PETER YOUNG: COVID’s here to stay and it may be we’ll just have to learn to live alongside it – Bahamas Tribune

Posted: August 26, 2020 at 4:12 pm

Some people consider that so much has been written about the coronavirus pandemic that there is little further to say. But last weeks events, involving the announcement on Monday evening - with no prior notice - of a total lockdown followed by a U-turn on Tuesday afternoon with conditions less restrictive than before, created a crisis of public confidence in the government. As a result, therewas new controversy about the official handling of the crisis and, in such circumstances, it is hard to resist offering fresh comment.

Mondays announcement left no time for people to prepare or to shop for food and resulted in mayhem, with residents converging on food stores, gas stations and water depots for panic buying at the last minute. As conditions eased later in the week, with supermarkets now allowed to stay open until 9pm, questions were raised once more about the need for lockdowns even as the number of new infections in The Bahamas is increasing.

To my eye, the debate about how to handle the coronavirus crisis may have changed because over the weekend there has been official confirmation that COVID-19 is here to stay for the foreseeable future. During the last few months we have been told, consistently, that it is not going away any time soon unless a vaccine becomes available. Now, the Director General of the World Health Organisation himself has made this official by saying publicly that the pandemic could last for another two years as a once-in-a-century health crisis. It is also significant that the UKs former chief scientific adviser, Professor Sir Mark Walport, who is a member of the governments Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), has stated that this is a virus thats going to be with us forever in some form and almost certainly will require repeated vaccinations.

In light of these views of the experts, I suggest that, while the task of government should continue to be to try to limit transmission of the virus, it is unrealistic to seek to eradicate it in present conditions. Thus, the question arises whether lockdowns are the best way of dealing with a long-term situation of this sort unless they are part of a broader plan.

Initially, such action seemed right in order to keep people apart from one another and it worked in so far as the numbers of infections were kept to a relatively low level. But the price was serious damage to the local economy. Given the risks of further such damage if new lockdowns are imposed, does it make sense to continue to do so now that people have become accustomed to social distancing and are, by and large, adhering to the new requirements, including regular hand washing and the wearing of masks in public? It is surely right to place restrictions on both small and larger gatherings like sporting events and social get-togethers, including night clubs, bars and restaurants. But, from my wifes and my own observation, social distancing measures in places like banks, pharmacies and food stores are being carefully observed and applied so there is no need to limit their activities and, in cases where the restrictions are not in place, they can be enforced by government inspectors.

As is well known, the virus was mainly brought to The Bahamas by those who visited Florida after borders were reopened on July 1. This accounts for the sudden spike in the number of infections. These look bad compared with the original figures, but we are not told about the seriousness of the infections. As a proportion of the total amount of cases, the numbers of deaths and those hospitalised are relatively low. The presumption must be, therefore, that most who have tested positive have not been severely infected.

Without wider testing, even the layman may conclude that there are likely to be many more than the figure of about 1,500 confirmed cases; but, on the evidence so far, the majority of any new cases will probably be mild rather than serious. So, with the number of severe cases still fairly low, some people question whether the pressure on medical facilities is as bad as the authorities have suggested.

It is interesting that a former UK Supreme Court judge, Lord Sumption, has commented that Britain has to learn to live alongside the virus until a vaccine is available. He supports voluntary but controlled social distancing rather than lockdowns because, he says, keeping people apart by forcing them to stay at home will merely push transmission to the period they are lifted. It is also instructive to note the UK government has now adopted a system of selective restrictions rather than total lockdowns and, as I mentioned in an earlier article, the latest advice by the WHO is that localised measures should be used to stem COVID-19 rather than national lockdowns due to the health, social and economic repercussions.

As former Health Minister Dr Duane Sands is reported to have said, the overwhelming majority of Bahamians want the virus to be beaten and a vital part of that is social distancing. But people need food and medication in order to live properly, so the emphasis should be on education and enforcement rather than lockdowns - with action taken by the appropriate authorities to ensure social distancing is followed as widely as possible across the country. It is also important to increase testing and tracing so as to monitor and control confirmed cases in order to ensure self-isolation. That seems to be the key - as well as social distancing - to limiting transmission of the virus.

As for Britain, with its economy said to be on life-support, one commentator in the UK press has suggested that economic logic and common sense dictate we cant remain paralysed for a minute longer life always involves an element of risk and its now time to get back to work.

Yesterday the Prime Minister surprised everyone by announcing a significant relaxation of the lockdown protocols based on the most up-to-date medical advice he has been given. Most of us I would suspect had imagined we would be given a few days grace before a hard lockdown was imposed. Now, it seems, if the numbers keep heading in the right direction thats not going to be necessary.

From next Monday we will be back in another form of lockdown-lite - still a huge hindrance to our normal way of life but a step in the right direction. As WHO has pointed out, however, whatever form of lockdown we chose, by itself it is not going to be enough.

For as long as I can remember - having followed events in The Bahamas for more than 20 years - there has been talk of the need for economic diversification. As I understand it, this has been the policy of successive governments since the early 1990s because of an over-emphasis on tourism and financial services, both of which depend on outside factors and influences beyond Bahamian control and leave the country particularly vulnerable.

So, despite already being one of the wealthiest countries in the Caribbean region, it makes sense to protect itself against external shocks by broadening its base of economic activity - and particularly after the blow to the economy of severely reduced tourism as a result of the pandemic.

Against this background, it was interesting to read in The Tribune recently an interview with former Attorney General Alfred Sears about COVID-19 providing what he described as a once-in-50-years opportunity for The Bahamas to overhaul its economic architecture for the new global realities it will face in a post-pandemic world. He called it a Sir Stafford Sands moment reflecting the transformation of The Bahamas in the 1950s from seasonal tourism, fishing and subsistence farming to year-round tourism and financial services.

It is clear the country should capitalise on its assets like long standing political stability and a highly respected judicial system, proximity to the worlds largest market, good existing infrastructure, an equable climate and plenty of undeveloped land in the Family Islands whose development should be a priority.

While fully embracing the digital economy, Mr Sears has suggested expansion of a number of niche industries, creation of an aviation hub, farming, seafood harvesting and light manufacturing. He also spoke of boosting export earnings by permitting local web shop operators to sell their services to other jurisdictions.

The Bahamas already has, of course, a ship registry - and an aviation hub, with its many airports in the Family Islands, is based on managing and controlling its own airspace. Meanwhile, agriculture could be expanded to reduce the dependence on food imports by fulfilling local needs without attempting to compete in export markets. In addition, the potential for eco-tourism should be limitless once visitors return to our shores. Linked to that is the huge demand for vacation home rentals and bed and breakfast establishments. These are needed in order to tap into the natural habitat and the tranquillity and beauty of the islands which lack accommodation facilities but offer fishing, bird watching not least flamingos, the national bird of The Bahamas, on the island of Inagua - wildlife photography, hunting of wild boar and similar pursuits.

Over the years, there have been various studies of economic diversification. Among many suggestions and recommendations, I found it particularly interesting to read about development of light manufacturing because in the late 1990s I spent time promoting to investors in the UK the potential for that at the Sea Air Business Centre being constructed for that purpose in Freeport.

One new effect of coronavirus which has received little publicity is the flight to other countries of millionaires from across Latin America in order to protect their wealth. Reports suggest there may be up as many as 500,000 people with assets exceeding one million dollars in countries like Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Chile where there are large disparities between the rich and the poor.

Such countries are apparently planning to introduce tough new restrictions and taxes on the wealthy as a result of fiscal shortfalls resulting from COVID-19. Some now say this presents opportunities for other jurisdictions to offer fast-track residency schemes and favourable tax conditions; for example, in The Bahamas reducing the minimum investment in real estate needed to become a permanent resident. Another related but simpler scheme is attracting the growing numbers of so-called digital nomads who need nothing more than a laptop and a Wi-Fi connection to earn a living no matter where they are in the world. Barbados, for example, whose tourism sector has taken a heavy hit from the pandemic, is offering a one-year visa for such people and, reportedly, charges $2,000 for it.

Returning to Mr Sears ideas, he spoke of the need for a strategic vision and a bi-partisan political approach in an effort to rebuild the nations economy. But he stresses that more mundane, though no less important, issues like a reliable and less expensive power supply and development of renewable energy, together with improvement of the ease of doing business, will also be key factors and then, of course, although he does not mention it, the potential bonanza of off-shore oil production is still lurking in the background.

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PETER YOUNG: COVID's here to stay and it may be we'll just have to learn to live alongside it - Bahamas Tribune

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