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Minute-by-Minute Decisions Will Not Work on COVID-19

Some of us do not seem to matter. There is little consideration to people living with illnesses and in need of medication, people experiencing poverty, elderly people, unhoused people, women, or children. The needs of these people are not anticipated, much less met by the competent authority. Decisions are made, restrictions are announced and we are all expected to figure out how we will survive. The emergency measures in response to COVID-19 have all been disruptive and failed to considered the most vulnerable among us, but the seven-day lockdown announced in the Prime Minister’s national address on Monday night was, by far, the most ill-conceived, nonsensical, harmful one yet.

Over the past 24 hours, I have seen people with the means to buy food and water say that they do not have enough to last. I have seen people talk about seriously taking inventory in the kitchens to figure out how to make what they have last for seven days. Some planned to shop on Wednesday or Friday. Some were expecting water deliveries later this week. Some abandoned long lines at pharmacies, thinking they could return in two days. Some were trying to figure out how to make less than one gallon of water work for two people. These are people with money. These are people who had plans. These are people who were assured by the Prime Minister of this country that there would be no lockdown that would prevent them from accessing grocery stores. How much worse is it for people who cannot afford to prepare?

The people who are unemployed and have not received any NIB benefits have very few options. No information has been shared on how unhoused people will be handled. Will they be fined for not being in a sound structure, or will police offer them assistance in finding appropriate shelter? When 311 is inundated with calls (as it has been since the address on Monday night) and cannot get through, how will police deal with people on the road whose information is not held by 311 operators? Will they be penalized for the failure of an inadequate system?

Equality Bahamas has been pushing for feminist policy since March. In a six-page document, many vulnerable groups are named, nine key areas in need of attention are listed, and recommendations are made for each one. The document addresses issues we anticipated and have since face including an increase in domestic violence, unequal access to information, and exacerbation of social and economic inequality. When policy decisions are made without attention to vulnerable people and critical areas, we find ourselves in situations like this one. People are frustrated, afraid, and made more vulnerable. Whatever measures are in place, people need shelter, food, water, and safety.

It has been a disastrous 24 hours. The same Prime Minister who told us not to panic shop and to ignore unverified information thrust an immediate lockdown upon us. A member of his own cabinet said the rumors of the lockdown were untrue. The National Food Distribution Taskforce appears to have been caught off guard. It seems that no one knows what is going on. Information is not being shared, consultations are not taking place and measures put in place either do not apply to people of privilege and power or have to be changed because they cause harm.

The Prime Minister has now reversed his decision or postponed the lockdown for an indeterminate amount of time. All we know now is that we cannot trust him and suspicion has been a function of survival. We have to expect the worst and do what we can to prepare for the measures he imposes upon us.

It is possible to acknowledge the utility of the lockdowns while questioning the practicality. It is possible to lead and make difficult decisions with empathy. It is necessary to consult with experts, practitioners, and citizens. It is critical that the people are appropriately prepared for what comes next. We cannot ignore the reality of people’s lives. Do not forget that there are people who do not have water piped into their homes. There should not be a lockdown without communication to them and law enforcement about access to water at public pumps.

We need a competent authority that considers all Bahamians and residents, anticipates issues before they arise, mitigates the issues, clearly communicates the strategy and puts systems in place to both enforce the measures and protect the lives of the people. That competent authority cannot be one person. It must sustain a practice of consultation. It must prioritize human rights. It must be open to feedback. It must be accessible to the Press and, by extension, the people. We all know the Prime Minister is certainly ill-suited to the position.

The Prime Minister needs to acknowledge his error, at least to himself. At worst, he sought to punish his detractors; at best, he completely forgot about the basic needs of human beings. He needs to consult with a diverse team that includes medical experts, small and medium-size business owners, artists, non-governmental organizations, media professionals and youth to chart the way forward.

The minute-by-minute decisions are not going to get us through this. Extended lockdowns do not solve the problem. Even if a lockdown would help us in the short-term, we need a plan for when restrictions are lifted, and it cannot be limited to regulations people are expected to comply with on their own. It needs to include enforcement and a robust campaign to inform, equip and compel people to comply.

Here are four areas that obviously need attention.

  1. People need money. They have been waiting for months, calling endlessly, and queuing only to be turned around and around. This process needs to be streamlined. Direct deposit would be easiest for people with bank accounts, possibly eliminating the need for a ride and definitely shortening the line for collection. Make it possible for people to check the status of disbursements. Use their email addresses or phone numbers to send them a code that can be used on the NIB website to get accurate updates. Send them notifications when checks are ready. Where direct deposit is not possible, make checks available at convenient locations in each constituency to reduce the number of people in one place and the wait time. If necessary, use last names to split the crowd by day or location.

  2. People need food, and they need nutritious food. People also need dignity. Move away from canned goods. Partner with farmers to include fresh produce. Give them grocery store vouchers so they can shop for themselves and get the items they need and enjoy. People in need deserve to have choices too.

  3. Regulations need to be enforced. Train and employ people to manage lines at grocery stores, pharmacies, and banks. They should ensure people are wearing masks properly—covering nose and mouth—and maintaining the six-foot distance. Leaving this to businesses has put this responsibility on security guards who are at the front of the line, opening the door, monitoring the number of people inside, checking temperatures, and ensuring people use hand sanitizer. It is unreasonable to expect them to be able to manage long, curving lines from their stations at the door.

  4. We need a plan for the next spike, and the details need to be shared with the public. If, for example, a large increase in cases will result in a seven-day lockdown, make it clear to the public that all households need to ensure they have sufficient supplies for a seven-day period at all times. Ensure that the National Food Distribution Taskforce facilitates this for people on the program. Advise of the metrics used to determine whether or not an increase in cases requires this measure so people can assess the situation for themselves based on the dashboard. As an example, if the indicator is over 1000 active cases and we are seeing 20 cases per day, people will know that they have about one week to prepare for a lockdown by the time we see 850 active cases on the dashboard. Even with this adjustment, it is necessary to consider people who do not have the means to prepare in this way and are not receiving a food assistance. They will need additional assistance.

The national address on Monday night was unreasonable and cruel. In addition to the usual condescension and unnecessary padding, the announcement of the lockdown felt like a punishment. We do not need to be punished. We need a plan that considers and responds to our circumstance and needs. We need to address individual challenges while focusing on the common good. We need a competent authority team to get us there. One man cannot do it.

Published in my weekly column in The Tribune — on August 19, 2020.

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Too Many Unanswered Questions and Lack of Respect

We are now in our second week of lockdown and received a national address from the Prime Minister on Sunday evening which gave very little information. Last week’s Ministry of Health briefing gave the usual information, though all of the questions posed by journalists were not answered. In response to some of them, health officials said the Prime Minister would address the issues on Sunday. Unsurprisingly, he did not.

Since the action by doctors and nurses, we have been asking for details on the PPE inventory and availability. This was glossed over with no numbers or policies provided. It was only said that there are PPE supplies available and they are topped up as needed. We do not know who controls access to them, how often staff are able to change them, if there was ever a shortage, or why there is a huge gap between reports from doctors and nurses and those from authorities. This needs to be properly addressed.

PPE is not the only issue on which authorities refuse to give clarity. It was not even possible to probe further as the Prime Minister insists on giving national addresses instead of press conferences which allow for questions from the press. One-sided communication is insufficient and unacceptable. The government works for us and it needs to answer our questions.

The Prime Minister’s limited communication with the nation has been severely lacking. His speeches are still padded, far too long and condescending. National addresses should not be sermons. They should not be lectures. They should not be scoldings. At the very least, they should provide basic information and respond to the questions deferred from the previous Ministry of Health press briefing.

Is no one making note of those unanswered questions? There is specific information Bahamians would like to have. What changes have been made to the budget? What is being done to prepare the hospital and other facilities to handle the increase in COVID-19 cases? What is the current pace of the National Insurance Board and Social Services in fulfilling requests for benefits and assistance and what changes are being made to accommodate more people and expedite the process? What factors will determine whether or not the lockdown is extended beyond the set two weeks?

In a 45-minute address, these kinds of details should be clearly communicated.

While we know these are uncertain times, the people want, at the very least, certainty that they will be kept up to date on COVID-19-related issues. Every time a national address is announced, people get anxious and start to make assumptions about what will be said. Ahead of the last address, many were expecting the lockdown to be extended due to the continued rise in cases. There was no mention of this in the address and it was a reminder that we are never given that much notice.

The delay in communication does not appear to be a consequence of days-long deliberation or snap decisions, but a conscious decision to give us the smallest possible window of time to make preparations. Yes, we know that with the announcement of lockdown comes the rush to grocery stores and gas stations, but we also know this is due to both household circumstances and the lack of trust people have in the government. We have been caught off guard before, and no one wants to be left unprepared.

There is a need to build trust and assure people that they will be able to get what they need. If this does not happen, there will always be a rush, and the small windows for preparation do not alleviate this. Instead, they concentrate it. This tactic does not make sense.

This country is not a kingdom or a classroom and should not be treated as such. We need clear communication, and that includes letting us know when authorities are considering a particular action that will affect our daily lives. It is not much to ask. If this lockdown is to be extended, the least the Prime Minister could do is let us know before this weekend so we are not all at the grocery store on Monday.

Have a plan to handle the lockdown at home

At this point, it makes sense for households and individuals to have lockdown plans in place. Here are some items to include in those plans.

  1. Decide who will be responsible for household errands. This person does the grocery shopping, fills prescriptions, gets water, and anything else that will likely require queueing. This person has a routine they meticulously follow to ensure that their household is not compromised. This may include taking no personal items aside from a card or cash for payment into the place of business, wearing gloves while in-store and handling packages (which requires a well-thought out plan), and calling someone to open the door to the house so they don’t touch anything. This should be the person in the best health.

  2. Do as much as possible online. Set up online bill payment with utility companies to avoid more lines and time in close quarters with other people. Ask your bank about paying bills using online banking. If you are nervous about using your credit or debit card online, there are ways to make payments directly from your bank account. You can all purchase a gift card to be used during lockdown for bill payment, ensuring that potential compromises have no effect on your bank account.

  3. Get on the same page with everyone in your household. If anyone breaks the lockdown, everyone in the household is at risk. Households should not mix. Agree to give up the parties and other events you usually host or attend, or find ways to do them virtually. The lockdown puts a barrier between you and other people. Don’t think only of the person you want to see outside of your household, but all of the people to whom they have been exposed, and the people to whom they have been exposed. You do not want to be a part of a contact-tracing chain, so stick with your household and get everyone else to do the same.

  4. Set up a workstation if you and others in your household need to work from home. It can be tempting to operate from your bedroom, but this can disrupt your sleep. Choose a space with good lighting, strong wifi (or the strongest available in your house), a cooling device, and a proper chair. Make it a practice to sit there during work hours so your brain understands what it needs to do when you are in that position and location.

  5. Share the load. No one person should be expected to work from home, keep the house clean, occupy and supervise the children, and prepare meals. Figure out how to balance the workload.

  6. Check in with yourself every day. Pay attention to the way your body feels, the way you are progressing with work, and your mood. Make sure you are eating on time, drinking enough water, getting fresh air, and able to think and talk about more than just the current circumstances. If you are in need of mental health support, call the Bahamas Psychological Association hotline—819-7652, 816-3799, 812-0576, or 815-5850.

As we spend more time at home, it can be tempting to fall into habits like working in bed, binge watching television shows, eating all day, and online shopping. Pay attention to the amount of time spent on these activities, the financial cost, and the effects on your well-being. There is a difference between a carefree day and general disorder. By now, you know what you are likely to do and can identify your coping mechanisms. Give yourself allowances and limitations. If you need help finding balance, ask someone in your household to help or set up a virtual buddy system. We are all trying to make it through difficult days. Remember that others are working through some of the same challenges and talking about them, setting goals together, and checking in can help. Even though we should not physically gather, don’t underestimate the importance of community.

Published in my weekly column in The Tribune on August 12, 2020.