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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.

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We Need a Proper Plan, Not Just Reactions

Last week I saw a Facebook post that stated the government plan to deal with the COVID-19 crisis is a good one, but the people lack discipline. I stopped and re-read it several times, wondering whether or not it was sarcasm. I waited for people to comment, interested in the conversation it would spark. People seemed to, for the most part, agree with the statement.

To say I disagree would be generous because I do not even believe what we have seen thus far from the government is a plan. We have seen the introduction of individual measures. They do not stem from a strategy and do not work together within a solid, cohesive design. If a strategic plan was in place, we would not have had a grocery schedule introduced just hours before a five-day lockdown was announced. Surely the people designing the plan would have predicted the chaos we saw at every major grocery store in New Providence. At the very least, measures would have been put in place to ensure people were able to practice social distancing as they waited to enter the grocery stores. This is not what happened.

There are four major issues with the way the COVID-19 crisis is being addressed by the government. The first is it does not consider and respond to the needs of vulnerable people. Measures put in place to protect our health end up disproportionately disadvantaging vulnerable people. An easy example is the arrest of the unhoused people for breaking curfew. If the government considered vulnerable people, it would have opened emergency shelters, invited people without homes to stay in them and advised police to transport them to the nearest available shelter instead of criminalizing homelessness when they are found on the street during curfew.

The second is that these short periods of lockdown followed by, essentially, large public gatherings as people panic in clusters at grocery stores in the attempt to prepare for the next lockdown period is like hitting a reset button.

According to last week’s address, we will be doing this over and over again, at least until the end of April. We stay home for a couple of days and this reduces the spread. We go out again in a rush, trying to get essential supplies (and yes, some use it as an excuse to be out and about), and end up in crowds, likely with asymptomatic people who are spreading COVID-19.

It would make more sense to give everyone time to prepare and have a longer lockdown. The government is probably delaying this because of the first issue – it is obligated to meet the needs of vulnerable people. There can be no extended lockdown before the government ensures there is food security. We know some can only afford to purchase a few items at a time. They need to be provided with food before grocery stores can be closed to the general public for an extended period. Is the government prepared to do this?

The third issue is the expectation that businesses bear the burden of enforcement. Last week, grocery stores were not given systems or clear operational instructions for compliance with the emergency order given the sudden changes. They were expected to, overnight, figure out how to manage large crowds with their existing staff. Law enforcement officers were not routinely stationed at grocery stores to help maintain order. The simplest suggestion – to give numbers and have people wait in their cars – was not made by decision-makers. Small adjustments can make a big difference and there would be less to correct and remedy with more input from experts and practitioners. Organizations that managed hurricane relief, for example, can offer tactics and solutions that have proven effective, but that would require consultation.

The fourth issue with the current approach is the assumption people – including those considered low-risk – will comply. This requires a sense of personal responsibility for what occurs within our communities. Whatever we like to think, we do not have this in high volume. We have a lot of work to do to properly build strong communities with members who actively care about and look after each other. People who do not care about each other’s wellbeing do not just comply. Until we build the kind of community we want, we need better guidelines and systems that work to enforce them.

I’ve learnt a structured day is important to me

It feels as though we have been at home for a long time. Relative to other countries, it has not been very long at all. We are likely at the very beginning. Not only that, but what we have done thus far is probably nowhere near what is needed. There will be more time at home and it is in our best interest to not only comply, but take some time to make decisions and create systems that will make it easier for us. Going with the flow may work for some, but others will be completely lost, frustrated, or largely unaffected until they realize how much time has been lost. We each have to figure out what works best for us, and that may require some trial and error.

I have experimented a bit on my own, tried different approaches and arrived at the conclusion that structure is important for me. I want to wake up early, do most of my cooking and baking before the hottest part of the day, check on family members, work on at least one of my projects, catch up with a friend, spend time in the yard and start winding down at a reasonable time every day.

Some people can work with a to-do list and check tasks off as they go, but I prefer to put tasks into time slots. I set time aside for meal preparation, phone calls, leisure activities, work tasks, household tasks and anything else that needs my attention. This is, of course, helpful when I need to schedule meetings and set times for calls with friends in different time zones. It helps that I am disciplined and used to working from home, but there is always temptation to stray from the plan. For some, it feels better to leave the day open and take on tasks at will. We all have different needs and they may have changed given the circumstances, so give yourself a chance to figure it out.

Even if you do not like structure, it is a good idea to set your non-negotiables. What are the things you will not let yourself do or fail to do? It does not have to be as strict as getting up at five o’clock in the morning, but it can be helpful to set eight o’clock as the absolute latest you will stay in bed. That way, you have a window of time within which to get up and you can give yourself varying amounts of wiggle room depending on the day you have ahead of you. It may be a good idea to set alarms for your mealtimes, especially if you are on a particular diet.

Time can go incredibly slowly or surprisingly quickly when you are in a different environment and missing the time queues you usually get when there are coworkers in your physical space. You could end up having lunch at ten o’clock in the morning or completely forgetting about it if you’re not paying attention. Based on what is important to you, experiment with different types of schedules until you find the right fit.

Books can help us escape

Whether you have a lot of free time or not, it is important to have something other than work to fill your days. There are new shows popping up on Netflix all the time, social media challenges, virtual parties with top DJs and live sessions with celebrities and professionals in a range of fields. One of my favourite ways to spend my time is reading. I have three fiction books to recommend.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng is a portrait of characters. It opens with the Richardsons’ home on fire and their youngest child missing. Rewinding, Ng tells the deeply personal story of a mother and daughter – Mia and Pearl Warren — who move into the same suburbs as the Richardson family and rent one of their duplex apartments. The entire book is backstory, digging into past experiences of primary and secondary characters, but it remains clear which characters are the focus. Just as you settle into the stories of the Richardsons and the Warrens, there is an adoption, a missing baby, a ruckus, and a court case with different characters. Ng is skilled in bringing characters to life, making the reader care, and blurring the line between right and wrong. If you read and love this book, pick up Everything I Never Told You and let Celeste Ng bring you into a world of fascinating, yet ordinary characters for a second time.

With the Fire on High closely follows Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X. Both are young adult novels that remain true to difficult circumstances without a heavy-handed approach or excessive focus on a moral. With the Fire on High follows Emoni Santiago as she navigates the challenges of high school, motherhood, and helping her grandmother to make ends meet. She is passionate about cooking and everyone enjoys her food. Her strength becomes a challenge when she takes a cooking class at school that requires everyone to follow the rules, no matter how good their intuition may be. This is the perfect book to read with a teenager. It is sure to spark conversations about family life, career choices, friendship, and the transition to adulthood.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams has been referred to as the “black Bridget Jones,” but the comparisons are only at the surface. Carty-Williams using Queenie’s life experiences as commentary on issues of race, gender, migrant cultures, and the continued effects of slavery. Queenie is easy to like. The opening of the novel is deceptively light-hearted and simple, so when it turns to heavy themes such as mental health issues and unhealthy relationships, it is a bit surprising. By that time, the reader has a relationship with Queenie and can’t help but to root for her, even when she makes terrible decisions. Queenie is a like a cousin or a friend from high school. She will annoy you, but you want the best for her anyway.

If you are looking for more books and recommendations for other activities, follow Equality Bahamas on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Our team is sharing book, tv show, movie, music, TedTalk, and Tiny Desk concert recommendations almost daily. Every now and then, we all need an escape.

Published by The Tribune on April 15, 2020.

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Minister of Social Services Doesn’t Understand Domestic Violence

Minister of Social Services Frankie Campbell spoke in Parliament about the work being done by the Department of Social Services. He noted, without call it by name, that the issue of domestic and intimate partner violence had been raised numerous times. I waited, with the tiniest bit of optimism, for him to announce systems and services to address this pervasive issue that is only exacerbated by current conditions. Instead, he said: “This is a time when [abusers] should reflect on the errors of their past and try to make amends[…] repent of their ways and seek to build those bridges that they would have broken down.”

First, not many people watch Parliament. This was made clear by the comments on the livestream which indicated that viewers had no understanding of processes (which, admittedly, are often time-consuming and make little difference). Second, abusers do not tend to take instruction from Ministers of Social Services through a screen. Third, abusers are not short on “apologies”. They do not, however, relish taking responsibility for their actions, being remorseful, or taking the necessary step to reform. This is why there is a cycle of abuse and there are many PSAs that show the stage where the abuser brings the survivor flowers, convinces them to stay – then repeats the abuse.

Campbell did not offer a solution. He did not even offer support for survivors. He noted the issue was raised and did exactly what everyone thus far, including the Prime Minister has done. He said words that meant nothing.

We need a hotline specifically for domestic violence. We need police officers trained on domestic violence intervention to answer those calls. We need more safe housing for survivors. We need a residential programme for people going through withdrawal from alcohol and putting their households at risk. Systems and services, not apologies. The Department of Gender and Family Affairs should be leading on this. It, apparently, has a gender-based violence coordinator. What, exactly, is the department doing? It is definitely not responding to requests for meetings to discuss issues of gender in the country, so the least it could do is use whatever expertise it has in its own staff to anticipate, identify, strategise and respond to issues and give advice to the minister who is clearly out of his depth.

Government Caused Panic

Following the weekend lockdown on short notice, introduction of a grocery shopping schedule and the announcement of a complete shutdown from Wednesday night to Tuesday morning was no great surprise.

Grocery store lines have been wrapped around buildings all week. Some stores chose to ignore the shopping schedule. Even worse, senior citizens and people with disabilities – given Tuesday mornings to shop and the option to shop on the day assigned by last name – were turned away from several stores on Monday. When challenged, store staff told them they could use “discretion”. This is disgusting and unacceptable. Community members and advocates have been pushing for policies that consider and respond to specific vulnerabilities.

It is cruel and reprehensible that anyone wielded power, claimed “discretion” and denied entry to senior citizens and people with disabilities who made their way to the store at the appropriate time. Those people need to be dealt with and the government needs to make clear its orders are not open to interpretation or discretion. They are to be followed and the dignity of people doing their best to navigate this crisis must be kept intact.

Dr Minnis and his team need to reassess their tactics and realise they are creating the panic they are trying to avoid. They, unfortunately, promised not to close grocery stores and have not honoured that. No one knows what to expect. The uncertainty, lack of trust and loss of control will not serve us; nor will incremental, ever-changing measures that result in large crowds assembling in order to meet their most basic needs.

Why are some people shopping so often? Why did some people wait so late?

Some people had no idea their households would consume so much food in one week. Some people are using it as an excuse to be on the road. Some people usually just eat takeout. Some people stocked up for a week or two and now need to replenish. Some people are not very good at planning? Some people were waiting for cheques to clear, to get prepayments for services or to collect benefits. Some people have no other choice.

There have been many criticisms as a new world is shaped by COVID-19. Our lives are changing based on the decisions made by governments and residents. Our government is far from perfect. It has made many mistakes that are fairly easy to pinpoint now. We, however, are not blameless. We have also made mistakes and we continue to err. We make bad judgments, posture as experts after very little study and believe ourselves better than everyone else. We are frequently unable to see beyond on our experiences and cannot be convinced to even try to look a little further. This is one of the reasons so many people, however close they may be to it, do not understand poverty.

Poverty is not a choice. It is not a series of decisions. It is not the consequence of a personal failing. It is a both a system and the failure of systems. It linked to race and gender, thrives on the inequal distribution of wealth and other resources and depends on us to blame it on the people living through it. Poverty steals decision-making power. It is a beast, looming every day, taunting the people trying to get around it.

Poverty is not just a minimum wage cheque. It is no cheque at all. It is five dollars here and eight dollars there for hair-braiding or coconut water. It is only having enough to get two of the five ingredients you need to make a meal. It is almost daily visits to the grocery store because there isn’t enough money to get food for the week. Minnis has memory of this and painted the picture in Parliament on Monday, but offered no relief to the people who know it best today. The grocery shopping schedule gives people three opportunities to shop every week except this week. What is going to happen, over the next five days, to the people who do not have more than five or eight dollars to shop at a time?

Tips to get through

For those who are not accustomed to spending this much time at home, this is a difficult situation. It is also challenging for those who enjoy being at home, but also appreciate the freedom of being able to go out to eat, sit by the beach, or visit family members and friends. Being restricted, in and of itself, feels like a punishment. In addition to thinking positively about this exercise and the lives we are saving, it is important to figure out how we function best and create the environment we need.

  1. If you are working from home, give yourself an office space. This could be a desk or a chair at the kitchen table. Try to separate work life from home life. Keep rest and work separate and allow yourself to have more restful sleep at night.

  2. Get active. Even if you did not exercise before, find ways to move your body for physical and mental health benefits. There are thousands of free videos and apps to get you into yoga, jumping rope, pilates, running, Zumba and many other physical activities.

  3. Introduce friendly, virtual competition. Do some of those puzzles making the rounds on Whatsapp. Start a game of Chopped on Lockdown by choosing three ingredients and challenging others to make a meal with them that their household would enjoy.

  4. Discover new music. YouTube makes it easy for you to find music you might like with its recommendations in the sidebar. Check out Bahamian DJ Ampero’s Mixcloud for great mixes with artists you already love and others you will want to know better.

  5. Read more. The are books that will take you on journeys to parts of the world you have never seen, introduce you to entirely different worlds, and help you to understand or rethink the way you live in this one. Ebook and audiobook versions are widely available.

  6. Learn something new. Have you always wanted to learn French? Do you need to finally learn the Electric Slide? Do you still need that website for your new business? Would you like to finally be able to twist your own hair? There is a how-to video for everything. Seriously, my friend showed me one for grating carrots.

  7. Schedule virtual dates. The friend you were going to visit next month, the person you partied with in college, the former coworker now working in another country, and the cousin you never see any more are just a Whatsapp, Skype, Zoom, or Hangout away. Have a catch-up session.

We do not know how long this will last, but let’s prepare ourselves as best we can. Let’s do our best to help others. Let’s follow the guidelines and flatten the curve. Maybe we can find joy in the little things for a little while.

Published by The Tribune on April 8, 2020.