Suspend the campaigning

Back on March 25, The Bahamas recorded 32 COVID-19 hospitalizations.

It was the highest number of hospitalizations in recent months since November 9, when the number of hospitalizations stood at 48, falling to 30 in the Ministry of Health’s November 11 report.

Given that the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and rates of symptomatic patients presenting to healthcare facilities are key indicators of the virus’ activity in the country, questions loom about whether the country is seeing the beginning of a third wave.

Those questions were given additional weight by the ministry’s statement last week calling “disconcerting” a marked increase in cases and hospitalizations on New Providence, Grand Bahama and Abaco.

And with 75 COVID-19 cases since the end of January recorded as having a history of travel abroad – 64 of which on New Providence – it is especially critical to know whether COVID-19 variants are now present in the country.

In response to the rise in cases and hospitalizations, the ministry reiterated a call to adhere to public safety measures such as avoiding social gatherings and maintaining adequate social distancing.

In a hospital memo that made the rounds on social media Sunday afternoon, Princess Margaret Hospital (PMH) Medical Chief of Staff Dr. Caroline Burnett-Garraway advised that elective admissions would be placed on hold “due to unavoidable ward closures and an acute shortage of beds.”

But even as the ministry of health makes the call for adherence to safety protocols in response to an increase in cases and hospitalizations, campaigning and campaign events, which by their very nature attract crowds and involve consistent contact with members of the public, continue in earnest.

Also on the increase are government ribbon-cutting and groundbreaking ceremonies that are ostensibly campaign initiatives at the end of the day, and that in a most recent case in Andros, featured a crowd of attendees who were seated under a tent without social distancing protocols being enforced.

The reasons

At last report, the ministry said a recent spike in cases on Grand Bahama was predominantly due to inter-island travel, as well as attendance at events and smaller gatherings.

There has been no report on what accounts for New Providence’s increase in cases, though its comparatively high number of cases with a history of travel might perhaps provide some clues.

Last week, police advised that several people were taken into custody in New Providence for attempting to travel to a Family Island via Lynden Pindling International Airport with fraudulent COVID-19 test results.

Some residents on social media claimed that the use of fraudulent test results by some travelers was not new, nor was it a secret.

Elizabeth MP Dr. Duane Sands in an interview with Eyewitness News this past weekend is quoted as calling for “no mercy” for those who are allegedly in the business of creating fake COVID certificates, condemning such a practice as a threat to public health.

It is not publicly known how prevalent such activities have been nationwide, or to what extent they may have contributed to new infections on various islands.

As an example of responsible and pandemic-sensitive interaction with the public, the Department of Statistics recently announced that for the first time ever, it would introduce a digital protocol to capture relevant data for the decennial census which was due last year, but was delayed due to the country’s second wave.

The competent authority has shown no hesitation over the past year in issuing emergency orders – often without supporting data – at the hint of an increase in cases, and those orders are designed to control the public’s movements and activities.

Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) supporters at a political event. TORRELL GLINTON

But the competent authority now needs to show the kind of leadership that is required in a pandemic, by sitting with his party and the nation’s political leaders to agree to the terms of a suspension of campaigning until the recent spike in cases on some islands – which has the potential to spread to other islands – is fully understood and contained.

The prime minister knows when he wants to call an election, and has clearly ramped up campaign efforts in furtherance of that date, which all other parties contesting the general election will naturally follow suit on.

But the general election is not due for another 13 months, and there is no rabbit with a proverbial gun chasing the prime minister to call a snap election, save, of course, for the rabbit of his own fear that he cannot pull off a win unless he surprises his opponents with a quick dissolution of parliament and election date.

Now that politics is king, it is unlikely that the competent authority will want to issue new orders for invariably unpopular restrictions, for fear of angering the electorate so close to a potential snap election.

But the prime minister might contemplate such restrictions should his party win, since he would have received a fresh five-year mandate to govern, and hence would have no fear of an impending election defeat.

Suspending campaigning might likely be considered a move not in his personal interests given his apparent plans for a snap election, but bringing a halt to risky non-essential activities such as campaigning over a year before elections are due, is certainly in the interest of the Bahamian people.

Remember the second wave

In a March 21 report published by USA Today, Florida was said to be the US state that is leading in a surge of variant cases.

Florida is also one of the country’s primary tourism markets, and is a popular destination for Bahamians and residents.

According to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Florida became the first state to have more than 1,000 known cases of coronavirus variants on March 21.

Citing CDC data, USA Today said, “the US reported another 834 variant cases since Thursday [March 18] alone and now has 6,638 known cases, with almost 6,400 of them being of the B.1.1.7 type, the one first found in the United Kingdom.”

Studies indicate that the UK variant of COVID-19 is significantly more deadly than the primary virus, and is much more transmissible.

Earlier this month, Jamaica’s Health and Wellness Minister Dr. Christopher Tufton announced that the deadly B.1.1.7 UK variant was present and spreading in the country, with confirmation of the variant’s presence received following tests on samples sent months earlier to the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) in Trinidad and Tobago.

Though the AstraZeneca vaccine is said to show promising results in reducing the risk of serious illness and death from the UK variant, most of the country has not been vaccinated, and current evidence does not confirm that the vaccine stops transmission of the virus.

When the country reopened its borders to commercial tourism last July, it did so when states including Florida were in the midst of a record-breaking second wave.

As cases began to surge locally, health officials attributed the start of the country’s second wave to cases with a history of travel abroad.

Testing was not ramped up when the borders reopened, and by the time health officials seemed to have come to grips with the surge in cases on several islands, they determined it was too late to have taken any other action than lockdowns to control the spread.

COVID-19 testing on demand remains out of the financial reach of many residents, which if were more affordable, could aid health officials in having a greater grasp on the existence of cases so that mitigation strategies could be more rapidly implemented.

Countries that have the best COVID-19 performance to-date accomplished the same via highly efficient testing and contact tracing strategies that kept those who were infected quarantined, so that the rest of the country could continue to function.

It is without credible argument that the removal of a pre-testing requirement for 72-hour travelers by the competent authority last year was the sword that cut the thread of local containment of the virus, ultimately leading to thousands of new cases, well over 100 deaths, and business interruption from which the domestic economy is still reeling.

Campaigning and large campaign and government events can be among factors that amount to a brand new sword.

The prime minister should put his personal political agendas aside and lead by proper example as a disturbing increase in cases and hospitalizations is now acknowledged by the ministry of health.

Suspend the campaigning.