NICOLETTE BETHEL WRITES ABOUT THE FNM’S IGNORANCE

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(In this fascinating essay by Dr. Nicolette Bethel of the University of The Bahamas, she explains the chaos on our streets in the face of the policies of the FNM on the Covid 19 crisis. She says it comes down to three things: ignorance, lack of trust and a failure to understand human behaviour in the face of a bad set of choices, invidious choices between life and death. – Editor)

Governance in a Time of Corona

AUGUST 18, 2020

 BY NICOLETTE BETHEL

note to all: the below was written over a period of 18 hours from last night shortly after the announcement to this time today. In that time, several things have changed, including the rolling back of the lockdown. Nevertheless, the observations hold. I am posting this now in the hopes that we will use this error to craft something more appropriate and workable for everyone, even the least among us.

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I was an early supporter of lockdowns.

During the first one, I was all for them. Restrict movement, distance socially, cover your face, wash your hands … all of it. I was relieved and happy when we shut the country down, especially the borders. I was happy when the borders were closed. It made me feel safe. 

This lockdown is not the same. 

I doubt seriously it will achieve what it’s supposed to achieve. Times change, people change, and lightning doesn’t strike twice. These are things politicians seem to have a hard time understanding.

Know this: 

We got it right the first time. 

We got it right, flattened the curve, slowed the spread, limited the infections to three islands, controlled the death rate, contacted the infected. We did well.

And then we got it so very wrong. 

Here’s why opening the borders was such a bad idea. It’s not just that people travelled to Miami, where the infection rate was high; it’s not just that we allowed people from Florida to land all over our archipelago. It’s that we didn’t understand what was so unique about us and our COVID-19 infections in the first place.

During the first wave, the primary source of transmission was community spread.

That means that the vast majority of those who tested positive in the first wave of CV19 got it from other Bahamians. The majority of them didn’t have a history of travel. The majority of them hadn’t gone anywhere at all. We didn’t ask them the right questions at the time—or if we did, we didn’t publish the results—questions like, where do you work? What do you do? Questions whose goal was to work out how the virus was contracting and—more importantly—how it was spreading. 

Community spread is a red flag. It means that the virus is local, that it isn’t spread (as it was in other Caribbean nations) primarily by visitors. But it also means that, in an archipelago of islands separated by sea, it is relatively easy to control.

And control it we did.

And then we lost control. Because with community spread, the plan for controlling a virus in a chain of islands cannot include opening the borders, allowing indiscriminate travel, leaping from restriction to freedom in the space of a few weeks. That’s a sure way to ensure exponential rates of infection.

But that’s what we did. Now, our infection rate is only to be expected. The genie has escaped the bottle, and there’s no putting it back in again.

So here we are, facing lockdown again. I don’t expect this lockdown to work the way the last one did. I expect it to backfire instead. Sure, it may work in the Family Islands.  Family Islanders do not live side by side at in clumps of 3500 people per square mile, and Family Islanders can find ways that they can eat over a seven-day period. If they fish for subsistence, who’s going to stop them? If they load up on pears and dillies and mangoes and other seasonal fruit, who’s going to stop them? If they catch crabs while they’re walking and shoot pigeons or even slaughter chickens or goats, who’s going to stop them?

But in New Providence? Rather than controlling the spread in New Providence, I suspect that this lockdown going to ratchet the numbers up. 

Why?

Three main reasons:

1) Trust

2) Ignorance

3) Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy

I’ll start with the last one first. All the others follow on from it.

MaslowHierarchy.png

Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who studied human motivation:  how and why people make choices in their daily lives. People do not act irrationally. Their choices make sense in context. When the choices are easy, with limited consequence, like what to eat for dinner or which shirt to wear to work today, they may vary, and there’s really little need to develop predictors about what choices will be made. 

But when the choices are hard, when they are life and death choices, we really need to know.

Maslow proposed that human beings will weigh up situations and make the choice that meets their most immediate needs. What are the most pressing needs for any human being? Food, water, shelter. What are the next most pressing needs? Security and safety. After that come other things.

According to Maslow, when faced with hard choices—like whether to starve because you can’t get food, or whether to risk arrest and a fine in trying to get that food—human beings will risk the arrest and the fine. This is because safety is a less immediate need than food and water. The need for food trumps the fear of being caught. The fear of dying from a disease you might never catch is not a hungry person’s top priority. 

This is why it is futile to assume that this lockdown will work the way it did in the first few months. In the first few months, people had something to fall back on. The lockdown was gradual. People still had places to work, places to live. 

But now, Bahamians’ desperation has hardened. Individuals who have had no work since March have very little to lose. A fine and an arrest are not deterrents; there are no deterrents. If people cannot eat, or if people are facing eviction because they cannot work, they will do what they can to avoid the more certain outcome. Look at it this way. You’re locked down for seven days with no food in the house and a family to feed. Out there, the police are on patrol and the virus is running rampant. But in here, your children are crying and your stomach is screaming at you. What are you going to do?

What’s more, the fact that no one in positions of authority seems to have seriously considered this (you will note that almost all of the food distributors are charities, private organizations, not public agencies, despite that fact that every single man, woman and child pays taxes to our government with every single purchase we make) induces rage. Bob Marley said: A hungry man is an angry man, and to this we must pay attention. 

This is not lack of discipline, and it is not unruliness. It is real, it is need, and it is fundamentally human.

Locking down our society after five months of economic hardship, on a Monday (i.e. not a payday), with no official notice beyond WhatsApp voice notes, shows a profound ignorance of, and disregard for, human beings’ basic needs. And the fact that this lockdown was implemented without offering any further avenues for providing food and medication and water than those we blundered into providing during the first lockdown shows a gross disregard for the citizens of our nation. After five months of addressing the spectre of COVID, we seem to have learned nothing more than we started with. 

And that is unconscionable.

Because of that, people will transgress this lockdown (are already doing so). Because they have to. And for that they should not be blamed one whit. 

This lockdown will not achieve what it is intended to. It might in fact have the opposite effect. And the outcome is entirely predictable.

Ignorance

What stands out to me very clearly right now is ignorance.

I’m not thinking about the ignorance of the individual who chooses to break curfew, or even of the one who refuses to wear a mask. I’m talking about the real, studied, inexcusable ignorance of those in positions of power and authority about how this pandemic and the lockdowns have affected the Bahamian people. I call it ignorance because while we are touting the “science” and the “data” about the number of people who got sick and who are hospitalized, we appear not to have collected the data on what else has happened as a result of the pandemic and the lockdown.

We haven’t focused on any data about how many people are out of work, how many people are receiving NIB cheques (or are trying to), how many people are hungry, how many people are threatened with eviction or who have been evicted because they have no way of paying their rent. We are so very good at telling one another how many tourists landed in a given year or how many jobs some foreign investor will give us, but we have not published with any sense of accuracy how many people are hurting because of the first lockdown, or in what ways they are hurting. 

Do we even truly know?

Even when it comes to the disease itself, which is where we seem to have the best data of all, our knowledge is lacking. We may have asked the questions to trace those people who were infected; but did we use the data gained to understand the way in which Bahamians are spreading the virus? Did we utilize social network analysis to start to understand the webs of connections and thereby begin to predict how a second outbreak might behave? What did we do beyond identifying, tracing and testing contacts? Did we use the data we were gathering to help us plan our responses to a second wave or a third? Did we seek to understand why we didn’t see the virus on Family Islands, why we saw it in Nassau and Grand Bahama? What did we learn from the first wave?

Because not all of it was bad. There was a burgeoning of small businesses for a while: some people lost work but others were able to make money, to find more clients than ever before. But who was tracking that part of the economy? Who was cataloguing the good news? I ask because as we enter another lockdown, it seems clear to me that no one has analysed that data. No one has catalogued it, and no one certainly is using it to inform how we can maintain the safety of health officials and ordinary Bahamians at the same time as we boost those sectors of the economy that the lockdown benefitted. 

How might we have used that data to craft a different kind of lockdown, one which marries the medical, the social and the economic, to allow for us to keep people socially distant without making them hungry and desperate? How can we learn from the successes of the first period to find ways to boost other parts of the economy? Ordinary Bahamians have been throwing out ideas, working anecdotally. But the people who have the data? The people who could get it and use it to inform our actions? It seems not to have made a dent on them, the people advising the competent authority. As the ignorance—and the incompetence—of the decision-makers about this part of the economy grow clearer and clearer, ordinary people are losing respect for those decision-makers, and for their decisions, too. 

And because of that, this lockdown will not achieve what it intended to.

Trust

Which brings me to trust. 

This is the big one. The largest difference between this moment in the pandemic and the last one is that we have lost our trust in the people who are handling the situation. Back in March and in April, people waited to hear from Drs. Sands and Dahl-Regis and Forbes and Brennen because we believed what they told us. Why did we believe them? Well, for one thing, they were not afraid to say they didn’t know. They were clear about the situation; they explained it was new, it was changing, and they assured us that they were doing their best to be informed by best practice in crafting the national response. They gave facts. They attempted to explain. And when things changed, when their information changed, they shared it with us. They adjusted the response, and they explained how and why. They did it proactively, after having done research; they didn’t wait for public protest and outcry. Sometimes, even, they made adjustments before the world did (witness Dr. Sands’ decision to have us start to wear masks). And when they made mistakes, they apologized and they corrected their course. We felt confident that they cared, and they were doing their best to help us get through the pandemic together.

Press conferences no longer have that kind of impact. They are not discussions; they are lectures. We are admonished, not informed. And nothing changes. Decisions are made that are palpably idiotic—like allowing travel to and from one of the most infected states in one of the most infected countries in the world without any reasonable or rational precautions, or allowing  rich foreigners to travel all over our country while prohibiting citizens from leaving their homes—and then we try to dial back the clock, ducking and weaving and tossing off blame. 

And the trusted voices of the first lockdown have faded away, have moved aside. In their place we have men who are resistant to engaging the public. Who do not welcome questions, probably because they are not experts in the field, and they don’t have all the facts at their fingertips? Who react without giving us any confidence that they have really thought their way through—that they’ve examined alternatives and considered implications and crafted ways to mitigate the sacrifice for which they call? We’re now lagging behind the world’s response; the WHO is saying that extended lockdowns are no longer best practice, but we are extending lockdowns. There is no nimbleness, no creativity, no learning from past successes or mistakes to make it easier for us to survive these drastic days. 

In our country, whose population is smaller than most major world cities, it should not be impossible to put in place and enforce serious quarantines. It should also not be impossible to make quarantine comfortable for those who have to engage in it; we have sprawling hotel resorts that are closed down to all other business. We are good at tracing contacts; but what we are not good at doing is getting those contacts stay put. The result? We are being dealt with the way a poor teacher deals with a few naughty students in a class. The students are not singled out and handled; instead the whole class is thrown into detention. 

The result is inevitable. Today, too few Bahamians still trust the competent authority to exercise competence. We are convinced—because the actions of the competent authority have convinced us—that we are in this thing on our own. That we do not have the support and the assistance of our government. That our government is really only concerned about appeasing the wealthy and powerful and leaving the small woman to fend for herself. 

And when that happens, people make up their own minds. They take things into their own hands. They make their own decisions according to their own needs because that is what people do. Without reasoned, rational plans, we will do our own thing. 

That’s what we’ve been doing all August long, and I have no good reason to expect that the rest of the month, lockdown or no lockdown is going to be any different. Instead, I predict that it will simply get unrulier. We’re fighting for our lives. And the enemy for more and more of us is our government, not COVID-19.