The rapid contagion of COVID-19 caught much of the international community off-guard. With each passing day we in Bahrain watched with frozen anticipation as the virus jumped from China to other parts of Asia, to Europe and then into our own region. Bahrain is a small state (765 sq km), the sixth most densely populated in the world, and contagion would be fast and relentless.
Bahrain’s first obligation is to ensure the health and safety of its people. An action-plan went into immediate effect. As early as 22 January, Bahrain’s Ministry of Health announced that it would follow the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, start implementing epidemiological monitoring while taking pre-emptive measures at Bahrain International Airport. Bahrain takes healthcare seriously. It always has.
Bahrain’s Crown Prince, His Royal Highness Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, with the guidance of His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, crafted a plan to help everyone who calls Bahrain home—citizens and expatriates alike.
From the national airport to other points of entry, The Crown Prince directed the Ministry of Health to deploy early screening devices in a bid to prevent the virus from reaching the Kingdom. This required foresight. There was, as yet, no real indication as to how far the virus would spread or what kind of damage it would do. Leaving nothing to chance became the motto. And so, the Ministry of Health began its precautionary work and strengthened national capabilities needed for large scale testing. At this point, COVID-19 was responsible for only 170 deaths worldwide and only 82 of the 7818 recorded cases were outside China. There were, as yet, no cases in Bahrain.
With phase one — prevention and preparation — underway, the next step, as in any impending emergency, was to develop a tailor-made Taskforce in order to quickly and efficiently respond to the ever-evolving situation. This took the form of the National Taskforce to Combat COVID-19 with a fully functioning, multi-level, joint operations centre up and running by 13 February. Coordination meetings were then held to enhance the symbiosis of private and public health institutions and ensure that Ministry of Health guidelines were being implemented. It was clear from the start that the key to success would be teamwork: not only teamwork between government and the healthcare sector, but by all segments of society. This was a struggle that everyone needed to pitch in to help with.
This teamwork is well reflected in the #TeamBahrain which raises awareness and develops real, functioning collective efforts as counter-measures against the pandemic. Reaching out via social media and ensuring the proper, uninterrupted flow of information rests at the heart of combating COVID-19. As the Minister of Finance and National Economy, Shaikh Salman bin Khalifa Al-Khalifa, rightly noted “We are always very proud of our “Team Bahrain” approach; which is a seamless integration of government entities private enterprise in delivering forward on a vision has been in place for over 20 years in terms of diversifying the economy and moving things forward.” #TeamBahrain’s Twitter and Instagram messaging contributed to saving lives; it helped people make sense of the dangers and respond in kind. And, it also helped allay fears and share in the many success stories Bahrain has already witnessed.
From Planning to Deployment — The Action Plan in Action
No strategy, Clausewitz reminds us, survives contact with the enemy. No matter the planning and preparations, COVID-19 is a stubborn opponent. Inevitably, on 24 February, Bahrain recorded its first case from an individual returning from Iran. The action-plan shifted to embrace both further prevention and to detect and contain the virus. Protocols were activated and the testing of persons who arrived from Iran over the previous 30 days begun. In case isolation and treatment, for the hundreds of people being tested, was required it was made available. Travel was suspended to and from Iran, all educational institutions were closed and public events were postponed. Self-quarantine became mandatory for those that arrived from destinations where large numbers of cases were recorded. Mobile testing was launched on 29 February as a reinforcement measure. By 09 March, Bahrain had the capability of conducting some 3500 tests a day — HM King Hamad issued Royal Directives to provide free COVID-19 testing and treatment for all citizens and residents in Bahrain — and by constructing three field hospitals, we managed to double the number of beds available in case the situation worsened.
Throughout all this, Prince Salman remained fully engaged and his visits to the National Taskforce have become a weekly occurrence that helps boost morale and make important planning contributions. The early flexible response adopted by Bahrain saved the country from a far-worse scenario: community spread was not only minimised but mitigated within days. As a result, on 19 March, Bahrain became the first Arab country to join the World Health Organisation’s Solidarity Trial experiment programme which is a testament of the efforts made by Bahrain as a whole.
Public Engagement = Public Safety
Bahrain’s #BeAware campaign is an Arabic, English and Hindi language public service portal that emphasises WHO recommendations, communicates important updates and works in tandem with #TeamBahrain to make sure that the message is delivered and received. A 24-hour hotline was also established in 7 languages, with doctors on call to answer questions and remotely assess the severity of caller symptoms and, if necessary, arrange for transportation of patients to the correct facilities. There is a mobile app that keeps the public in the know and even tracks users to warn them if they have been in contact with positive cases and our volunteer programme attracted some 30000 applicants. Bahrain’s public is aware, it is engaged and, if this crisis has taught us anything, it is unified in the face of adversity.
To date there have been a total of eight COVID-19 related deaths in Bahrain. Each one of them is a painful reminder that this pandemic does not discriminate and that there are no safe quarters to hide in. However, there is much than can be done to reduce the mortality rates; there are precautionary steps that may be undertaken to limit and roll-back COVID-19. Thanks to the quick thinking and energy of Prince Salman, Bahrain’s cases are few and far apart. The situation is stable. Even on the economic front, the economic stimulus package of 4.3 billion BHD ($11.4 billion USD) has been earmarked for citizens and businesses, representing a full 30% percent of Bahrain’s GDP. This is a massive commitment to cushioning the economic cost to our citizens that COVID-19 produced.
While this is a national solution to this global problem, it is important to remember that Bahrain is a microcosm of the international community and people from all walks of life call this Island home. While Bahrain cannot affect the outcome of COVID-19 on its own, it can make an important contribution by sharing its know-how and maintaining its transparent, hands-on approach for combatting this pandemic. How this will all end remains a mystery. However, as states close down their borders they are also opening up their lines of communication to share data, expertise and ensure the free-flow of knowledge. We in Bahrain will continue to make our mark in the battle to save lives and overcome COVID-19.