“If a Dirt, a Dirt”: COVID-19 and a Reopening of the Jamaican Economy

“If a dirt, a dirt.”

There is a fatalistic streak in the Jamaican psyche. The point is sometimes reached where people shrug their shoulders and say, “Suh it guh” (that is how things go). In this COVID-19 era, this tendency has kicked in. “Dirt” refers to death. As this current saying suggests (there are many others among old Jamaican proverbs), you have to die some time anyway. Whether you die of hunger due to economic collapse, or from the virus itself – it’s the same thing. The consensus among some is, “Let’s take a chance and face the virus. At least we will have some money coming in. If we die, we die.”

I get the sense that the Jamaican Government itself has reached this conclusion a little while back, and has been edging towards it. The Holness administration is, after all, between the devil and the deep blue sea. It has been attempting to “balance lives and livelihoods” as the COVID cliché would have it. But for a number of reasons, it cannot keep Jamaica’s bustling, hustling economy (especially its substantial informal sector) on hold forever. There will be anger, even riots perhaps. One feels the desperation. I am sure political representatives are being told this every day – “Wi hungry!” This is blunt, this is real. And then there are elections on the horizon. So, the “balance” has tipped.

A country church. (My photo)

So, last night’s press briefing at the Office of the Prime Minister was critical, and may have serious implications. It seems we have reached the point where the economy (in particular, our small and micro businesses) cannot hang on any longer. No matter what, we must tentatively “open up,” and let the chips fall where they may. Although, in actual fact, we never really closed completely; although small and micro-businesses, vendors, taxi drivers, and many others living on the edge of poverty or in poverty, have suffered and continue to suffer inordinately.

This is the current situation, which will soon change: Places where people gather have closed, apart from supermarkets and the especially blessed “BPOs” (call centres). The tourism industry, a space where large numbers of people gather, is comatose (besides all the related businesses). Tourism Minister Ed Bartlett said last night that he will shortly announce the opening date (which means that borders will reopen). The tourism shutdown was forced on our reluctant government by the closure of the travel industry (which remains 95 per cent shut down, along with airlines and cruise ship sailings).

Lining up to collect assistance at the National Stadium. (Photo: Andrew Holness Facebook page)

So, the Ministry of Health and Wellness got about five or ten minutes of the press briefing (with the Chief Medical Officer, as usual, exuding calm and clarity, but the tone has changed). The remainder of the two hour-long event was devoted to the Prime Minister’s detailed explanation of the boundaries of the quarantined area in rural St. Mary in and around the town of Annotto Bay; another complex explanation of the curfew hours, which have been relaxed (from Wednesday evening we will have two extra hours of freedom in the evening, and an extra hour in the morning – that is, from 8:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m.); and the Finance Minister’s usual thorough explanation of arrangements for the distribution of assistance for the most vulnerable communities. The questions from the journalists reaped a great deal more useful information, and some evasive answers.

I am going to give a bullet point-type overview of last night’s press briefing at the Office of the Prime Minister (May 11) in my next blog post. These are just some of the things running through my mind during the live broadcast.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness then announced that, having met with church leaders, he has decided to open churches and, in one fell swoop, bars also, for a “probationary period” of two weeks. Well, they do say that beside every church is a bar (or vice versa).

WhatsApp Image 2020-05-12 at 1.07.08 PM

It is clear that efforts to enforce social distancing have mostly failed. Only about thirty per cent of the population wears masks (this is a bit of a wild guess, from what I have seen anecdotally on television reports and on my rare excursions out of the house, but I would be interested to know what others think). Those who do often wear their masks incorrectly. At almost every opportunity, people huddle up in crowds – for example, outside the Western Union offices in various towns across the country.

All the Government can do now is “implore” and “suggest” that Jamaicans behave responsibly and sensibly and adhere to the rules, so that we can all “live with COVID-19” while getting on with our lives. However, many of us cannot, or will not, hear or listen to these admonitions. Orchestrating behavior change is a long, frustrating, and also highly technical process. It’s not going to happen overnight. Simply telling people to behave themselves at a press briefing that half the population was probably not even watching is not going to have any effect – a sad reality, I am afraid.

Once things have “opened up” it will be back to normal. I believe it will not be any “new normal” – just normal. We are almost there now.

A bar in Friendship Gap, St. Mary (My photo)

Two places where people move around and socialize just as they please are churches and bars. After all, these are two major social meeting points. There are at least 10,000 bars (according to the Prime Minister, and I am sure that is an under-estimate) and God knows how many churches across the island (God knows! That’s a joke, but I think it is around 2 – 3,000. Again, it could be more).

There are so many trivial (and yet not trivial) questions that spring to mind: How are people going to have a drink while wearing masks? Don’t some bars have kitchens, where food is cooked and people sit down and eat? Are people really going to resist the urge to sit down for a game of dominoes? Are churchgoers really not going to hug or do that peace thing, shaking hands? Who is going to stop them, if they do?

Who is going to monitor these many thousands of establishments, and who is going to enforce the Orders (several of which, in terms of human behavior, have already been consistently ignored by the general populace?)

The Prime Minister was reminded of the issue of Jamaicans 65 years and older. Oh yes, of course, they must stay at home! I suspect that many churchgoers and bargoers are in that age group.

There was a lot of talk about “managing” the virus. Well, Mr. Holness et al, I have news for you. One thing that we have learned from around the world is that humans don’t manage the virus; the virus manages us. All we are doing is trying to keep up, to adjust, to react – and at times, we are just “winging it” on a hope and a prayer. Even President Trump, who really believes he is some kind of god or king, now has the virus running through his White House, and there’s not a thing he can do about it.

We might have all the plans in the world, and think we are in control. But “things and time will tell,” as Jamaicans say.

Meanwhile, let’s reflect on a placard held up outside the Florida State House today during a protest: “A corpse is not a customer.”

“A corpse is not a customer” by Barbara Kruger, in the New York Times.


12 thoughts on ““If a Dirt, a Dirt”: COVID-19 and a Reopening of the Jamaican Economy

  1. Our thoughts went to similar points, though I sat on mine to keep with my current commitment for a new COVID19 post each day-I had set it to schedule since yesterday morning :)-Imay have to relax that as relevance dictates 🙂


      1. My mind was so overloaded I was not sleeping well, so I’ve decided to unload my mind during the daytime & schedule publication or just have a last thought first thing in the morning, that way I can live the day and sleep the night 🙂


  2. Hi Emma,

    How you do?

    The third photo / graphic in your piece below, where can I source the full original. It’s hard to find everything in one place and they haven’t released the Order as yet.

    Thanks for your help.

    With regards,

    Jomain McKenzie M.Sc., MRSPH ​| LinkedIn​

    Sent from my iPhone Pardon typos & brevity



    1. Hey Jomain: I am good. That exact graphic came from the PSOJ via a WhatsApp group, although I don’t have the original with the full logo on it. However, if you look at Andrew Holness’ Facebook page you will see this information on the Jamaica House letterhead (two separate notices). I hope that helps. Wishing you the best, Emma


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