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We Know Opening the Borders in the COVID-19 Crisis Doesn’t Add Up

Is this freedom? Beaches and parks, gyms and spas, places of worship, and businesses are now open. The requirements are different from what we expected. Masks do not have to be worn during exercise. They must be worn to enter and exit gyms and beaches, but not for the duration of the stay. There are to be no gathering of more than five people on beaches and parks. It is not clear why five is the magic number, or why it would be safe to be in close proximity to people from different households at this time. While the risk might have been lower because we have successfully flattened the curve and reduced the spread of COVID-19, it is sure to increase in due time.

The borders are now open to commercial flights. People all over the world, including Americans, have been waiting to be able to go somewhere else — almost anywhere else — for a vacation for months. Visitors are sure to come to The Bahamas, where we have put in the work to protect public health, but does it make sense to risk that for the US dollar?

On Friday, Florida reported 8,942 new cases of COVID-19. More than 13 percent of new tests were positive. This is just one state, and it is the one closest to us.

Most visitors to The Bahamas come from the US. It is not difficult to imagine a person with COVID-19 coming here and spreading the virus. It can easily happen, especially since all visitors need to do is present the results of test taken within the seven days prior to travel. Seven days is more than enough time to contract the virus, and we have already established there are asymptomatic carriers. Someone can take the test on Monday, contract the virus on Thursday, and be in The Bahamas strolling the beach mask-free, dining in a popular restaurant and playing black jack on Saturday. This is the risk authorities have chosen to take, and we need to be aware of it rather than taking relaxation of restrictions to mean we can safely go back to normal.

Let’s be clear: We are taking a risk

It seems the government has decided that, since COVID-19 is not going away before a vaccine is introduced and most people have received it, it makes sense to bring in some US dollars while we can. However the important the tourism industry may currently be, this is a risk and we need to regard it as such. As other countries open their borders, most E.U. nations are not likely to allow people from the US to enter because of its high rate of infection.

Our borders are now open, the beaches and parks opened for us to enjoy them for two days before tourists start arriving, and we have been told that we should not travel. If it is safe for people to enter the country, why wouldn’t it be safe for us to visit other countries and return? If we know the entry of tourists will increase the risk of COVID-19 community spread, why are households being allowed to break social distancing on the beach?

If the number of COVID-19 infections goes up, we will face longer lockdowns. Whether we travel or not, we will live with the consequences of new cases.

While we may be happy to be able to go to the beach and for hotel workers and taxi drivers to return to work, we have to think about the information we have been given, realise that is doesn’t all add up and behave accordingly.

Don’t get “lost in the sauce”. We are free to work out, to swim, to shop and to gather in groups of five. That does not mean we are safe. COVID-19 has not vanished. It is still possible to contact the virus. Even as we enjoy freedom, we can take precautions. Maintain the six-foot distance and wear a mask as much as possible. We complied with the Emergency Order for months and we have benefitted from it. There is no reason for us to rush into a second round when we can reduce the risk in simple, if inconvenient, ways.

To be clear, this is not to say the Emergency Order should be continued at this time or indefinitely. It does not make any more sense for us to continue to be under curfew than it does for us to have weekend lockdowns or tourists freely entering the country, especially from countries that have not adequately responded to the pandemic. This is to encourage consideration of the facts, discussion on the repercussions of decisions being made, and both personal and community responsibility.

Who will handle non-compliant tourists, and how?

Potential visitors have expressed their displeasure with the mask policy on the Ministry of Tourism’s social media accounts. Some have said they are cancelling their trips because wearing masks is not a part of their island fantasy. It would not be surprising to see tourists walking around resort properties with masks sitting under their chins or covering their mouths but not noses. Are hotel staff prepared to enforce this? How will they do that while maintaining the welcoming, (bordering on) deferential demeanours? How are employees being protected?

There should be health and safety protocols approved by Ministry of Health in place at all properties. There should also be guidelines for baggage handlers, flight attendants, Customs and Immigration officers, taxi drivers and anyone else coming into direct contact with visitors. If they exist, they should be shared and as models for vendors and other businesses — not only those coming into direct contact with visitors, but those who will be in contact with those on the frontlines of the tourism industry.

What do you need to change?

The past few months have been difficult. Our work lives have been upended, some of us somehow ended up with more responsibilities, we’ve spent far too much time with the people who live with us, and we have not really been able to socialise. There have been a lot of sudden, drastic changes. While there is some return to the way things were before, we can still feel a bit off balance. It is important to acknowledge this as a normal response to very abnormal circumstances.

For many, it is time to go to the barber, have a beach day, or enjoy a nice meal at a favourite spot. These are easy ways to get back to where we want to be. It may be a good idea to do a bit more than that, and try to address underlying issues and observations made during the lockdown period. Did you find yourself saving money because you weren’t able to eat takeout as much as you usually do? Do you want to change that habit for the benefit of your savings account? Did you realise you tend to shop online when you’re bored or under stress? Maybe it’s time to come up with more helpful, healthy alternatives.

Who did you call when you felt like you were at your limit, and how did they support you? Family members and friends don’t always know the right thing to say or have the tools to help you through a difficult time, so it may be a good time to look for a mental health professional.

What about work-life balance? Did it go out the window, or did you not have it from the start? Working from home can reveal a lot about the way we work and manage time. If you’ve noticed you’re consistently doing more than a day’s work, it could be time to reassess your position, duties, and compensation.

These are just a few examples of areas in our lives that we may see in a different way now. They are not just to be observed, but addressed. Now may not be the best time to make sweeping changes, but make note of everything you’ve noticed about your life that makes you uncomfortable. Ask yourself what would make it better, and move in that direction. While the world around us changes, we have the opportunity to at least plan for changes of our own.

Published by The Tribune on July 1, 2020.

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Culture Clash: Facing Up to Mental Health Challenges

I know people with mental health challenges, some of whom are getting professional help and others who cannot afford it, do not want anyone else to know what they are going through, or do not think it would help. I have received phone calls and in-person visits from people who needed immediate assistance. During and after university, I was a live-in youth worker for at-risk women and girls. Before that job, I harshly judged people living in poverty, drug-addicted people, teenage parents, and any number of other people. I had decided that we all get to choose what we do with our lives, and our ability to succeed is completely within our control.

Coming face-to-face with my own ignorance and hypocrisy in a matter of days was nowhere near easy, but it was the most life-changing experience I have ever had. Among other opportunities and challenges, I completed suicide intervention training with a group of social workers. It was long, intense, transformative, and unexpectedly emotional. It reminded me of previous experiences, made me question the way I responded to situations in the past, and committed me to paying attention, asking questions, and listening for what is not being said.

On June 8, Anthony Bourdain was found dead in his hotel room in Strasbourg, France. The host of the award-winning CNN series Parts Unknown who had publicly talked about his mental health struggles died by suicide. Many people, so accustomed to watching Bourdain explore new places and food with acerbic wit, feel like they have lost a friend. They were attracted to the contagious curiosity that led him to ask people what they liked to cook and what they liked to eat, and the honesty that delivered his unfiltered thoughts.

Bourdain was not without success and did not lack money. He was a world-renowned chef and bestselling author. In Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, Bourdain went beyond food, telling stories about his abuse of drugs and sex. He consistently proved himself to be a real, multidimensional person, but that he could suffer from depression and exit the world by suicide is still a shock. We have certain expectations of the rich and the famous.

Don’t they have everything they could possibly want and more? Can’t they afford to pay every problem to get lost? And what is there to be depressed about?

Bourdain’s partner Asia Argento described him as her love, her rock, and her protector. He stood by her side when she went public with accusations against Harvey Weinstein and spoke out in support of the women of the #MeToo movement. Bourdain is an example of a person who managed to support other people, but did not manage to save himself.

Are we supposed to save ourselves?

Just days before Bourdain’s death, fashion designer Kate Valentine (previously known as Kate Space) died of suicide in her apartment in Manhattan. Though she had not had a hand in the brand still bearing her name, many people responded to the news of her death with stories of their first Kate Spade handbag purchase.

Both Bourdain and Spade had what most of us are still trying to achieve. They found their passions and ways to share them with the world, and got more than pay checks in return. They each had a fan base. They had families and friends. They were household names. Still, something else they had in common overshadows all of their achievements and possessions and the love in their lives. That may be what is most difficult to understand about depression. It does not match itself to the good in our lives. As large as the sun is, clouds can completely obscure our view of it. We may know it is still there, but that knowledge does nothing to replace the light. At night, when darkness comes, there is no sign that the sun will rise again.

As a child, I heard people talk about suicide. I learned that people saw it as a dishonorable act. A selfish act. A cowardly act. I heard people talk about depression too. I learned that people saw it as a weakness. A demon. A punishment for wrongdoing. A clear instruction to turn to god. Good, god-fearing people, then, did not have depression. Brave, selfless people did not attempt suicide.

To prove I was living my life in the best possible way, I had to ensure that there was never a sign of depression, or even sadness. Even if I experienced them, no one could know. This dictated countless thoughts and actions. This knowledge made it so that I never admitted to anything being wrong, and whenever anything was wrong, I suffered alone. I know that I am not the only one. There are other people who go to battle with parts of themselves that want to be vulnerable and honest, and allow someone else to help. They fight those parts because we are taught that it is better to be strong, smiling, and satisfied with whatever we have.

It has taken me a long time to realize that vulnerability is not weakness, and having challenges does not mean we are, in some way, deficient. It is still difficult for me to treat myself with the same kindness I extend to my loved ones. Maybe it is because I came to my understanding of mental health issues through my role as carer for others that it is easier to acknowledge, affirm, and attend to the needs of others than it is to even sit with my own. Part of it too, of course, is the way I heard people talk about mental health challenges when I was growing up. It is hard to trust people with personal information when it feels safer to keep it secret, even from the closest people to us. The people who are, perhaps, the most judgmental of them all.

After reports of suicide or attempted suicide, there is always an influx of positive messaging around mental health. Social media is flooded with posts encouraging people to seek the help they need. Talk to someone. Call a hotline. Text a friend. See a psychologist. There are numerous barriers to what seems like a quick and easy solution. To talk to someone, we have to trust them and be reasonably certain that they will only do what is in our best interest. To call a hotline, we probably want to be assured that we can maintain anonymity, and that the person on the other end is a trained professional. To see a psychologist, we need money. And not a small amount of money. To ask for help, we have to admit that we do not always have it all together, we are not always as happy as we look, and our strength sometimes wavers.

We have a great deal of work to do. We have to earn the trust of the people around us. We need to understand mental health and recognize that it is just as important as physical health. Depression and anxiety are public health issues and should be treated as such. Health care needs to include mental health care.

We have to do more than pray. As family members, friends, coworkers, and club members, we need to pay attention, be willing to listen, and hear what is not being said. We need to advocate for policy change. We need to check on our people, and not always expect them to ask for the help they need. Suicide is not a choice, and it is not selfish. Limiting lifesaving options through stigma, however, is a choice. Give your loved ones the chance to cope, to overcome, and to live. Do research, start conversation, and demand mental health care services.

Published in The Tribune on June 13, 2018.