NASSAU, BAHAMAS –More than six months after Hurricane Dorian wiped out the majority of shantytowns on Abaco, another possible “storm” once again threatens those communities throughout The Bahamas.
As of yesterday, health officials have confirmed nine cases of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in The Bahamas and have established that there has been community transmission.
While all efforts are being made to implement curfews, strict social distancing policies and inform the public of precautionary measures, there has been slow movement in some of the most vulnerable communities in the country – shantytowns.
Some fear that if nothing is done to prevent the spread of the respiratory illness, it could mean a repeat in the widespread devastation experienced just a few months prior.
In early September, Dorian decimated portions of Abaco and Grand Bahama, leaving thousands displaced and at least 75 people dead.
The two largest shantytowns on Abaco – the Mudd and the Pigeon Peas were destroyed – and the land where those homes once stood is still being cleaned and bodies of Dorian victims were still being recovered up to two weeks ago.
Families have yet to bury their dead and continue to mourn the missing, but residents acknowledge that there could be another storm brewing for the island.
Denalee Penn-Mackey, cofounder of ‘Abaco Will Rise’ and principal of Evergreen Mortuary told Eyewitness News yesterday that residents on the island “are more concerned about this COVID-19 situation because Abaco is almost like it is still in a state of emergency”.
Penn-Mackey noted that there are still people on the island who have no electricity, no running water and are still living in tents, in addition to the lack of healthcare services available.
She pointed to the remaining displaced communities now scattered throughout different shelters on Abaco.
At last report, the government was still struggling to begin cleanup efforts in the Farm shantytown on Abaco as some 75 families still remained in the area in the aftermath of the deadly storm.
Residents have also sounded the alarm over dozens of displaced shantytown residents living in close quarters in churches in Marsh Harbour – with insufficient access to proper sanitation
“What happens if one person is infected?,” Penn-Mackey said.
“We are going to have a domino effect where everybody is going to be infected and we are going to have to put another trailer in the back of the hospital to put those bodies in again.”
She continued, “Right now what Abaco is preparing for is another storm. That storm is COVID-19.”
When asked about matter during a press conference announcing the latest cases, Health Minister Dr. Duane Sands admitted that efforts have to be redoubled to get the message out to every community identified.
“We understand that there are some exigencies that have led to circumstances,” he said, “but as best as possible everybody needs to adopt the recommended policy of social distancing.”
New Providence shantytowns
Last week, when Eyewitness News visited shantytown communities in the Carmichael Road area, some residents were still unaware of the global pandemic and had yet to take the necessary precautions to reduce its spread locally.
In one shantytown just off of Cowpen Road, a 27-year-old who identified himself only as Stanley, said he did not know about the virus and was just hearing about it as Human Rights Bahamas canvased the areas.
After receiving a brief synopsis on the threat and ways to mitigate its spread, Stanley insisted that he was not afraid because he now knew what to do.
Another resident, who asked not to be identified, said he has heard about the virus “around the city” and had already went shopping to ensure he and his family follow recommendations.
That village has three wells as its main source of water where residents pitch using a bucket and rope.
All however were not so confident in the ability of the community to stave off the possibly deadly virus, as one resident expressed that it could become a breeding ground if just one person is infected.
In another shantytown just down the street, residents were similarly unaware of the dangers, contending that “God will not let it come here”.
That community also relies on wells and hand-pumps as their main source of water.
The makeshift homes in shantytowns are built close together and the communities have continuously been labeled as “unsanitary”.
A 2018 report on New Providence shantytowns revealed that more than 1,400 people live in shantytowns on the country’s main island.
Additionally, officials assessed over 400 households, of which only 22 percent (96) had running water.
The number of residents living those communities is believed to have increased in the aftermath of the deadly Category 5 storm.
Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis has told Parliament “It is mandatory that we remove all shantytowns within our territory. They break our laws. They are unsafe. They are unhealthy. They are health risks and they’re unhygienic.”
But despite this administration’s best efforts to eradicate the communities, it took an act of mother nature to do what the government sought to accomplish through policy.
The government remains in a lengthy legal battle over an injunction barring it from demolishing shantytowns on New Providence and Abaco.
With greater risks posed amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, the government must ensure that efforts to mitigate the spread in those areas are also implemented.
Officials have just recently began to disseminate information in both Creole and English.
Members of the League of Haitian Pastors spoke with the prime minister and met with the Ministry of Health last Thursday to receive advice on the recommended precautions.