Nassau Guardian photo
CONTRIBUTION TO THE DEBATE IN THE HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY
ON THE PROPOSED EXTENSION OF EMERGENCY ORDERS
BY HON PHIILIP ‘BRAVE’ DAVIS, Q.C.
MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT FOR CAT ISLAND, SAN SALVADOR AND RUM CAY
LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION
11 AUGUST 2021
I am proud to rise in this House as the representative of the very fine people of Cat Island, San Salvador and Rum Cay.
The people of these beautiful islands, like our fellow Bahamians across the country, are grieving, and worrying, and praying.
Grieving for those whom we have lost.
Worrying about what is to come.
And praying that brighter days lie ahead.
I know that is a prayer we all share.
2. State of Emergency Confers Vast Powers
Bahamians have been living under a State of Emergency since March 2020.
My colleagues and I supported the initial State of Emergency.
As we have said repeatedly, we believed that at the start of the crisis, the government deserved time to come up with a plan to meet a new threat.
The State of Emergency didn’t just grant the Prime Minister time, though.
It gave him vast new powers.
No Prime Minister in our history, in fact, has ever been granted so much power.
A Competent Authority of One. (I don’t want to hear about Cabinet. They have no authority under these Emergency Orders).
And so, Mr. Speaker, the Bahamian people have a right to ask: have these vast powers been used wisely, and in their best interest?
We now have one year and a half of evidence.
And tragically, the answer is no.
No, these vast powers granted to the Competent Authority have not been used wisely.
And no, these vast powers granted to the Competent Authority have largely not been used to further the best interests of the Bahamian people.
3. Regional Comparison: The Bahamas is Doing Worse Than Our Neighbours
Before we go further, I want to say clearly that no one expected perfection. A new virus, a new kind of crisis — some mistakes were bound to be made.
Therefore, it would not be fair to compare the Prime Minister to some theoretical ideal leader.
But it is fair to compare our country to other countries in our region.
After all, other Caribbean nations have faced very similar difficulties and obstacles.
And so the question is, why do we continue to be outperformed on every measurement that matters?
Why are our neighbours doing a better job at protecting their people?
Mr. Speaker, we are behind nearly every other country in the region in the number of cases and deaths per capita, and we have vaccinated a smaller portion of our population.
We were near the bottom in our region to begin vaccinations, Mr. Speaker.
We have had more than 16,000 recorded COVID cases in this country – and we know that’s a dramatic undercount of the actual number (antigen tests not included)
No country has had it easy. But governments in other Caribbean countries have led their countries through the crisis more effectively. This is just a fact.
4. Lessons Are Never Learned
What is infuriating and drives one to anger, Mr. Speaker, is that so much was asked of our people. The lockdowns in particular caused such extraordinary hardship. People lost their jobs, and their businesses, and many lost their homes, too. Whatever gains have been made during this pandemic against the virus have been achieved only through enormous, terrible sacrifice. To see those gains erased because of subsequent government failures is infuriating.
It is one thing to make mistakes early in the pandemic. But to never learn from those mistakes, that is indefensible.
In June of last year, the PLP warned that the country needed more testing and tracing resources in place to safely reopen the borders. That advice was not heeded, whether out of ignorance or arrogance, we cannot know. The borders were opened, cases came in, there was not enough testing or tracing to keep up with the virus, the borders closed again, the lockdowns followed, and our economic recovery was delayed. You will remember, Mr. Speaker, that during this time, Bahamians were allowed to travel to Florida, a hotspot, and return within 72 hours, without being tested.
Now here we are, all these many months later, with high positivity rates that are proof we still don’t have the testing and contact tracing resources we need to keep up with the virus.
After every wave, the Competent Authority has taken a premature victory lap.
There has been a lot of self-congratulations and very little self-reflection. I remind the Member for Bamboo Town that if you do it right the first time, you don’t have to do it again. So there is little comfort that present wave will soon be flattened. Done right the first time, there would not have been a wave to flatten.
5. Under the Emergency Orders, the Economy Has Been Devastated
Mr. Speaker, the Competent Authority’s over-reliance on blunt instruments like lockdowns and curfews and the under-investment in tools like testing and tracing have meant COVID has had a much harsher impact on our economy than was necessary.
The lack of planning, the flip-flopping, the haphazard restrictions that are announced and then reversed, the dozens of confusing and contradictory rules – all of this has made planning impossible for families and businesses.
This is why the “it was Covid’s fault, don’t blame me” excuse wears thin. Because it was the policy choices made by the Competent Authority that hurt the economy and delayed our recovery.
6.Under the Emergency Orders, the Competent Authority Has Failed to Protect Bahamians
Mr. Speaker, not once during this pandemic has the government offered the people a comprehensive plan to manage the health and economic emergency.
As a result, the country has moved from crisis to crisis. The government is stuck in a cycle of under-preparing and then scrambling to cope.
The Competent Authority has failed again and again to plan ahead. It was clear that Delta posed an enormous risk to our country, yet the government was caught unprepared.
The Competent Authority failed to obtain enough vaccines; we are hundreds of thousands of doses short.
The Competent Authority failed to sufficiently expand testing capacity and to make testing free and accessible.
The Competent Authority failed to use contact tracing quickly to stay ahead of outbreaks. It is only after thousands of new cases that we are told that contact tracing teams are now being fortified.
The Competent Authority has failed to sufficiently expand public health capacity. When the threat of more transmissible variants has been clear for months, why is it only now that we are rushing to add ICU capacity and health care personnel?
The Competent Authority failed to consult with local medical professionals, who have been forced to provide their advice via the media.
One of the recommendations doctors and nurses made was to require a negative COVID test from both vaccinated and unvaccinated travellers. They understood that although the data on vaccines preventing serious illness and death was excellent, there was less information at the time about whether vaccinated individuals could transmit the virus. The Competent Authority failed to require negative tests from ALL visitors, only reversing course recently.
The Competent Authority failed to implement a public education campaign, leaving Bahamians without the information they need to keep themselves and their families safe.
How many hours have been spent creating deranged and deceitful advertisements against me, by the Competent Authority? Couldn’t just a little bit of his attention been directed instead tan effort to make medical professionals available, in order to keep Bahamians updated about this deadly new virus? Why not take the time to understand and address medical questions and concerns about the vaccines, instead of just patronizingly telling people to not be afraid of a needle?
The Competent Authority has also failed to provide frontline workers and the public with high-quality protective masks, even though we know that cloth masks are not enough protection from the Delta variant for those who work inside and are exposed to large gatherings.
The Competent Authority has failed to provide guidance and support for improving ventilation and air quality in homes, schools, churches, and workplaces, even though it’s been clear for more than a year that COVID is largely an airborne virus.
The Competent Authority has failed to inspire trust from the public – in part because he has failed to provide scientific rationales for his restrictions.
7. Under the Emergency Orders, Corruption Has Flourished
Despite the dismal record of failure just outlined, and despite earlier promises that the State of Emergency would end on August 13, the Competent Authority of One is asking us today to extend his extraordinary powers.
It is relevant, I think, to note here that since last March, he has had the power to reward his political donors and insiders with pandemic spending contracts – without being transparent or accountable and without having to debate his choices in this House or defend his decisions to the public.
The anti-corruption non-profit group Transparency International has said COVID-19 is a corruption crisis as well as a health and economic crisis. In their report they talk about the importance of ensuring that funds for COVID treatment and relief are “not lost to corruption and reach the intended recipients”.
So on the one hand, we have Transparency International recommending that countries ensure open and transparent contracting.
And then on the other hand, the Competent Authority has so far refused to answer the simplest questions from the Bahamian public — questions, like: Who was paid how much, and for what?
Millions borrowed in the name of the people – don’t the people deserve answers?
Now this morning there is a new but not surprising damning report from the Auditor General regarding how the Government used the proceeds from the emergency $250 million IMF loan.
The Auditor General was given a list of companies that “received payments for the delivery of goods and services related to COVID-19”; he then requested information about the beneficial ownership of these companies. What that means is – who really owns these companies? The concern is that shell companies are being used to hide the true owners. The government has not provided to the Auditor General the information requested– even though the failure to disclose the real owners of these companies means that The Bahamas may be failing to meet a key commitment made to the IMF in return for receiving the $250 million loan.
The Auditor General quoted the IMF: “Knowing who ultimately owns companies (their beneficial owners) is a key piece of data that allows governments and citizens to check that money is going where intended.”
The Auditor General also noted that disclosing the real beneficiaries of public contracts is “pivotal” to reducing the “risks associated with the abuse of public funds”.
Mr. Speaker, I don’t want anyone to get lost in the technical details.
It’s pretty simple in the end. The greater the lengths they go to hide their spending contracts, the more suspicious the public is, and with good reason.
And, Mr. Speaker, in the middle of all these hidden deals, we can’t forget that the Competent Authority also used his emergency powers to create a travel visa that we didn’t need.
You will recall that the government had months to prepare for the second reopening of our borders – months in which to create a system for screening travellers. But somehow, instead, they told us, they had to move so quickly that they couldn’t use the normal procurement process to choose a digital payments company. No, instead, they needed to hand-pick one, and prevent others from competing for the contract. The best one, they said, just happened to have their National Campaign Coordinator as a director and shareholder.
And it was essential, they told us, to allow this private company to keep the money collected from travel visa fees in their own bank account. Not a single dollar of that came into the national treasury until we started asking questions.
Where is that contract, Killarney?
8. So Why Another Extension?
The last time the Competent Authority came to this House and asked for an extension of his vast powers, he told us that it would be over in August.
He thought at the time the election would be in August, too, although of course he never misses an opportunity to remind Bahamians that he’s the only one in the country who gets to know the date of the election.
That timing would have worked better for him, Mr. Speaker. Because as you know, the Emergency Orders require him to lay a report before Parliament detailing his expenditures within six weeks of the expiration of a proclamation of emergency.
I believe the Competent Authority would much prefer to have his pandemic expenditures detailed after an election, rather than before.
And so here we are. The Attorney General said last October that he was preparing legislation so the State of Emergency could end, and health measures could be enacted via ordinary legislation.
Then he said the same thing in February.
Now it is August.
They don’t have much respect for the Bahamian people, do they, to think we can’t see what’s going on here, that somehow the moment for ending these extraordinary emergency powers always gets pushed to the future?
9. No more Competent Authority of One
We have said for a long time that public health measures can be enacted via ordinary legislation, and that it is preferable to do so.
That is still our position.
But now the government has put the country in the following position:
Cases, and hospitalizations, and deaths are rising –and no new public health legislation is ready – despite earlier promises.
The Prime Minister has been given vast powers, and he has failed us.
PM has been given great power, and failed.
We recommend that the Competent Authority be expanded to include multiple senior medical and public health professionals.
For all the reasons I’ve outlined, it would be foolish to continue on this same path and expect a better result. Hence, we do NOT support the Extension of the Emergency Order. We DO, however, support public health and safety measures being brought through ordinary legislation.
The Competent Authority’s decision-making has left us in the worst of all worlds: Bahamians have suffered serious infringements of our civil liberties while facing worse COVID outcomes than regional neighbours, and in the meantime, the economy has been devastated, and hidden insider spending deals have flourished. That is a bleak picture, but that is our reality.
There is too much at stake to let the decision-making continue to rest with one man alone. He may say he consults his Cabinet, but he is not required to do so under these Orders, and it is hardly reassuring in any case.
10. A Better Way Forward
Mr. Speaker, I want to finish by talking about a better way forward.
We have a serious fight on our hands in this country.
The Delta variant is believed to be more than twice as transmissible as the original COVID-19 virus.
With the original virus, on average, one infected individual would pass the virus on to about 2 other people. But with Delta, on average the virus will be passed on to between 5 to 8 other people. You can see how urgent it is that we stop Delta. We know we can’t afford to have that kind of exponential spread here.
We need real leadership, and a comprehensive plan. Adjusting the curfew by one hour forward, and one hour back, and then an hour forward again – this is nonsense and not a sufficient policy response.
I want all Bahamians to know that I agree that vaccines are the best way to keep Bahamians safe from the worst outcomes and I encourage all Bahamians to get vaccinated and if hesitant, seek medical advice from their Physician.
I could not be happier about the news this morning that the United States will provide Pfizer doses to our country.
The United States is taking the battle against COVID beyond its borders, donating vaccines across the globe. We’re grateful for the more than 800,000 Pfizer vaccines donated to Caribbean nations. Along with Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua, St. Kitts and Nevis, The Bahamas will finally get an influx of much-needed vaccines.
Those vaccines are going to save a lot of lives.
But the virus is spreading right now.
Once the vaccines arrive, and are distributed, most Bahamians will still be many weeks from building robust immunity.
So we need to step up other protections.
We have put out a 10-point plan. I hope everyone will take a look at it on plpbahamas.org —
We need to expand testing and tracing.
We need to continue to expand public health capacity – this is not close to over.
We need to hold public education town hall meetings (virtually or otherwise) – so Bahamians can get their questions about the virus and about the vaccines answered by medical professionals.
We need to make sure all visitors test negative before coming to The Bahamas.
We need to make high-quality medical-grade masks available to front-line workers and the public (especially with the highly transmissible Delta variant, the quality of the mask matters).
We need to talk to Bahamians about how to reduce airborne transmission of the virus using ventilation.
We need to offer more support for COVID-positive patients who need to isolate.
And finally, any rules and restrictions that govern Bahamians’ lives must be justified by science that is presented to the public.
This is the way to show you respect Bahamians.
Stay safe, my fellow citizens, and May God Bless The Bahamas.