By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
COVID “fatigue” and economic pressures will likely see The Bahamas follow the US lead and eliminate entry testing “even if it is not the right thing to do”, a prominent doctor conceded yesterday.
Dr Duane Sands, also the Free National Movement’s (FNM) chairman, told Tribune Business that any decision to end the requirement that all visitors produce a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours of flying to this destination will likely “not have a whole lot to do with data”.
Asserting that The Bahamas is “in the midst of another surge” in COVID infections that has not drawn any attention, although new cases detected on Saturday dropped to just 19, he said this nation will almost certainly follow the US “in short order” by eliminating what the tourism industry views as a major pandemic-related impediment to its recovery.
“I’ll tell you it would be incredibly popular,” Dr Sands told this newspaper of an end to entry testing. “That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right thing to do. There are many people who would love to see the back end of COVID testing despite the fact we’re in the midst of an unfortunate surge right now.
“We have about 30 patients in hospital [actual number 26 as of Saturday], a positivity rate of about 30 percent, and a significant number of people who test positive having travelled recently. It’s going to be very interesting to see how the Government plays this because there is a huge demand, in large part coming from the tourism sector, to remove the testing regime.
“It will be very, very interesting to see on what basis they make the changes they make. I suspect it won’t be a whole lot to do with data.” Dr Sands said there “always has been” the tension between health and economic imperatives with COVID-19, and protecting lives versus livelihoods, but added that an even greater force is in play now.
“I think we’re dealing with a far greater issue right now, and that’s the very real phenomenon of COVID fatigue,” he told Tribune Business. “With the exception of dire circumstances, there’s not a whole lot of appetite for anything to do with COVID at this point. That includes vaccination, that includes mask wearing and testing and so forth, and I pre-suppose we’re at a stage of the pandemic where it may not matter.
“That’s a very significant driving force. I think we’re at a point where the science is secondary.” While the US had seemingly made the case to eliminate its own COVID entry testing regime, one of the strictest in the world, where persons had to provide a negative test taken within 24 hours of travel, Dr Sands said he could not draw the same conclusion about The Bahamas given the absence of risk modelling and sharing of data.
“Certainly I suspect we will see The Bahamas follow suit in short order,” he added of COVID entry testing’s end. “Whether it’s guided by the data or not guided by the data, I doubt that it will have much of a significant contribution to the decision-making.
“Therein lies the rub. I think we are flying, I wouldn’t necessarily say blind, but we are making decisions without vital data. The consequences? Who knows? I wouldn’t be surprised if we follow suit in short order. We are in the midst of another surge right now, and it as not got anyone’s attention.”
Dr Sands’ brother, Robert, the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association’s (BHTA), has been among the most vociferous in calling for The Bahamas to follow the US lead and remove this nation’s own COVID entry testing requirements so that the momentum of the sector’s post-COVID recovery - as well as its competitiveness - can be maintained.
He warned that The Bahamas “stands out like a sore thumb” over its continued measures after the US action, and told Tribune Business the country “cannot be the last man standing” by still demanding that all visitors produce a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours of travel when multiple Caribbean rivals have eradicated all such restrictions.
Describing the long-anticipated US move as “welcome news” for the tourism industry, Mr Sands said the decision by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was “an indisputably clear indication that testing requirements are falling away on a global scale” and urged the Government to follow suit.
“The Bahamas cannot be the last man standing in this regard,” he said. “Therefore we strongly urge our Government to make a swift and decisive move to eradicate our own testing requirements for Bahamians and visitors wanting to enter The Bahamas.
“Not only will this achieve bilateral parity with our US counterparts; this will immediately put us in line with regional competitors such as Jamaica, Aruba, Bonaire, St.Lucia, Turks and Caicos, Grenada, US Virgin Islands, Mexico and Costa Rica who have already removed the majority of testing requirements to enter their tourism destination.”
Asked how critical it was for The Bahamas to now respond to the US move, Mr Sands told Tribune Business: “It is extremely important because we do not need to put in place impediments to travel, and also impediments that give our competitors a distinct competitive advantage over us.
“The bigger issue, certainly from a US perspective, is that trying to find a COVID test to come to Nassau in many of our source markets is becoming increasingly difficult and, more importantly, increasingly more expensive. As an example, I was in Philadelphia last week travelling back to Nassau, and a rapid antigen test cost me $121. Before it was less than $50. The cost has more than doubled, and for a family of four that’s a significant additional expense.”
Dr Michael Darville, minister of health and wellness, confirmed that eliminating The Bahamas’ COVID entry testing requirements will “come back on the table” for discussion this week in the wake of the US decision.
He told Tribune Business that while the Government wanted to “do away with” all COVID-related travel restrictions and impediments - including the Health Travel Visa - it will only do so “in a responsible and phased manner”.
The Davis administration, he added, is especially concerned to avoid Jamaica’s recent experience where it eliminated the COVID mask mandate only to have to reinstate it due to a rise in infections. Asserting that The Bahamas had made “the right decision” at that time to keep its own mask mandate, Dr Darville said the reduction in local infections over the past week - as well as the US ending its own COVID entry test protocols - will bring further local easing to the forefront.
Affirming that the Government is seeking to “open up completely”, he credited lobbying from the Caribbean as well as from the US aviation industry and other tourism sectors for persuading the Biden administration to eliminate the requirement that all international travellers present a negative COVID test taken within 24 hours of their arrival.