In its October 8 editorial entitled “Dying in a Leadership Vacuum”, the New England Journal of Medicine opined that leadership in the United States’ fight against COVID-19 had “failed the test”, and had “taken a crisis and turned it into a tragedy”.
Apologists insist that pandemic-weary Bahamians should stop complaining and accept the country’s quality of leadership in its pandemic response since no government has been through this kind of crisis before.
COVID-19 is no respecter of persons, and has enlisted all heads of government regardless of their levels of experience, in a common battle against a common unseen enemy of health and economic and social viability.
But not all battle commands are created equal.
Statistics show that The Bahamas has the worst performance of all English-speaking Caribbean countries in its pandemic response.
This disappointing position is not as a result of inferior medical professionals and scientists, nor is it due to Bahamians being less compliant and cooperative than their regional counterparts.
Where The Bahamas finds itself in the COVID-19 fight today is not a function of who Bahamians are, but rather how the country’s COVID-19 outbreak is being managed, which, at the end of the day, comes down to leadership.
Though COVID-19 is a new threat for all world leaders, principles of good leadership are universal and, if adopted, can maximize opportunities for realizing the best outcomes whether an individual has governed through multiple pandemics or none at all.
Last week’s press conference held by Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis was a textbook case in how a national crisis should not be responded to, and ultimately revealed that notwithstanding platitudes to the contrary, the nation’s leader recognizes that the country’s pandemic response is nothing to boast about.
THE COMPETENT AUTHORITY
Leadership is about responsibility.
The prime minister, and he alone, is the competent authority in The Bahamas’ ongoing state of emergency.
The governor general is a creature of instruction, which means he or she acts on the advice of the Cabinet and the prime minister.
The governor general’s Emergency Powers COVID-19 Regulations stipulate that the prime minister, as the competent authority, is empowered to make the emergency rules governing how the country functions.
But it is important for Bahamians to understand that the one-man rule dynamic currently in operation is not mandated in law, and is instead a creature of control carved out for the current prime minister.
Chapter 34, Section 3(3) of the Emergency Powers Act states: “Emergency regulations may empower such authorities or persons as may be specified in the regulations to make orders and rules for any of the purposes for which such regulations are authorized by this Act to be made.”
The act makes no mention of a competent authority, and as a point of context, similar legislation throughout the region empowers the Cabinet to make such orders and rules.
Article 72 of the constitution states: “There shall be a Cabinet for The Bahamas which shall have the general direction and control of the government of The Bahamas.”
What this article represents is the determination of the framers of our constitution that the authority of governance in The Bahamas is to rest in the hands of the Cabinet and not in a prime minister.
When the governor general’s regulations were drafted to put emergency rule in the hands of the prime minister alone, the effect was an untenable power grab for the nation’s leader.
Yet Cabinet assented to this – though it did not have to do so – thereby putting its constitutionally collective authority during the COVID-19 pandemic into the hands of just one minister, the prime minister.
In so doing, the Cabinet demonstrated to The Bahamas and the world that it does not understand its own authority, and set itself up for what became the adoption of sweeping and controversial emergency decrees of local and international significance, that were decided upon and announced without the prior knowledge of Cabinet ministers.
When questioned by a reporter last week on who comprises the competent authority, Minnis responded, “The competent authority is the voice of Cabinet… I am only representing the conclusion came to by Cabinet, so the competent authority is only the voice of Cabinet.”
It was a statement indicative of a leader who was effusive in self-commendation during the first wave of the country’s outbreak, but who now seeks to give himself the appearance of man who is merely a mouthpiece in the ongoing crisis, putting responsibility for the management and outcome of the disastrous second wave on the collective rather than self.
Without recognizing it, the prime minister discredited himself as a leader in that moment, casting aside a basic tenet of leadership, which is taking responsibility for one’s decisions and for outcomes under one’s charge.
In our July 27, 2020 piece, “COVID quagmire”, we spoke to the dangers of prolonged states of emergency rule in a democracy that suspend fundamental rights.
We also stressed that the government ought to return to constitutional governance with normal parliamentary oversight, introducing new and amended legislation to manage its pandemic response moving forward as has been seen in countries including Great Britain where a state of emergency was never instituted.
When questioned last week on how long The Bahamas will remain under emergency rule, Minnis said he did not know, adding that “health professionals are doing an excellent job, as the data demonstrates, [and] we expect to see great improvements and once we reach that level, I would hope to remove those emergency orders”.
But the country already reached a level of great improvements and controlled community spread once before, yet the prime minister, with the fully anticipated consent of Parliament, moved to hold onto the power arrogated to himself.
On May 27 and on the heels of a flattened curve and COVID-19 hospitalizations at six, Minnis tabled a resolution to extend the state of emergency to June 29, even though the country had already reached a trending point of controlling its COVID-19 outbreak, which the prime minister affirmed from the floor of Parliament.
Between June 2 and July 8, The Bahamas recorded just four new confirmed cases of COVID-19.
There were just two people hospitalized for the disease during that period, falling to a low of zero hospitalizations for over three weeks between June 26 and July 20; and COVID-19 deaths held at 11 for over three months between April 23 and July 30.
Despite these sustained accomplishments, emergency rule under the hand of one man would not be relinquished.
Sufficient evidence has presented itself that unless the Bahamian people go beyond social media complaints to demanding that constitutional governance be returned to The Bahamas, the prime minister could very well seek to keep the country under a state of suspended constitutional rights and one-man rule well into 2021, and as close to the next general election as he desires.
WHY BAHAMIANS ARE FED UP
Leadership is about accountability and transparency.
Good leadership also involves the willingness to embrace and invite opposing views, and be guided by sound and credible advice to promote the best interests of the masses.
Decision-making in the COVID-19 crisis is a delicate balancing act to be sure, but what has frustrated Bahamians to the point of exasperation, are decisions that do not appear consistent with science or for which no supporting data is provided; inconsistent applications of emergency rules; and rules that appear to cater to special interests.
When questioned last week on whether the government planned to cause free COVID-19 testing on demand to be available for Bahamians unable to afford it, Minnis nonsensically dubbed the matter a PLP fantasy, stating that the opposition must “face realities”.
The realities are that without robust testing and contact tracing, there can be no sustained containment of COVID-19, and The Bahamas will not be able to achieve its pandemic response objectives unless widespread and affordable testing is made available throughout the country.
Notwithstanding the prime minister’s added response that public hospitals conduct free testing, the public health system does not conduct testing on demand, which for now is only being administered by the private sector at prohibitive costs.
When questioned on whether the government is prepared for new COVID-19 cases if it removes the 14-day quarantine order for incoming travelers, Minnis threw the burden to the Bahamian people, stating that the public must adhere to safety guidelines to fight COVID-19, and that “government cannot do it all”.
While it is true that the government cannot do it all, border protection is the responsibility of the government, and all governments ought to be prepared for the outcomes of entry policies whether in or out of a pandemic.
Heated debate has persisted on the closure of public beaches in response to new COVID-19 outbreaks, with Bahamians calling for data to support the measure.
And now that the country has relaunched its commercial tourism product, public beaches and parks on New Providence and throughout the country will be open, sending the message that both venues are suddenly safe, notwithstanding continued community spread.
Meantime, when questioned on why in-sanctuary church services are permitted to continue throughout the country while weddings and funerals in a church are prohibited on islands under tightened restrictive measures, Minnis explained that mourning at funerals leads to embracing, shouting, screaming with hands in the air and individuals having to be taken away.
Anyone who attends a church under various charismatic and pentecostal denominations, knows this description fits a typical Sunday morning service therein.
But the prime minister went on to indicate that the current restrictions for weddings and funerals on such islands are “based on data”.
A look at data from the island of Eleuthera, where cases have spiked in recent weeks, however, casts doubt on how much of the existing data drives the competent authority’s decision making.
Graphs produced by the Ministry of Health show that four of the island’s cases contracted COVID-19 at church, and another four at an AirBnB party, even as emergency orders continue to permit private parties of up to 20 people on islands including Eleuthera.
The workplace is cited by health officials as a leading site of COVID-19 transmission, second to the home.
Minnis was questioned on whether the government has made determinations regarding workers who assert that they should not bear the cost of COVID-19 testing if they were exposed to the virus while on the job, and said the matter was still under discussion.
The opposition has recommended that exposure to COVID-19 on the job be designated as an industrial accident in law, thereby making workers eligible for requisite National Insurance Board benefits.
The prime minister went on to respond to the reporter through the awkward false equivalence of, “I was exposed. I’m here locked down for 14 days, these are the realities.”
Those realities, which the prime minister regrettably overlooked, are that, as his employer, the Bahamian people not only pay for his health insurance plan as a Cabinet minister, but shoulder the cost of any test or services he must undertake in order to be cleared from quarantine.
On the matter of exposure to the virus, it is noteworthy to consider that the government had previously defined exposure as interaction without a mask and physical distance for a period of 15 minutes or more.
The prime minister’s exposure to COVID-19 and that of other ministers in quarantine, is thought to have occurred in Cabinet via contact with Minister of Public Works Desmond Bannister.
So, if we take the government’s exposure definition as the standard, the obvious question is whether the competent authority ensured that he and the Cabinet are adhering to his emergency orders which call for six feet of physical distancing, and the wearing of masks.
LEADERSHIP MAKES THE DIFFERENCE
The last eight months of the COVID-19 response have been immeasurably painful for the Bahamian people, and together with the unprecedented destruction and anguish of Hurricane Dorian, make for over a year of sustained and historic loss.
Responsible, trustworthy and competent leadership that honors the principles of democratic governance, and acknowledges the interests of all segments of society through policies that adequately take their needs into account, inspires the kind of confidence the public needs to encourage ongoing compliance and cooperation.
Bahamians typically give their leaders much more leeway than should be granted in a democracy, and will generally give their support once the goal is well-defined and their needs can be adequately addressed.
But shifting goalposts, policy failures, unaddressed needs of vulnerable populations and unpredictable and, in some cases, irrational emergency edicts, have created such a wide public trust deficit that many Bahamians are no longer interested in the goal such as it may be, and simply want emergency restrictions to end.
Since the Bahamian people are indispensable in winning the COVID-19 battle, leadership that violates their trust sabotages the battle before it has a viable chance to be won.
What many Bahamians took from the prime minister’s comments about who the competent authority is, was that the nation’s leader was now adopting a “blame them, not me” position, even while holding the keys to who can move and make a living in their own country.
Whether in victory or in defeat, leaders of all sectors of society must accept responsibility for how their leadership impacts those they lead.
Leaders who are unwilling to own their failures, recognize their shortcomings and make necessary changes for the benefit of those who follow, are not worthy of those who follow.
PERSPECTIVE APPEARS MONDAYS IN THE NASSAU GUARDIAN