On Tuesday, March 10, 2020, I attended a Media Breakfast at Kingston’s Knutsford Court Hotel on COVID-19. The aim of this session hosted by the Ministry of Health and Wellness was to explain and update the media on the Ministry’s response plan to COVID-19. It was also, by the way, the last public event I attended. I canceled coffee with a friend the next day, and I have been at home ever since apart from a few evening walks for exercise before curfew.
The two-hour session was informative, with journalists such as Television Jamaica’s Shemala Mitchell and Irie FM stalwart Natalie Campbell asking a range of questions. I recall that the event was quite well attended.
I have heard and seen a number of comments on social media recently suggesting that the Ministry of Health and Wellness has somehow lost control of the COVID-19 situation, and is floundering in confusion as numbers continue to rise. However, I believe this is far from the case.
From March 10, the Ministry was well aware that, at a certain point, numbers would surge. The “surge” was expected, through an eight-day curve (see the graph below), and preparations were made in terms of resources, hospital beds and so on.
The fiasco at the Alorica Call Centre certainly helped to push things along, and as I have mentioned elsewhere I believe the resulting quarantine did not work out well. Now that it has been lifted, the last thing we need is “mixed signals,” and this is where I think the doubts have crept in among many Jamaicans – and understandably so. We need to stick with what the health experts are telling us.
Nevertheless, on March 10 Minister Christopher Tufton talked a great deal about the likelihood of “community spread,” and that has now happened. Since it’s a new virus, very few people have immunity, and there is no vaccine yet, clearly many people are going to catch it. The Chief Epidemiologist painstakingly explained the possible
He also said, in general terms, that COVID-19 is “aggressive in spread,” and that the entire society must be engaged in protecting itself. Every Jamaican has a role to play; yes, we have heard this many times, now, but it remains true. It’s a “whole of society” approach that is required.
This was an early stage of COVID-19 in Jamaica. The Alorica fiasco had not happened, and Jamaica had not yet closed its borders. However, the Ministry had already issued protocols for cruise ships seeking to dock here. The World Health Organization (WHO) had not yet declared COVID-19 as a pandemic. However, the analysis had been done, and the projections and plans were shown on a series of slides.
At that point, the Government was in its “delay” phase – aiming to hold that curve as flat as possible for as long as possible. This would “buy time” for the Government to finalize plans, mobilize resources, seek assistance where needed, and pursue the training of staff in testing and treatment (with the help of the Pan American Health Organization).
The following points were made at the breakfast session:
- Coronaviruses may cause illness in animals or humans. In humans, several coronaviruses cause respiratory infections, from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), both of which often lead to pneumonia. COVID-19 is the most recently discovered.
- Jury is still “out” on all the ways in which COVID-19 is spread, but it is certainly via small droplets from the nose or mouth of an infected person; from close contact with an infected person; or from contact with surfaces where the virus is.
- Most infected people will have mild symptoms – around 80 percent of positive cases. COVID-19 is “not a death sentence.”
- It will likely be that only those with symptoms will be treated in hospital.
- Many of those with mild symptoms may stay at home and self-isolate, as with seasonal colds or influenza.
- Approximately 2,000 will require hospitalization. Of these, a small proportion will be seriously ill, and an even smaller percentage will die.
- Approximately one million Jamaicans every year have respiratory infections; we could see as many as two million.
- High risk groups have been identified: those over 65 years old (comprising around 13 percent of the population), and those with underlying health conditions – hypertension, for example, accounting for around 25 percent of adults according to a University of the West Indies study.
- Imported cases are “not as challenging as community spread.”
- Once there is community spread, public gatherings must be avoided and more rigorous control measures implemented.
- Private sector and civil society partnerships and the specific roles of different government agencies were outlined in one table – border control, security, community outreach, businesses etc.
Here’s a list of “don’ts” that came out of the meeting:
- Don’t panic
- Don’t be complacent
- Don’t spread rumors and misinformation
- Don’t take antibiotics
“There are no guarantees or absolutes with this virus,” emphasized the Ministry officials. This is still true. Every day we read new articles about testing, immunity, even possible new symptoms that may be warning signs. So, can we please not forget that this is a new virus, and that like many other countries, Jamaica has to respond according to its needs and its resources? We are not Trinidad. We are not Sweden. We are not the U.S.
OK. Enough said! I suggest we get ourselves informed, look at the numbers and at all the information (tons of it) that the Ministry has been putting out. Ask questions, ask “What if…?” and “But…!” and “Why didn’t we…?” and “Why did we…?” and “We shouldn’t have…!” Then, if possible (having removed our politically-aligned filter, if necessary) let’s listen to the answers. I swear, people do not pay attention most of the time.
But remember (and this is not original): “Hindsight is 2020.”
For further information, go to the Ministry website.
P.S. One of my Twitter friends referred to one of the regular press conferences as the “stress conference.” Jamaicans rarely lose their sense of humor!