The coronavirus pandemic has placed Bonaire into a serious crisis. All attention is correctly focused on the immediate emergency. But at some point we will need to focus on the future. It will not be like the past. The world has changed. We will also have to adjust. This is a reset moment. In fact, we can create an opportunity out of this crisis for a prosperous future for Bonaire. We should be a “Mindful (and Safe) Retreat” for the “Creative Class.”
– Focus now on quarantines and income support: The current coronavirus crisis is serious. The immediate task for policy makers is to ensure that Bonaire remains safe – via appropriate quarantine measures; that health care is maintained; and basic income support is provided so there is no further rise in poverty.
– Already Plan for the future: While the attention is on the crisis, there is an opportunity to also carve out a prosperous future for Bonaire that is better in line with our true past and our identity. We were never meant to be a mass tourism destination. Here is a chance to correct course.
– Build a “Mindful (and Healthy) Brand: We can use this crisis to create a path towards a “high quality, low volume” and “mindful (and healthy)” brand for Bonaire. This better utilises Bonaire’s cultural and environmental advantages, leverages our competitive edge as an “unspoiled, unhurried, unforgettable” place, and also creates a superior and sustainable economic model.
– Be a Paradise Free of Worries with No Coronavirus in the Future: Securing Bonaire as a “coronavirus” (and disease) free island should be a key goal in our strategy. In a world, panicked about well-being, we can offer a paradise free of worries. This can be achieved by ensuring that there is no coronavirus (or other communicable diseases) on Bonaire via wide spread testing. To prevent new infections, we can restrict arrival to those who are either a) tested; b) certified as disease free; or c) quarantined. Such an approach not only protects Bonaireans, but also re-enforces our brand as a “mindful (and healthy) island. This is a premium advantage for which high end tourists and quality residents would be willing to pay better margins. We should be selective in who is attracted to Bonaire.
– Invest in New Capacity: Alongside securing Bonaire, we should invest in infrastructure, education and public-private partnerships to develop the “hard” and “soft” capacity to support a mindful (and healthy) island.
– Be a Destination for the World’s “Creatives”: We should make Bonaire selective and try to attract value adding “creatives” to the island – entrepreneurs, innovators, digital nomads, artists, musicians, and others who add value to Bonaire and are more in line with our natural and free spirit. We should be a Mindful (and Safe) Retreat for the Creative Class.
Creating Opportunity Out of Crisis: A Prosperous Future for Bonaire
Crisis as Opportunity
It is often said – a bit incorrectly – that the Chinese word for crisis “wēijī” is also the same as opportunity. Be that as it may, throughout history, even as crisis are underway, opportunities present themselves. There is no question that the focus has to be on immediate solutions that need to be prioritised in these moments of adversity. But crisis also offer a chance to substantially correct course towards a more prosperous future.
Bonaire is in that moment of crisis and opportunity. While attending to the immediate crisis has to be the priority — and it will be hard to focus on anything but the emergency — this is also an opportunity to design a prosperous future for Bonaire.
True leadership is about both addressing the current crisis, and charting a clear path to a better tomorrow.
In a World of Globalisation, no Island is an Island
Let us start with a basic acknowledgement: in a world of globalisation, no island is an island. What happens in one part of the world will affect another. The coronavirus crisis is amply proving the point about global connectivity.
A microbe that jumped from animal-to-human in faraway Hubei province in China, and was unknown to most of us in early January, has within a few months, paralyzed the world. It has affected wealthy regions like Northern Italy, struck fear in the hearts and minds of Europe, sent America into recession, and stopped life on small island communities like ours.
Attending to The Immediate Crisis
The immediate task for Bonaire has to be dealing with the crisis at hand. In the face of this virus “war,” we have to take whatever steps are needed to prevent being swept away. We are still in the midst of that phase. And in this phase, we are taking some steps in the right direction. More steps need to be taken.
Like the rest of the Caribbean, we quarantined the whole island. We took dramatic, yet correct steps, by stopping the docking of cruise ships, and the arrival of flights at Flamingo Airport from affected areas. “Social distancing” is being promoted; schools have been closed; events have been cancelled; some people have been tested; many have already been quarantined; and other measures have been taken to reduce the risk of the arrival and/or spread of the virus.
Secure Jobs and Livelihoods; and Prevent Poverty
Even as these first emergency steps are being implemented, it is equally important that we secure jobs, livelihoods, and prevent further poverty.
Like in European Netherlands, we need to deal with the risk of a dramatic loss of income, jobs, and taxes across the whole Bonairean society.
Many residents need to work multiple jobs only to be able to live paycheck to paycheck; and even those who don’t, will suffer under the current situation. If the issue of basic or minimum income is not addressed urgently, we will face growing poverty, anxiety and risks of social disorder, including rising crime.
Suggestions have been made to alleviate some immediate adversity. These include: defer payments till 2021 for utility bills (WEB, in particular); defer loan payments to the banks (e.g. MCB, etc., especially for mortgages); defer taxes; provide universal income; save retirement plans; allow for food take-out and create a new economy of delivery services (done in a hygiene manner); create food banks; etc.
All these suggestions should be considered. And actions taken to implement practical economic measures, especially in partnership with The Hague, that has already put some of these measures in place for European Netherlands and has made a similar offer for the BES Islands, adjusted for “local conditions.”
Bonaire’s Future has to be designed now
The current anxiety will tend to put leadership into a reactive mode. Much of the intellectual attention and decision making will be on crisis management. There will be legitimate and, at times, unnecessary concerns (fuelled by rumours) that need to be addressed. Local government will have a hard time just staying on top of the immediate concerns.
However, even as we are in the crisis, the challenge for leadership is to think strategically about an even bigger question: where does Bonaire go from here in the coming months and years? Can we go back to the past? If so, when? And can Bonaire’s future be designed now?
There is no certainty that there will be a vaccine or cure anytime soon. A lot of effort is being made globally to find a solution. Let us assume that it takes 12-18 months for the vaccine to develop. It will take some time for a vaccine to be manufactured in sufficient quantity for the world to get vaccinated. Until then, we are exposed to the dangers.
If life does not return to normal immediately, Bonaire will take a major hit from the crisis. There will be a new normal. The current tourist season for all practical purposes is over. We already have a dramatic drop in all forms of tourism, from which many on the island get their livelihood, either directly or indirectly.
Along with a drop in tourists flow, if the economy does not kick back up – or takes a while to return — our population will also drop as unemployed persons will leave the island, if they have other options elsewhere. This will have a cascading effect on all areas of our community. As a result, we are at risk of losing their skill, foresight, and industry, as well as their contribution to Bonaire’s wealth and finances, as our tax base will erode.
The only way to get ourselves going again is to attempt some stabilization in the short term but also plan for an eventual opening up to the world with some attractive proposition that fits the new circumstances of the world.
The question is when and how? And is it even possible, or desirable, to return to the old normal? Or can we use this crisis to chart a new future?
Test, Test, and Re-Test
Before we address the issue of an opening, we need to consider two possibilities regarding the virus:
– one, we have coronavirus on the island; or
– two, we don’t.
The only way we know the answer is if we test, test, and re-test. Obviously, those who show signs of the virus will need to be given priority for testing. But we can’t just be in reactive mode. The coronavirus can be transmitted even if visible signs of illness are not present (what is called “asymptomatic transmission”). The ideal situation would be if we could test all citizens, and focus very specifically on those who are infected.
But can we test 20,000 people? Well, it has been done in other places, with larger populations and more resources. But for logistical and economic reasons maybe it is not possible to acquire enough tests (yet) on Bonaire. So, if we can’t test everyone, can we test enough and with the right test? And then what is “enough” – 500, 1,000, 5,000? Even if we can’t test everyone, what if we tested a sample set, so we get a good enough picture of what is the “base case” situation on Bonaire?
The point is that there is a statistically representative sample that can be tested to get a probabilistic outcome (say at 85-95% confidence interval) that we do or do not have corona on the island.
Someone should be able to design such a sample test, if all on Bonaire cannot be tested. Maybe we can do a sample from persons located in every neighbourhood and “barrio”? Maybe those who have travelled off the island recently and are in the 14-day quarantine period (it is still unclear how long the incubation can last, with some speculating that it is more or less days)? Or maybe those who have had regular contact with such persons, even if they have not travelled abroad? Certainly, all those with even the slightest symptom of a cold, flu, etc.?
What if we have Coronavirus on the island?
If we have corona already, then we have a real problem. Since we are a small community, we must isolate the infected, so as not to endanger our most vulnerable.
If places like the rich Lombardy region of Italy were unable to halt the spread and deal with the infections, there is no way that Bonaire – with its limited resources – could deal with an infection that is allowed to become an epidemic. Even with the help of Holland, we would be in a tough situation if this were to happen.
Knowing whether we have corona on the island is critical and not a luxury. If we wait till the disease shows up in large numbers, it is too late. Infected persons will already have spent time in the few places that we all visit: Van den Tweel, Warehouse, the dentist, doctor, stores, etc. Some sort of risk assessment and decision-making approach has to be in place, similar to the ones recommended by the World Health Organization.
What if Bonaire doesn’t have Coronavirus?
The other scenario is if Bonaire does not have the coronavirus. Then we are the truly lucky ones. It gives us an opportunity to maintain some form of a quarantine until we know more about the virus, and can prepare better with vaccines and other measures.
But, if we are lucky, we can’t just sit around hoping that our luck will hold out. We need to try to prevent our luck from running out. If we don’t have coronavirus on the island, we need to try to prevent it from arriving – at least until we have a vaccine or there is enough “herd immunity” in the world.
How do we do that?
14-day Quarantines or Mandatory Testing or Vaccinations or Health Certification Should be Required to Enter Bonaire.
One basic point is that Bonaire is naturally protected. We can be self-quarantined. Being an island, there are only two ways to arrive here, air or sea. As opposed to large places like China – where 1,600 highways had to be blocked off — we have it relatively easy when it comes to locking ourselves off, as we have done now.
While not locking ourselves up permanently, our strategy going forward should be to make it difficult for infected persons to spread disease on Bonaire. How do we do this?
We must require all visitors, immigrants, temporary workers, and returning residents to Bonaire, to either strictly self-quarantine for 14 days after arrival (and enforce those rules, with penalties for violation. In China, the authorities randomly call people asking for them to send a current location to ensure that the quarantine is not being violated); or be certified as being free of disease via tests either upon or prior to arrival; or certified via credible external authorities, that they are vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, and other communicable diseases, or were tested to be negative. This should be a mandatory and permanent requirement. From certain places to even apply for a visa to visit the US, Europe or parts of Asia, you need to submit a certified document that you have the required vaccinations. Bonaire would apply a variation of that principle.
The Upside for A New Future: Bonaire, “the Mindful (and Safe!) Island”
The reality is that on a small island like Bonaire we can’t afford an epidemic. The safety of all Bonairean has to be our first duty.
However, there may be an opportunity in this crisis; a silver lining to this dark cloud. We may use this period of social distancing and economic deflation as a tipping point in thinking about our joint future in the new normal: the post-corona world. The thinking required to confront the current viral enemy and the actions that we need to take to keep safe, may guide us towards renewed policies that will create greater well-being in the future.
Certainly, these past few weeks have caused many to reflect on their personal values and appreciate their bond with nature. At the same time, these weeks drove home the pervasiveness and resilience of the digital revolution, even in the face of crisis. We may hold this thought: in the process of creating this safe environment, we may also create a new social- and economic model for Bonaire. By taking dramatic and long-lasting steps for protecting Bonaire, we also make it an enduring desirable and sustainable location, especially in a world concerned about safety. We can become a destination for mindful spirits, who care about their health, environment, and the well-being of people. We become a mindful (and safe!) island. We become a people that cherish our community and natural abundance, while embracing the benefits of the digital revolution.
Attracting the Right Customer
There is one other significant “spill-over” advantage if we re-think the current mindset. In our abundant natural environment, we might shift away from thinking of our natural inheritance as “limited assets that must be exploited by beating the competition.” Rather than fighting for a place in the race with others, we may develop a “mindful” strategy, based on the unique riches we hold – on the land, in our culture, and in our seas.
Rather than trying to beat other tourism destinations at the “affordable holiday-game while giving back to the Bonairean population,” we can build and share the unique experience of an empowered Bonairean community, attract the “right” customer, and still give back to the community. Instead of mass tourism, Bonaire can rapidly become a selective/quality tourism destination for those who want full peace of mind. Let’s trade the goal of “few-star hotels” for a dream of “top-end locations,” where guests visit to live these riches and our community.
We also have a good, affordable, health care system, that is far superior to most places in the Caribbean – this is especially appealing to tourist and immigrants where universal healthcare is not accessible (though we must have minimum income standards for new residents so they are not a burden on social welfare); and an environment that is ideal for healthy lifestyles for both young and old. This is particular appealing to those who are “mindful” by nature, or those that desire to become so, coming via commercial means, and also to those who wish to arrive by private jet or yacht.
These are not high-minded fantasies, but can become the economic and ecological imperatives in a post-corona world. The paradigm shift will be towards greater awareness, nature’s abundance and digital globalisation. Greater economic value will be transferred to those who provide it, rather than to those who exploit nature for perceived short-term gain. Bonaire is already positioned for this role.
Developing a Reiterative Strategy to Chart a New Future
This change will not propagate itself – we need to make it happen. We don’t embrace it because it is easy, but because it is the right thing in the new reality. Even when it is hard. It asks of us to turn actions required to remain healthy into a manifestation of the desire to live healthy, mindfully and concert with nature. We must make that a basis to attract and embrace like-minded persons. And we need to develop a reiterative strategy from that basis.
This can be achieved by inclusive and transparent governance and policy-making. Next to good health-care and sound economic policy, it demands development, spatial-planning and management policies to further the riches of a healthy, resilient and productive marine and land-based ecosystems. Although our Island status has advantages in combatting communicable diseases, such policies must not lead us to isolate ourselves, but rather must dovetail with those of our close or distant neighbors and be appealing to the digital community and nomads of our “flat” planet.
Invest in Capacity
Key tasks for the Bonaire system are to invest in massive education locally; make our infrastructure reliable; and figure out public-private partnerships.
The quality of “human capital” has to be substantially improved. We can’t have a two-tiered economy, where those with skills acquired elsewhere take opportunities from those who did not the option of acquiring these skills. (In partnership with local government, for the last 4 years, our BIG Ideas Foundation has invested in the local community via a “gifted program.” This kind of effort should be scaled up).
We need technology, roads, high speed internet, and other basic infrastructure that is far better than currently. Indeed, funding of this may not seem to be an easy task. But given the right vision, it may be more attainable than at first thought. There are ample recent examples of money flowing to sustainable development projects. And these should be priorities for our budget over the medium term.
Given the vulnerability that we have to importing oil, we need to focus on being fully self-sustainable in terms of energy. With ample wind, and sun, we need to figure out how to be on a crash course to 100% renewable and self-sufficient. We can keep some fossil fuels in back up reserves. But these should only be used in emergencies. The manner in which our drinking water and power supply is set up has brought us where we are, but will not take us further if it is not urgently addressed. This does not only mean that the tremendous progress in sustainable water and power generation should be applied, but also that much more should be generated de-centrally and at the edges-of-the-grid. Experiences of other Island-nations, have shown that this will lead to lower prices and greater autonomy and accessibility. It will end the strategic dependence on unstable oil-producing nations.
These changes should not be attempted in a top-down, government fashion, but rather allow for bottom-up, private initiative and funding. Of course, this should be appropriately policed and here is where we need to establish collaborative partnerships between the public, private and non-profit sectors. The future of Bonaire has to be a community effort and not the responsibility of government alone.
Make Bonaire A Worry Free Paradise for the World’s “Creatives”
We should make Bonaire selective and try to attract value adding “creatives” to the island – entrepreneurs, innovators, digital nomads, artists, musicians, and others who add value to Bonaire.
Being selective and hard to get into, is a powerful selling point. In the process of creating this powerful mindful/safe “brand,” we can also return to being an unspoiled, unforgettable and unhurried place; and retain our identity, which was being overwhelmed by mass tourism.
No one wanted this hell of coronavirus to descend on us. But it is here. And there will be tough times ahead. Still, there is a silver lining in this unimaginable crisis. By keeping ourselves coronavirus and disease free into the future, we can be an escape for the world and be a destination for mindful spirits. This economic model is more natural to Bonaire than the one running amuck over the last few years.
Of course, we have to focus on the crisis at hand. There is a lot to be done to secure the island now. But true leadership demands that we also think strategically about the future. With luck, and determined planning, the best days of a prosperous Bonaire lie in front of us.
Even as we focus on the immediate worries, let us turn this crisis into an opportunity to return Bonaire to its natural state, that is a safe paradise for the mindful spirit.
Adnan Hassan, The BIG Ideas Foundation, Bonaire, Caribbean Netherlands