A year of crisis and change in the Bahamas

By Rumi Samuel Published on January 01, 2022
A year of crisis and change in the Bahamas

The credits are rolling on another trying year in which the deadly coronavirus ravaged families, disrupted children's education, continued to destabilize the national economy, and tested our collective and individual resolve.

Despite the acquisition of much-needed COVID-19 vaccines, lives were upended, the healthcare system was overwhelmed, and many faced an ongoing struggle to survive – some to stay alive, some to meet financial obligations, while others were confronted with both those challenges.

When 2020 ended, 171 COVID deaths had been confirmed in The Bahamas, with 20 under investigation.

This year ends with 717 confirmed deaths and 37 under investigation.

The aggressive Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 mainly triggered this hellish outcome, first detected in India at the end of last year. It made a vicious rampage in many countries as it spread rapidly, crippling health systems and undermining economic gains since the virus's initial wave.

While the tourism-reliant Bahamian economy has reopened chiefly, after a dramatic and debilitating shut down in March 2020, the emergence of the super-contagious Omicron variant – identified in South Africa last month – has brought a forceful fourth wave to The Bahamas, which had seen consistently low case numbers over many weeks.

In October, health authorities reported 1,217 COVID cases. In November, this fell to 387 points, fueling hopes that Bahamians would be able to have a close to the regular holiday season and all schools would be able to reopen to in-person learning come January.

Those low numbers compared to 2,738 cases in September and 3,540 cases in August, the same month then-Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis called an early general election, whose outcome was far from favourable for the governing Free National Movement (FNM).

Omicron led to an exponential increase in cases in many countries, created a fresh round of panic, and sent scientists racing to understand better its level of seriousness and its likely impact in the coming weeks.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the rapid growth rate in Omicron infections is believed to result from a combination of increased transmissibility and the ability to evade immunity conferred by past infection or vaccination (i.e., immune evasion).

In the last week or so, The Bahamas saw an explosion in COVID cases. While there has been no confirmation that Omicron is responsible, local officials suspect that the new variant is primarily responsible for the surge with such robust travel to and from the country.

In the two days leading to Christmas Day, officials reported 580 new cases. That's more than the total confirmed for the entire month of November.

On December 25, the highest daily record of COVID cases was confirmed – 330 new cases – though officials said this represented the outcome of samples taken over a couple of days.

Another 85 cases were confirmed on December 26. On December 27, there were 159 cases. Sixty-five patients were established on December 28, and 207 were approved on December 29. 

While early reports from several countries suggest that the new variant is milder than Delta, that has provided small comfort for a nation whose vaccination rate is around 40 per cent, with vaccination hesitancy remaining high, nine months after the government rolled out its vaccination program.

Response

Notwithstanding our weariness of the pandemic, it continues to define the way most of us go about living. 

While the Davis administration followed through on a commitment to end the state of emergency that had remained in place for more than a year and a half, Bahamians remain subjected to COVID protocols, though they are less stringent than measures adopted by the Minnis administration in the opening months of the pandemic.

The nightly curfew put in place in March 2020 – and adjusted several times by the competent authority (Minnis) – fell away when the state of emergency ended on November 13, 2021.

While Omicron has renewed fears and heightened uncertainties, the new government has indicated it has no plans to institute draconian measures like lockdowns, border closures, and curfews.

Caution is being urged, and the protocols are being tweaked. The general posture is also emerging that we have to learn to coexist with COVID.

On Boxing Day, Minister of Health and Wellness Dr Michael Darville said in a statement, "There are no easy answers for dealing with the coming surge in cases, and care must be taken to strike the right balance between our country's health crisis and economic well-being. … We're simply not going to shut down all economic activity."

The government's response to the crisis is likely to evolve further in the coming days. We expect that response to be shaped by the impact of the case rise on the healthcare system.

Health officials say hospitalizations tend to lag rising cases by at least a couple of weeks. So far, hospitalizations had remained low compared to the height of the third wave when officials at Princess Margaret, the Rand, and Doctors hospitals all reported that their facilities had reached a breaking point.

In August, one PMH official admitted that they had been turning away some Family Island patients because there was no space to treat anyone else.

Many non-COVID patients were also finding it difficult, if not impossible, to access healthcare due to the strain the pandemic was placing on the system.

Meanwhile, bodies were piling up in the PMH morgue — hospital officials made multiple pleas for families to collect their loved one's remains — and many funeral homes were struggling to meet the demand for their services.

In September, hospitalizations were as high as 195. As of December 29, there were 23 people in hospital with COVID.

New government

Amidst the deadly third wave, Prime Minister Minnis decided to pull the trigger, calling a general election eight months before one was constitutionally due, saying a new mandate was needed to make tough decisions moving forward.

Minnis faced stinging criticisms for taking the country to an election at the height of the COVID crisis.

It was clear to many observers that he and his party faced an uphill battle in their re-election bid; some opined that it was a long shot.

When the dust settled at the end of the evening on September 16, the FNM barely stood after the polls' pummelling.

The party – which won 35 of 39 seats in the House of Assembly in 2017 – secured just seven seats in 2021. The FNM suffered a dramatic loss of support in nearly all constituencies, including in most of the seven it won.

Minnis, the once-powerful competent authority, barely got more than 50 per cent of the votes in his constituency, Killarney.

The FNM blamed the twin crises of Hurricane Dorian in September 2019 and COVID-19 just six months later for creating an environment ripe for its crushing defeat.

The early election led to the rise of the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), which had managed to sanitize its image to the point where it became a practical option for Bahamian voters who had become disillusioned with Minnis and the FNM.

Many were drawn to the PLP's pledge of "a new day" and viewed the party's win as a fresh start, a reset, for a pandemic-battered country that wished nothing more than to move on from the Minnis administration.

Minnis refused to publicly confirm that he was relinquishing the FNM leadership in the days following the election loss. As pressure mounted, the former prime minister finally announced that he would not run for FNM leader just over a month after the general election.

Last month, the FNM elected one of Minnis' former ministers, Michael Pintard, as a leader. Pintard has pledged to rebuild and reunite the party.

However, there has not been a honeymoon period for the new PLP administration.

It came to office with the support of less than 50 per cent of registered voters. It inherited serious challenges: Hurricane-ravaged communities, the COVID pandemic, and a national economy that needed growth and revitalization.

It also has to contend with a dire fiscal position made worse by pandemic-induced borrowing to the tune of billions of dollars.

Not long after the new administration took office, Moody's Investor Service downgraded the sovereign debt credit rating for The Bahamas from Ba2 to Ba3 due to the erosion of the country's economic and fiscal positions.

In its budgetary performance report for the first quarter of 2021/2022 (released in October), the Ministry of Finance said despite improvements in the tourism sector, unemployment levels remained elevated, with 17,154 beneficiaries relying on the government unemployment benefits program.

In the first quarter, revenue collections strengthened mainly due to a resurgence in the travel and tourism sector.

Uncertainty

There are worries that Omicron could erode these gains.

On December 20, the CDC noted early data suggest Omicron infection may be less severe than infection with prior variants; however, reliable data on clinical severity remain limited.

It added, "Even if the proportion of infections associated with severe outcomes is lower than with previous variants, given the likely increase in the number of conditions, the absolute numbers of people with severe consequences could be substantial.

"In addition, demand for ambulatory care, supportive care for treatment of mild cases, and infection control requirements, quarantining/isolation of exposed/infected workforce could also stress the healthcare system."

On Tuesday, PMH announced new protocols in response to the rapid increase in cases, including suspending elective surgeries.

When many were starting to feel hopeful that they were moving closer to a post-COVID existence, there appeared to be no end in sight to the pandemic.

And so, 2021 ends with a great deal of uncertainty and uneasiness about what's to come.

For The Bahamas, this has been a year of crisis and change; the new administration is navigating a treacherous course.

The challenges and opportunities ahead will unfold in a heightened climate of COVID fatigue and an even more pressing need to balance the protection of lives against the safeguarding of livelihoods.

The pre-pandemic norm, it appears, is unlikely to return.

Rumi Samuel

Rumi Samuel

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