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

Photo by Terrel W Carey Sr

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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