The world has reached a critical point. Economies are being squeezed by various lockdowns and restrictions due to the COVID-19 virus. States in our “powerful neighbor to the North,” while eager to “ease up” – I realized the other day that domestic flights are still operating there – are recording soaring numbers of cases (well over one million) and thousands of deaths. Jamaica is facing a similar scenario, on a much smaller scale.
The World Health Organization (see their COVID-19 page here) recently issued a series of six recommendations for governments to consider when deciding whether to “open up” their economies. This is their Interim Guidance, dated April 16, in brief (more details are in the link):
COVID-19 transmission is controlled to a level of sporadic cases and clusters of cases, all from known contacts or importations; at a minimum, new cases would be reduced to a level that the health system can manage based on health care capacity.
Sufficient public health workforce and health system capacities are in place to enable the major shift from detecting and treating mainly serious cases to detecting and isolating all cases, irrespective of severity and whether there is local transmission or an importation.
Outbreak risks in high-vulnerability settings are minimised, which requires all major drivers or amplifiers of COVID-19 transmission to have been identified, with appropriate measures in place to maximise physical distancing and minimise the risk of new outbreaks.
Preventive measures are established in workplaces.
Manage the risk of exporting and importing cases from communities with high risks of transmission.
Communities are fully engaged and understand that the transition away from large-scale movement restrictions and public health and social measures – from detecting and treating serious cases to detecting and isolating all cases – is a ‘new normal’ in which prevention measures would be maintained, and that all people have key roles in preventing a resurgence in case numbers.
Now, take a look at the Coronavirus Government Response Tracker website maintained by Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government.
It is clear that Jamaica is nowhere near meeting most of these conditions. Nor did it “lock down the economy,” as the Prime Minister himself averred in Parliament yesterday. Despite the best efforts and carefully-laid plans of the hard-working team at the Ministry of Health and Wellness (who themselves have recorded some COVID-19 cases), it is no surprise that Jamaica is ranked low in the Oxford University study.
According to the university’s “Lockdown Rollback Checklist” dated April 20, 2020, Jamaica is just above Libya, Venezuela and Puerto Rico, and below some Scandinavian countries that are not practicing social distancing, as well as developing countries such as Angola, Brazil, Nicaragua and Bolivia, etc. We are in the “less ready to exit lockdown” category. Note, though, that not every country is checked every day, says the report, so some data for specific countries may be a little out of date… The citation for the data is: Hale, Thomas, Sam Webster, Anna Petherick, Toby Phillips, and Beatriz Kira (2020). Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker, Blavatnik School of Government. Data use policy: Creative Commons Attribution CC BY standard.
Now let’s take a look at our Caribbean region…
Trinidad and Tobago is ranked second (after Vietnam) as ready to lift its lockdown. Another CARICOM country, Belize, is not far behind in fifth place after South Korea. Barbados is in tenth place. Aruba, Guyana, Bermuda, Dominican Republic and Cuba (in that order) are in varying states of readiness. Jamaica, according to this survey, is the third lowest-ranking Caribbean country in terms of being prepared to lift an economic lockdown. Dominica, whose economy was battered and hardly recovered from devastating natural disasters, is the lowest ranking. Cuba, which has its own peculiar set of economic challenges, is the second lowest. I did not find every Caribbean country on the list – perhaps reliable data is not available.
Meanwhile, the increasingly long-winded Prime Minister hints at a possible lifting of the (imperfectly handled) quarantine of the parish of St. Catherine this week (population: a mere half a million) this week. He allows exemptions to the relevant Orders to include the construction industry, waiving the condition that only ten people at a time should be together; the list of exemptions is growing longer and longer. He discusses re-opening the call centres (“BPOs”), one of which caused our numbers to skyrocket in the first place – but there were already several exempted call centres, despite everything. He is discussing getting “shovel ready” project approvals so they are raring to go. Are we really ready for this yet? What about the virus?
And then we see videos of crowds of people at tax offices, supermarkets, remittance offices and so on – a breeding ground for the virus. What a lot of pressure for the Jamaica Constabulary Force, private security guards, etc!
I am not only speaking for myself when I say the anxiety level among the general public is rising rapidly, in light of all the above. Thanks to Musson Jamaica and RISE Life Management Services for setting up a new mental health hotline. We certainly need it.
Since the Prime Minister spoke in Parliament about “learning to co-exist” with COVID-19 and transitioning to a “new normal” yesterday, a call centre in Kingston has reportedly closed, because a worker (from St. Catherine?) tested positive on Sunday. Note also that, according to National Epidemiologist Dr Karen Webster Kerr, at least 50 employees from the original call centre that has accounted for more than half of our COVID-19 cases cannot be accounted for and have not been tested. More work now for the beleaguered Ministry of Health and Wellness, simply because call centres were kept open.
No wonder we are ranked so low by Oxford University.
By the way, the full six-hour sitting of the House of Representatives yesterday (April 28) can be viewed on the Public Broadcasting Corporation of Jamaica (PBCJ) YouTube page here. The Prime Minister did not set an example by wearing a mask. You will find his comments, beginning at 4:27 on the PBCJ video. His remarks included a “plug” for the controversial National ID policy (NIDS), which is back on the front burner.
Footnote: What about the most vulnerable populations, many of whom are at this point extremely nervous, following instructions to wear masks, wash our hands, practice social distancing, and stay home? Do they get a say in the matter? What about pregnant women and senior citizens, who have to venture out occasionally for urgent business and take their lives in their hands to do so? What about our impoverished populations (especially in urban areas) who live in overcrowded conditions, without proper access to water and other amenities? Do our senior citizens, living in mostly unregistered private nursing homes, and the people who care for them, feel protected and secure at this time? This is only a footnote, because our most vulnerable populations are in the normal course of things in Jamaica – only a footnote.
I would like to give the Prime Minister some unsolicited advice: Deal with the virus first. Get things under control, as the WHO suggests. Then and only then will be ready to go back to what you call the “new normal,” which I am afraid will inevitably and quickly become “business as usual.” It almost feels like business as usual now, judging from the usual busy traffic on the street where I live, but that is anecdotal of course!
If you do not deal with the virus first, the economy that you are trying to “balance” it with will collapse anyway. Let’s face it, as countries have been finding, “balancing lives and livelihoods” isn’t working too well.
Oh, the virus doesn’t care about economies. Hasn’t it proved that, across the world? Then the political and economic repercussions will begin in earnest, and we the people will suffer.