Nearly 200,000 people are registered to vote in general elections in The Bahamas on Thursday but the major concern among the citizenry appears not to be which of the two main parties will run the country for the next five years but whether the archipelago just south of Florida could deal with any new COVID-19 spikes accruing from breaches in social distancing rules and election campaigning.
Officials said that if the administration of advanced voting was anything to go by on Sunday, the country’s health system could come under even greater pressure than it is at the moment, as thousands lined up closely behind each other even while officials appealed to voters to follow the rules, at times without success.
As campaigning intensified at the weekend, the chair of the Public Hospitals Authority complained that the state hospitals system is already burdened down with pandemic patients as he appealed for common sense to prevail. Taking their cue from Dr. Julian Rolle, local media teams reported serious breaches of social distancing rules, noting that hundreds were huddled together closely as they stood in lines for up to three hours to cast their ballots on Sunday.
“Our doctors and nurses are worn out with the unrelenting pressure being caused by COVID-19. Presently, about five to 10 percent of our staff is quarantined due to exposure to the virus. Some staff members have had multiple quarantines and the number of staff unable to perform their duties due to quarantine has now reached the point where it’s becoming difficult to staff our facilities properly. The system is overburdened and facing unprecedented stress and cannot continue for much longer,” he said as last-minute campaigning intensified across the country.
Meanwhile, it would be a major political embarrassment for the governing Free National Movement (FNM) if the party of Prime Minister Hubert Minnis were to lose to the Progressive Labor Party (PLP) as it is heading into Thursday with 35 at the 39 seats won at the 2017 contest. Minnis called the elections nearly a year ahead of the constitutional deadline, fearing that the economic situation in the tourist paradise was declining too rapidly to wait until next year. The effects of the national lockdown during the height of the pandemic in the past year and others confined to specific areas also motivated the FNM to seek a renewed mandate.
For its part, the PLP has been railing about corruption in The Bahamas and what it says is Minnis’ inept handling of the pandemic and the economy. The FNM counters that pandemic apart, economic fortunes have also taken a beating thanks largely to the ravages, the trail of death and destruction left by superstorms Dorian and Irma in the past three years.
Of those vying for seats in the 39-member assembly, 55 are multimillionaires including PM Minnis. He has a net worth of US$38M. Opposition leader and prime ministerial hopeful Phillip Davis says he is only worth just over $4 million. Davis is an attorney. Tourism Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar says he is good also for $38 million.
Both the 15-nation Caribbean Community and the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS) have sent observer missions to monitor the elections. Early on Monday, authorities green lighted the ability of persons in COVID quarantine to vote but they must return home immediately after casting ballots. How these persons will be monitored is unclear but National Infectious Diseases boss Dr. Nikkiah Forbes says this is a recipe for increased infection rates.
“If that scenario happens with persons in the same space, there will be a potential for COVID transmission. So, that could be safely done, for example, if it were online or some other remote forum, but the practiced recommendation is that persons who are positive should be in isolation,” she told reporters.