For those who are unaware, the title photo was taken yesterday outside of a supermarket in Barbados, hours before a government-mandated 24-hour shutdown due to the spread of covid-19 in the country. As of April 3, our cases had risen to 51, the first two having been announced on March 17. Following the acting Prime Minister’s statement during the day on Thursday that supermarkets and minimarts would be closed to physical purchasing, on Friday morning, the place went beserk, with extremely long lines, lack of physical distancing, flared tempers, pushing and shoving and even fights.
Knowing how covid-19 spreads, many of us looked on in shock and anger at some of the photos and videos that had of course made their way around Whatsapp from as early as 7:00am because the crowds were the perfect breeding ground for this extremely infectious disease to spread like wildfire. All it would take would be one or two people who weren’t yet aware that they were ill and bam! our cases would increase exponentially.
However, let’s take a few steps back from this and look at why persons would possibly risk their lives and in some cases, fight while at the supermarket the day a 24-hour shutdown is scheduled to begin when arguably the majority of the population knew instinctively that it was going to happen sooner or later. Could it be that Bajans are inherently last-minute creatures of habit? That scores of people have been recently laid off and therefore could not purchase more than a few items at a time, leading to the fear of not having food at home for an extended period? That children mowed through the food that had already been purchased so a re-stock was necessary? That some people came out to buy only snacks? I think it’s all of the above coupled with the fact that we have become a very impatient and angry society.
The truth is, everyone cannot afford to bulk-shop. I would estimate that the majority of persons living in Barbados cannot do so. Yesterday showed that we (1) have a larger socio-economic issue on our hands than we would like to admit and (2) are very fearful of the unknown and will do anything to protect our families, including throw everything we heard over the past few weeks about social and physical distancing out of the window.
In a perfect world, Barbados could have closed its borders to tourists weeks ago, we would have mandatorily quarantined all Bajans who came back home for 14 days in well-appointed facilities, we would have tested every single person who came through the airport. These measures would have gone on at least for a few months until we heard that no new cases were announced worldwide. We would have been fine because we don’t depend on tourism to the extent that we do, we grow the majority of our own food and our citizens and residents, even if told to stay inside as an additional precaution, would have listened because we follow the rules.
We do not live in a perfect world. We have poor and working poor. We live paycheck to paycheck. We depend heavily on tourism and as a government we are trying to look down the road and be hospitable to others (see the 35 Trinidadians quarantined here after their government closed their borders to everyone and the myriad cruise ships sitting like sad sacks in and around the south coast of Barbados). Many of our companies were woefully underprepared for any type of shutdown. We couldn’t afford to have adequate police and/or army presence outside of each food retail and bottled gas establishment yesterday and still have some left over to police the country. We thought we would trust our citizens who returned from overseas to stay home for 14 days so we let them go home after leaving the airport and some of them stupidly left home and infected people. We kept our borders open. We have now but for a few places, shut shop.
We are all experts. Should we have done what St. Lucia did and move to a 24-hour curfew immediately? We would have risked a riot. Should we have done what Tortola did and shut down for a week then let persons come out for 3 days to shop? The lines and crowds yesterday in that country were just as long and thick as those in Barbados and as for the alphabetical surname shopping plan? Well, as expected, some decided to flout it, therefore defeating its purpose. Should we have followed Grenada’s example and closed but allowed one person per household to shop on specific days, confined to their immediate area? Who knows, that may have worked but requires proper policing.
If we had the resources (and I do not know if we had) and we didn’t want to resort to closing our borders I think we could have mandated that everyone coming in be quarantined in a facility for the requisite number of days. If we closed, we could have kept the supermarkets open and instituted an age group system (I saw that Walmart is doing this, have yet to see if it works), where on specific days one person with ID can shop.
I don’t know if any of that would have worked but what I do know is that when backed into a corner a human being’s ‘fight or flight’ mentality comes flying out. We are now at a stage where we have 51 cases in a population of less than 300,000, with the first few cases announced not even a month ago. A government must have an inherent understanding of its people, which includes their propensity to not follow the rules. This is not a time to be nice, this is a time to be firm but while protecting the most vulnerable. Yesterday was an example of our dropping the ball in the worst way.
I hope that the village shops will be fully stocked in order to service the respective communities and that the online delivery services for supermarkets can be fully up and running as soon as possible and can cover persons who do not have computers (e.g. perhaps Whatsapp can be put to use as our PM alluded to last evening) and that cash can be used as everyone does not have a debit or credit card.
Let me say that I do not envy our leaders at this point and wish them the very best at this time. It is not easy and we need to give them our support. We also need to support each other and do our part to stop this mess from spreading. We owe it to ourselves and to our country,