal. Hopefully they’ll [the Government] remain consistent. I think this is a place that people recognise they can come and be socially distanced spread over our islands and cays. Bahamians have adjusted and pivoted accordingly.”
Warning that there will likely be more COVID strains to come after Omicron, Mr Albury praised the Government for its action to-date. “We will definitely have to be more proactive and less reactive,” he said.