The Racist Cost of a Pandemic Vacation in The Bahamas
Is our suffering worth the frolic on the beach and a few Instagram likes?
It has only been a year since Hurricane Dorian devastated Abaco and Grand Bahama in The Bahamas. The country has been reeling from its impact since September 2019, from unknown death tolls to the slow process of rebuilding. Now, the Covid-19 pandemic has been particularly difficult to contend with as people on the islands have just started to find their footing, only to lose it again.
With the first lockdown in March came the closing of the borders. It prompted resorts and hotels to close and put thousands of people out of work. This is not the first time that we’re forced to contend with the lingering effects of colonialism and the consequences of a tourism-dependent economy. Tourism is not only too susceptible to global events — especially those affecting North America — but a vehicle of oppression and a microcosm of a society frequently referred to as plantation-based. Black people are cogs in the wheels of capitalism, dizzying us as they turn, taking us nowhere.
People in critical positions — housekeeping, security, and food service — are paid low wages, increasing their dependence on tips and, by extension, deference, subservience, and the inability to say no. They work erratic shifts, miss special family occasions, and completely exhaust themselves if they pursue a degree to facilitate a career change.
The Bahamian dream, we joke, is to get a job at a mega-resort and build a duplex. That the common goals of individuals are not only tied to servitude but result in mere proximity to the middle-class experience speaks to our perceptions of our potential within this plantation-adjacent existence. We work to maintain paradise, but we can only observe others experiencing it.
Tourists seemed to have more freedom than residents; this should not have been surprising in a country that boasts casinos where residents are not permitted to play.
In March, the first lockdown was announced, borders closed, and resorts projected to reopen in July. With very little financial support available, people were desperate to get back to work. On July 1, the borders reopened to commercial vessels, and visitors were allowed to enter with Covid-19 test results up to 10 days old. There were reports of tourists being allowed to enter with fake Covid tests, enjoy closed beaches, and have destination weddings when Bahamians had to postpone or cancel their own events. Tourists seemed to have more freedom than residents; this should not have been surprising in a country that boasts casinos where residents are not permitted to play.
Within three weeks of the reopening, there were 70 new Covid-19 cases. For comparison, there were 104 cases on June 18, three months into the pandemic. In response, the government of The Bahamas announced that commercial flights would only be permitted to enter from Canada, the U.K., and EU countries as of July 22.
The government’s decision to restrict incoming commercial flights drew ire from potential tourists who took to social media to complain about this change. Some said The Bahamas needed to remember that it depends on American tourists to keep its economy going. A few went as far as to hope another hurricane hit the country and vowed not to offer any assistance.
These vile responses were a clear reminder of the power dynamic that exists in tourism. Bahamians are the workers, tourists are to be served, and the profits leave the country with mega-resort owners. For many tourists, Bahamians have no value outside of the labor they undertake to produce and maintain paradise. Most of this labor is either unseen or undervalued. Everyone knows The Bahamas is a beautiful destination. There is little understanding of our vulnerability as not only a small island developing state, but an archipelago with limited resources. Our health care system cannot take much more. While we are in crisis, people are worried about their vacation prospects.
Within days, the government of The Bahamas changed its position on commercial flights, allowing them to enter from anywhere and instituting a mandatory two-week quarantine. The second wave of Covid-19 infections is now much worse than the first and has forced another lockdown. On August 7, 69 new Covid-19 cases were recorded — the highest since the beginning of the pandemic — bringing the number of active cases to 719.
Commercial flights were still permitted to enter the country, but inter-island travel was prohibited for weeks. We were under lockdown again. Whether these changes were influenced most by economic need or diplomatic relations will likely remain unknown.
However, the priority has shifted, at least in part, from public health to economic restart. This shift in priorities has led to people traveling to The Bahamas from Covid-19 hot spots, and we were experiencing an exponential increase in cases. Our ICU reached its capacity. Our doctors and nurses, at one point, walked off the job, saying they were not adequately protected. One-quarter of our population is receiving food assistance.
Is this paradise? Is our suffering worth the frolic on the beach and a few Instagram likes? Most of us never get to experience the world we have built for others to escape. Most of us do not have the time or the energy to imagine something different, much less create it. Some of us are trying, but we will need to survive to make it happen.
We need U.S. dollars, so we need visitors to come, but not at the cost of our lives. If we can draw names to see who can attend a funeral, get married on Zoom, and postpone significant events, a dream vacation can wait a little longer. We still have to live here, to change here. We can’t let travel kill us first.