Exiting the COVID Crisis: The Way Forward

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Hon. Philip Davis, Q.C., M.P.
Prime Minister
Commonwealth of The Bahamas

My fellow Bahamians,

This August has been the worst month for our country since the start of the pandemic.

We have seen more than three thousand new confirmed cases this month alone, with many more uncounted or undiagnosed.

We have had more than 18,000 confirmed cases in our country.

Every day brings new tragedies. 

We are losing too many people. We are losing mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, beloved grandparents and siblings and children; we are losing friends and teachers and nurses and neighbors. 

There are too many empty places at the family dinner table, and too many heavy hearts.

Mine is one of them. I have had so many people reach out to me in recent weeks, sharing terrible news, sharing their anguish and loss.

It is not only sorrow that I feel. I also feel tremendous anger and frustration — because while it was always going to be a challenging and difficult time, it didn’t have to be this bad.

Our hospitals and clinics are collapsing – with doctors and nurses saying they are “past the breaking point”. 

And we are not only losing COVID patients – we don’t have enough beds, or staff, or resources, for other patients, so patients who need hospital care are sent home, when they would normally be treated in hospital, or they don’t go to the hospital in the first place, knowing how bad things are. Some patients in the Family Islands who need to be flown in for an ICU bed have not able to do so. In this way, our tragedies and losses are compounding. For all the tragedies that are visible to us, there are many more families suffering.

It’s important to understand that this collapse of public health was not inevitable – the collapse is the result of bad policy decisions made by a government that either wasn’t smart enough to know better or didn’t care enough to do better.

A respected global ranking of how nations are handling COVID ranked our country 179 out of 180 countries. 

179 out of 180 – and yet the self-appointed Competent Authority is dancing on a stage. 

He keeps telling us how well he’s doing leading the country through COVID – 

— even as the hospitals and morgues fill up, 

— even as doctors and nurses stage sick-outs, 

— even as Bahamians know there is no space for them should they become ill, and — even as countries warn their citizens not to travel here. 

Why is the Competent Authority dancing, instead of fixing these problems? Where’s his sense of urgency? Where’s his sense of decency?

Our country’s terrible global ranking on COVID shouldn’t surprise us – after all, we have consistently ranked at the bottom in the Caribbean region – among the worst in cases and deaths per capita. 

So don’t tell me it had to be this bad. Other Caribbean nations have faced very similar difficulties and obstacles. 

No country has had it easy. 

But governments in other countries have led more effectively. 

That is just a fact.

And if our government’s poor performance regionally and globally shouldn’t surprise us, given their general incompetence, it should shock us. And it should shock us into working for change.

This government has always looked for examples of failure, so that they can justify and excuse their own. 

I have a different approach: I look for examples of success, because I believe The Bahamas can succeed, too.

At the start of this crisis, I formed a COVID-19 Task Force, and throughout the pandemic, we’ve been releasing detailed, constructive recommendations and Action Plans to fight COVID.

Tonight, I’m going to tell you how we will find our way forward, together – because I know that in this country, we have the expertise and the strength to overcome this crisis.

But to understand how we move forward, we need to understand the bad choices that brought us to this moment, so we can make different — and better — ones. 

One big choice the government has made is to never plan ahead. Not once during this pandemic have they offered the people a comprehensive plan to manage the health and economic emergency.

Here we are, right before the voting starts, and where is the government’s COVID plan, or their economic plan, or their platform?  Remember now, they’re the ones who called the snap election. So why don’t they have plans to share with the country?

Their failure to plan ahead has trapped our country in a vicious cycle of failing to prepare and then scrambling — too late — to cope.

From the start of this pandemic, this government signaled that there was going to be one set of rules for themselves and their wealthy friends, and another for the rest of us. The Prime Minister keeps telling this lie that I wanted bars open. What really happened was that I questioned why those out West seemed to have one set of rules — and over-the-hill another. 

I’m always going to stand up for the people – he should know that about me by now.

This choice to discriminate and enforce rules unevenly from the start has been another failure. Restaurants at Arawak Cay were closed when franchise restaurants were open. Bahamians were stranded abroad while foreigners on yachts and private planes were allowed to enter. Everyone noticed who got arrested at the side of the road – and who didn’t. 

Trust is everything in a public health emergency, and this government squandered it early on.

Another major failure was the choice not to test or trace enough and not to make testing free.

In June of last year, I warned the country needed more testing and tracing resources in place to safely reopen the borders. Some combination of ignorance and arrogance meant they didn’t listen.

The borders were opened, cases came in, there was not enough testing or tracing to keep up with the virus. Lockdown after lockdown followed, and it was months before our borders could reopen again. How many businesses closed during that time? How many Bahamians lost their jobs? How much suffering was caused by this failure to understand how to contain outbreaks?

Here we are, more than a year later, and we still don’t have the testing resources we need to keep up with the virus. Testing should be free, and it should be widespread; instead, it is out of reach for so many, especially for those who have lost their jobs during the pandemic. This is both immoral and short-sighted.  

And speaking of being shortsighted, this government spent millions on sidewalks during a pandemic, instead of recruiting and retaining doctors and nurses and investing in our hospitals and clinics. 

In the beginning of January of this year, eight months ago, I warned that it was clear that the virus was changing, and that more transmissible variants would find their way to our shores. Yet the government was caught unprepared.

Up until a few weeks ago, we were not only failing to test and trace, we were hundreds of thousands of vaccine doses short. 

It is really something to see the Prime Minister basing his entire argument for re-election on vaccines when almost dead-last in the Caribbean region to begin offering vaccinations to our people.

First, he rejected a very responsible offer from the private sector to bring in Pfizer very early in 2021. It’s not like he had an alternative – he just didn’t want them to get the credit.

So — for months and months, as COVID spread, and hospitalisations and deaths rose, we didn’t have enough vaccine doses here.  

The Prime Minister went so far during this time to suggest crowding unvaccinated Bahamians on a cruise ship to send them to Florida for vaccines. That’s not a joke – he really suggested that. You can’t find a single credible expert on this virus who would support that idea.

It was not until this month, when the United States decided to donate more than five million doses to CARICOM countries, that Bahamians finally gained access to the vaccines which had been offered in countries across the region months earlier.

I recently learned about a family in New Providence who – heartbreakingly – lost two family members to COVID within one week.  They said that the cost of testing had kept them from finding out their status, and when they’d wanted to get vaccinated earlier this summer, there had been no appointments available. The policy failures I’m talking about have had real consequences, and the Prime Minister should take responsibility for them.

Another bad and immoral choice the government is continuing to make is to invest little or nothing in public education. The virus is complex, it is changing, and new studies and scientific data are published every day. Why isn’t more shared with the public, so that Bahamians can make the best decisions for themselves and their families? 

Why not make medical professionals more accessible to Bahamians, so they can get answers to their questions? 

In fact, why not treat our frontline doctors and nurses and health care staff as the heroes they are? The honorarium scandal is another story of disrespect and broken promises. 

If the Prime Minister had respected Bahamian medical experts, he would have listened when they implored him to require negative COVID tests from all visitors.

Instead, he ignored them, although they understood what he clearly did not – that although vaccines do an excellent job preventing serious illness and death, they do not completely block either infection or transmission.

Ignoring our doctors and nurses, he left our country unprotected from dangerous new virus variants. Doing so did not provide us with an edge, either – tourism competitors who continued to require a negative test from all travelers did as well or better than we did welcoming travelers back. 

I have only scratched the surface of the mistakes that have been made by this government, but I want to move from describing what went wrong to describing how we can make things right.

Because, my brothers and sisters, there’s a better way.

It’s time for a science-based, compassionate, common-sense, respectful, unifying approach.

My PLP COVID-19 Task Force has a ten-point Action Plan – and the core value at its foundation is respect:

Respect for the latest science; respect for our medical professionals; and respect for the Bahamian people, who are trying their best to navigate and survive these trying times.

It begins with free testing and a dramatic expansion of testing, in particular the use of rapid antigen tests. 

Rapid tests can detect infectious levels of virus in the asymptomatic just as they do in the symptomatic. The test is sensitive to the amount of virus – not the symptoms. When we test, we want to give people the information they need – they need to know if they are capable of infecting others. PCR tests should continue to be part of a testing strategy, but test results that take time to be returned cannot keep up with a fast-moving virus. We want people to know right away if they’re positive, so they can change their behavior accordingly. Aggressive testing is an important part of returning to normal activity – and crucial to avoiding the economic pain that comes with both lockdowns and quarantines.

Is free, widespread testing going to be cheap? No, it isn’t. You know what’s much, much more expensive? Lockdowns that kill our local businesses — and having such high case rates that travelers choose to go elsewhere.   

We’re also going to work closely with those on the frontlines so we can make smart investments in improving our public health capacity quickly, from more negative pressure rooms to bringing in more resources to adding staffing.

We’re going to prioritize public education and hold town halls where people can have their questions about the virus and the vaccines answered.

Vaccines are absolutely a crucial pillar of any plan to fight COVID – but they have to be part of a larger strategy. 

We need layers of protection, especially against these fast-moving new variants.

My government is going to require negative COVID tests from all visitors, including the vaccinated.

We’re going to make high-quality masks available because masking remains a critical tool, and there has been no emphasis in public policy here on the quality of the mask, even though there is plenty of evidence that people who work indoors with lots of people could reduce their risks significantly simply by wearing a better-quality mask.

We’re going to do something else which is long overdue here in The Bahamas – which is reduce COVID risks by providing detailed guidance for reducing airborne transmission in workplaces, churches, homes and schools. Better ventilation and air filtration reduce the amount of airborne virus particles, making the air safer to breathe. 

This is important everywhere, but it’s going to be particularly important to make our schools safe. We all know that remote learning is leaving out too many of our children, and even for those who are able to regularly connect online, many of the benefits of in-person learning are missing.  

Many Bahamians live in multi-generational homes. If they are exposed to a COVID infection, and need to quarantine, or if they test positive and need to isolate, where can they go? In the midst of a brutal economic crisis, this is not an easy question to answer for many. Any government that wants to stop COVID spread within households needs a policy to support people who want to keep their families safe and do the right thing but don’t have a realistic way to do so. 

Another change is that we are going to have a credible and qualified Minister of Health, who will respect the public enough to tell them the truth rather than paint rosy scenarios for political reasons. The current Minister of Health promised herd immunity by this month – we are still only about 13% vaccinated. If he has apologized for getting so many important things so wrong, I haven’t heard it. 

We’re going to work hard to earn the public’s trust, by telling it to you straight.

And we’re going to end the Emergency Orders, and govern via ordinary legislation, because the current government has abused the Emergency Orders, using them as a shield for hidden pandemic spending.

We’re also going to end the travel visa – because it has everything to do with taking people’s money, and nothing to do with public health. Countries in our region who require a negative test but no travel visa have outperformed our country in fighting COVID.

We will provide the science and data to support any necessary public health measures, because when a government restricts the movement of its people in any way, that is the least that the people are owed.

My friends:

This is not an easy fight, but if we put respect and compassion and science at the center of our approach, then we will find our way forward.

You have a right to demand that much from your leaders.

If we come together as a country to tackle this challenge, it will strengthen our ties to one another, and help us solve other difficult problems.

Brighter days lay ahead. 

I know that is a prayer we all share.

May God Bless You, and May God Bless The Bahamas.