Ex-minister: Economy ‘too open’ for COVID

• Sands concedes many ‘frazzled’ by call

• But Bahamas ‘will regret’ not tightening

• Warnings of ‘grave danger’ if new curbs

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

A former health minister is warning The Bahamas “will regret” failing to impose tougher curbs to control COVID-19 as the economy is “far more open than it ought to be”.

Dr Duane Sands, who held that Cabinet post under the former Minnis administration, acknowledged to Tribune Business that many Bahamians will be “frazzled” by his call given the economy’s still-perilous position but he argued: “Business as usual has to stop.”

Perfectly positioned to assess the pandemic’s ongoing impact as a front-line healthcare worker, he argued that many Bahamians and residents appear to be behaving as if COVID-19 “is not a big deal right now”.

Warning that the situation will “get way worse” unless tougher protocols are put in place, Dr Sands said to do otherwise will be to accept that “we are going to lose scores, if not hundreds more Bahamians” to the pandemic beyond the 605 deaths already confirmed and the 46 cases that have yet to be confirmed.

Quickly asserting that his comments were not intended as criticism of the newly-elected Davis administration, he told this newspaper that the falling COVID-19 case numbers were likely a reflection of the number of persons being tested for the virus rather than the reality on the ground.

Instead, Dr Sands pointed to the increase in persons in dying from COVID-19, adding that healthcare facilities were increasingly patients who have become extremely ill with the virus. With healthcare workers, and the system itself, increasingly “overwhelmed and exhausted”, he argued that The Bahamas rapidly needs to “recalibrate” its approach before it becomes too late.

Asked by this newspaper whether the COVID-19 focus had shifted too much to the economy and livelihoods, as opposed to healthcare and lives, Dr Sands replied: “That’s a very important question. The answer is principally an observational view that things seem to be going as if COVID-19 is not a big deal right now.

“Many are operating as if COVID-19 is not as bad in The Bahamas as it really is....... We are seeing a surge, a significant surge, and we do not have the capacity to deal with the sick patients that are coming up.

“When you look at the stress on the overall healthcare system, in a simplified way we are far more open than we ought to be given the fact COVID-19 is out of control and I fear it’s going to get way worse,” he continued.

“On the preventative side, business as usual has to stop. I get that people are frazzled with that, given the fragility of the economy, but I think we will regret it if we don’t.

“There have been 605 deaths from COVID already, and 46 unknowns. When you look at those numbers and compare the number of deaths per capita with other countries in the world, we are not doing well at all.”

Dr Sands made no mention of lockdowns or some of the more draconian measures employed by the Minnis administration in 2020, but just mentioning the need for further restrictions will likely chill both consumers and businesses who will fear such action could further setback the Bahamian economy.

The situation also highlights the delicate balancing act that The Bahamas continues to face in re-opening its economy, and preserving jobs and incomes, while still containing COVID-19. Business owners and executives, not surprisingly, reacted negatively to calls for renewed restrictions while praising Dr Sands and conceding his views cannot be ignored.

Ben Albury, Bahamas Bus and Truck’s general manager, told Tribune Business that introducing further restrictions would “be detrimental” especially given reports that stopover tourism numbers are on track to rebound to pre-2019 levels by year-end or early 2022.

Noting that COVID-19 case numbers appeared to be falling, while deaths were climbing, he added: “I’m in no position to speak to the health side, but from the financial side it could be extremely damaging.”

Mr Albury said other doctors, who he did not name, believed COVID-19 will be present for his lifetime and into “the foreseeable future”. He added: “I feel for the health workers, the system is overwhelmed, but we’re past the point of having to see where this goes.

“It’s unfortunate territory, and no one wants to see anyone lose their life, but at the same time a lot of people are in grave danger where their finances are concerned. How can you tell a hotel worker who has not worked for almost two years that we’re going back to further restrictions? It’s terrible but we have to deal with it.

“I think that if we’re going to survive financially as a nation, and a nation that is able to feed its children, we’re going to have to take it as it comes. I feel terrible. It’s a terrible position to be in but we’re going to have to take it.”

Sir Franklyn Wilson, the Arawak Homes and Sunshine Holdings chairman, described Dr Sands as a “world-class scientist” and agreed that his comments on health-related matters such as COVID-19 “have to be taken very seriously”.

Yet he added: “He will appreciate there has to be a balance between that view and the economic recovery we are trying to nurture.... We have had many deaths, but the fact of the matter is the number of confirmed cases seems to be trending downwards generally and the economic recovery appears to be trending upwards.

“If these trends continue, that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to get the case numbers down and the economic buoyancy back up. If that continues, that’s good.” Sir Franklyn said Dr Sands may be concerned that Bahamians were becoming “over relaxed” and not adhering to COVID-19 health protocols, noting that his church held the “first sung mass for a long time” at the weekend.

Dr Sands, meanwhile, argued that persons were becoming too focused on falling COVID-19 case numbers, which hit 32 on Sunday, as opposed other indicators such as the mortality rate. Some 48 COVID-related deaths were recorded in the week to October 10.

With the healthcare sector suffering from a shortage of ventilators, critical care nurses and respiratory technicians, he added that COVID-19 carers were burning through specialist equipment “faster than it can be replaced”.

“When you look at the amount of testing that is happening, we are still not testing anywhere near where the World Health Organisation (WHO) says it will give us an accurate reflection of the cases,” Dr Sands said. “Lest anyone think this is a criticism of the current administration, it’s not.

“It’s an acknowledgement of the seriousness of the problem and the need for us to come together collectively to figure out the way forward. It’s untenable unless we accept we are going to lose scores, if not hundreds more Bahamians. If that’s acceptable to us as a country, then we can continue as we are. If it is not, we need to have a major recalibration.”