Jamaica Should Retain its Proactive Stance in Managing COVID-19, Say Private Sector, Civil Society Representatives


I tuned in to a press briefing today organized by the Private Sector Organization of Jamaica (PSOJ), with four speakers: Keith Duncan, President of the PSOJ; Lloyd Distant, President, Jamaica Chamber of Commerce; Helene Davis-Whyte, President, Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions; and gender advocate Nadeen Spence. All four are members of the COVID-19 Task Force team.

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A resident speaks to members of the Jamaica Defence Force in Sandy Bay, Clarendon, last week. The community is on a COVID-19 “lockdown.” (Photo: Gladstone Taylor/Gleaner)

The word “proactive” featured heavily in the discussion, as it does in the PSOJ’s press release today. Mr. Duncan said the Holness administration had done a “fairly good job” so far in their management of the COVID-19 pandemic, but expressed some concern at the recent surge in cases over the past week or so: “Proactive and aggressive management is needed.” He is worried about the backlog of samples to be tested (which the Chief Medical Officer assured one media house today would be cleared by Thursday) and strongly recommended the use of more private labs. As we all are, he is also concerned about Jamaicans returning and not abiding by quarantine rules, a “significant risk.”

Mr. Duncan did point out that there had been a welcome uptick in economic activity since restrictions were lifted; the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector – where there was a major cluster – is now in recovery mode; tourism is back, albeit with 10 to 35 percent occupancy levels in the hotels; and domestic tourism is picking up, including on the South Coast.

Mr. Duncan spoke about Jamaica now being in a “control phase” regarding COVID-19. “We don’t want to see a return to a restrictive phase,” he said, but noted Jamaica is in a “precarious position.” Precarious seems to me just the right word, as we continue to welcome travelers to our shores, and at the same time prepare for an election campaign.

Mr. Distant’s comments were a little more hard-hitting. He stressed the necessity for enforcement of the COVID-19 orders. “We have begun to eke out some gains in the past four to six weeks,” he said. “We cannot afford to slip back now.” He is concerned that, if the current rate of hospitalizations continue (as of this evening we have 49 in hospital and 213 active cases, including six moderately ill) we may have to go back to the “restrictive phase.”

Mr. Distant insisted that if companies are not abiding by COVID-19 protocols, they should be shut down. He said it is important for sanctions to be placed on “all non-compliant events and gatherings,” and that citizens should report them. He did note, however, that “the vast majority” of companies are following protocols, and there is a need to be resolute. Don’t give them a “bly” or an excuse. Companies and individuals must know and understand that if there are breaches, “there will be consequences.” Well said!

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This was the scene in Falmouth, Trelawny, according to a Jamaican tweeter, over the weekend. Election campaigns usually involve rallies, parties, motorcades and the like. Social distancing? The wearing of masks? Not so much.

Ms. Davis-Whyte and Ms. Spence spoke about the impact of COVID-19 on poorer families, who have to hustle to put dinner on the table from day to day. And then there are the pending elections. The Ministry of Health and Wellness has compiled a Protocol for the conduct of the campaign and elections (Interim Guidelines for the Conduct of Election Campaign during COVID-19) which all political parties and their followers must adopt. Ms. Davis-Whyte would like to see the two main parties publicly signing it, with the Political Ombudswoman, to show their commitment. I have not yet seen this document online, although I have a copy of it. It really needs to be on the Ministry’s website.

Ms. Spence bemoaned the fact that although Jamaican citizens had responded in a positive way to the virus in the first couple of months, once the borders were opened on June 15 there was a change in attitude. It was as if COVID wasn’t “keeping” again. Indeed, there was a noticeable shift, encouraged by the “let’s get back in business” messages from the tourism industry, in particular. Children will be going back to school in a few weeks’ time, she pointed out. Indeed, there will be much uncertainty (one CSEC student has already tested positive, according to the Jamaica Teachers Association). With families already struggling economically, how is “back to school” going to look for many parents?

I asked Mr. Distant what might be acceptable to the business sector – what they could live with, if the government were to impose tighter restrictions. He suggested possibly lengthening the current nightly curfew, perhaps to 8 or 9 pm rather than 11 pm; and perhaps reducing the number of people who can congregate. This would not significantly reduce economic activity.

However, it is the “high traffic” industries where there are concerns over the spread of the virus. I got the distinct impression that fingers were being pointed at the entertainment industry, which, despite “warnings” by the Local Government Minister, appears to be transgressing far too often. I have heard a number of stories myself about large parties going on from 4  pm until curfew time.

“United we stand, divided we fall,” stressed Mr. Duncan.

Ms. Spence and others added the oft-repeated phrase, “If we stick to the rules…” And “IF” is the operative word.

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Jamaica needs to retain proactive stance in its management of COVID-19 pandemic

Private sector, civil society call on all stakeholders to play their role in reducing COVID-19 cases

August 10, 2020, Kingston, Jamaica: The private sector and civil society commend the Government of Jamaica (GoJ) and the general population for effectively managing the spread of the COVID-19 virus as we executed the phased opening up of our economy.

However, the recent increase in cases is a major concern for the Government, the Opposition, the Private Sector and Civil Society. The situation calls for proactive measures to bring the spread of the virus under control.

Recent spike a cause for concern

Recent statistics show that Jamaica has seen 95 new positive cases of COVID-19 in the past four days, hospitalisations have increased to 51, current active cases have increased to 206, and 14 COVID-19 related deaths for the country.

Jamaica remains in the Control stage of the management of the virus as our health system is still able to manage the current number of active cases. However, if current trends are not reversed, Jamaica may move to the Restrict stage where we would have to reintroduce restrictions on movement, and on business and workplace activities to reduce the risk of our health systems becoming overwhelmed.

Phased Opening of the Economy – Positive signs

The risk-based approach that facilitated the phased opening of our economy resulted in a noticeably positive uptick in economic activity, but also brought with it the attendant risk of increased cases. Similarly, the opening of our borders resulted in an influx of tourists and Jamaicans which led to a predictable jump in positive imported cases. We always accepted that these risks needed to be prudently, proactively and aggressively managed.

Nonetheless, the backlog in testing (recently reduced to approximately 3000) and the over 20,000 Jamaicans who are currently in quarantine are of concern to all of us.

Indiscipline impacting rate of increase

The phased opening of the economy also saw the opening of beaches, rivers and, more recently, permission granted for entertainment events to be held. These were opened with clear cautions being issued.

Regrettably some amount of indiscipline has raised concerns for the GoJ as evidenced by the several warnings issued by the Minister of Local Government and Community Development.

While the Private Sector and Civil Society remain supportive of the phased opening of the economy, we have observed with great concern that the COVID-19 protocols are not being consistently observed and practiced and, in many instances, they are ignored. One result of this is that positive cases and hospitalisations have seen a significant rate of increase.

Support Community Quarantines in Clarendon and St Thomas

This position necessitates proactive and aggressive steps to flatten the curve. In this regard, we are supportive of the proactive steps taken by the Government to place two communities in Clarendon and St Thomas under quarantine because of the potential for further outbreaks.

Imminent Elections Pose a Major Threat

Prime Minister Andrew Holness has hinted at elections and both of the main political parties (PNP and JLP) have begun to ramp up campaign activities which certainly means increased vulnerability for our population that could in turn lead to a further spike in cases.

We have observed through social and traditional media that many of these early political campaign events, such as motorcades and meetings, exhibit inconsistent application of social distancing and use of masks, and in some instances the protocols are totally ignored.

Civil Society is gravely concerned as these political activities are likely to be further increased island-wide if and when elections are called and may result in compounding the spread of the virus in this period when we are already experiencing a significant uptick in cases.

Recommendations 

  1. We recommend that sanctions such as prosecution and fines, temporary closure and shut down of individual businesses and entertainment events be applied aggressively to business places and individuals at events and gatherings that do not comply with the COVID-19 protocols especially the wearing of masks and social distancing.
  2. We welcome the preparation of Interim Guidelines for Election Campaigning published by the Ministry of Health and Wellness (MOHW) on August 8, 2020. All political parties should comply with ALL the Election Guidelines which are intended to minimize the risk of spread of the virus through the general population.

To evidence this commitment, we are asking that that the political parties publicly sign off on these guidelines with the Political Ombudsman.

  1. To clear the backlog of tests, we strongly recommend that testing be outsourced to certified Private Sector labs that can conduct PCR testing.
  2. To aggressively enforce the quarantining of returning residents and others by the authorities, we encourage the relevant communities to support the authorities in ensuring that returning residents or visitors to their communities are monitored and strongly encouraged to remain in quarantine for the prescribed period.

We in the Private Sector and Civil Society commit to enforcing COVID-19 protocols within our sphere of control. We are willing to be held accountable in this regard and urge our fellow citizens to protect our people and our nation.

Jamaica has made significant strides and we have seen positive results with the phased opening of the economy. We cannot afford as a country to reverse these gains to public health and the economy.

 All Jamaica needs to be unified in the fight against COVID-19.


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